They arrive tableside as edible art—alluring and colorful, delicately dotted with jewel-like herbs and aiolis, demanding beauty shots posted to Instagram and Twitter. Small plates are all the rage these days, and it’s no wonder. They enable chefs to show off while pushing diners into new territory without too big of a commitment. And as the first impression, before conversation and cocktails blur attention to detail, they are quite possibly the thing diners will remember most about a night out.
“It’s important to stand out,” says Justin Shoults, executive chef at Brine in Newburyport, whose beautiful dishes will soon be inspiring social media posts at Oak + Rowan, the soon-to-open Boston sibling in Caswell Restaurant Group’s growing empire. Like many North Shore chefs, Shoults draws special inspiration from the bountiful shoreline, with a full raw bar, a rotating array of trendy crudo—tiny slivers of raw seafood, dressed Italian style—and a caviar tasting menu that introduces guests to that rarefied delight in an approachable way. The restaurant offers a changing menu of caviar, starting at as little as $10 for a sampling of Hackleback, a domestic buttery salty variety that is a good introduction to fish eggs, served atop warm buttermilk blini cooked to order, with a sprinkling of hard-boiled egg and a slash of crème fraîche.
The caviar program at Brine has been growing fast, but it’s still a fraction of business overall— and that’s okay. Small plates are a great way to introduce diners to new tastes. “Small plates allow chefs to get creative with ingredients and techniques, because they are not committed to staying within certain boundaries to make dishes that will please a whole dining room,” says Kim Vanacore, general manager at Foreign Affairs Wine Bar & Bistro in Manchester-by-the-Sea, adding that the tiny tastes can be crafted to appeal to the more adventurous “foodie” types.
Foreign Affairs always offers a crudo on the menu. Inspired by whatever is freshest, Vanacore says chef Ryan McGovern likes to keep the preparation simple, maybe dressed with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette, microgreens or foraged flower petals for a bite of fresh herbal notes, and perhaps a bit of spice from kimchi dust or togarashi. “Lately he has been adding sea beans, which taste like the ocean, bringing the whole plate full circle,” Vanacore says. “With everything he adds, he is careful not to overwhelm, but rather heighten, the flavor of the fish.” Pair it with a celery and gin cocktail for a tasty appetizer.
Not surprisingly, seafood is a large part of the menu at Elm Square Oyster Co. And while the depth and breadth of the raw bar selection is something to behold, chef Michael Sherman really gets to display his chops in other deceptively simple dishes, like the jewel-like scallop ceviche, which employs a lemon purée and quinoa cooked two ways.
Sherman says he thinks small plates are taking off because they allow large groups to enjoy a variety of flavors. “It also gives the guest the opportunity to taste the menu without the commitment of a tasting menu… and it’s just fun,” he adds.
L’Andana in Burlington recently embraced the small plates movement with a total revamp of its bar area, adding a new menu, high-top tables, and custom-made wood stools. Not surprisingly, the small plates at this high-end Italian eatery are geared more toward fine pastas and delectably seasoned meatballs, but the wood-grilled octopus is popular and light—introducing guests to a dish they might not be familiar with. Paired with the restaurant’s citrusy Hammer & Sickle cocktail, it’s a nice after-work treat.
“I think people love the idea of not committing to one dish and sharing with friends,” says Shannon St. Pierre, private events manager at L’Andana. “I also find it creates an atmosphere where people are engaging with one another. It creates conversation.”
Pairing cocktails with those small plates is another way to engage with food and friends. A good bartender can suggest something that will elevate both the drink and the meal, much like a wine pairing.
“The cocktail can act like a condiment,” enhancing the flavors of the dish, says Drew Hart, head bartender at Brine. With the caviar tasting menu, he suggests the restaurant’s No. 10 cocktail, a beguiling mixture of Aquavit and house-made celery/fennel cordial, topped with bubbly.
At Salt Kitchen and Rum Bar in Ipswich, the versatility of the restaurant’s namesake spirit opens it to a wide variety of small plate pairing options, says owner Dave Gillis, who notes that his restaurant is heavily based on small plates—something that fits well with the vibe he is looking to create. “It allows people to interact with their dinners a bit more—it’s more casual,” he says.
About half of the restaurant’s small plates are seafood-based, but one in particular takes patrons—and Gillis—on a spin down memory lane.
“The Crabbies are near and dear to my heart,” says Gillis, who notes that the old-school dish of lump crab meat mixed with cheese spread and then toasted on an English muffin is familiar to many North Shore natives—and is something that his mom probably has in her freezer right now.
While Salt’s menu has a lot of fancier small plates, like Salt Block Scallops and grilled oysters, there’s something particularly authentic about the creamy, cheesy Crabbies, especially when paired with a Haymaker—a hearty take on a Dark ’n’ Stormy enriched with molasses and Privateer Amber Rum. It’s a combination that could satisfy hardy fishermen and hungry writers alike.
Brine – www.brineoyster.com
Elm Square Oyster Co. – www.elmsquareoysterco.com
Foreign Affairs Wine Bar & Bistro – www.foreignaffairswineandbistro.com
L’Andana – www.landanagrill.com
Salt Kitchen and Rum Bar – www.saltkitchenandrumbar.com