By Joan Scobey
For anyone who eschews a starter and a main course for a couple of appetizers, because that’s where the most interesting dishes usually are, a heartening “small plates” trend is gaining ground. Think Spanish tapas-style menus applied to all kinds of food, from Indian to English pub, Italian to Pacific Rim. Moreover, there are now restaurants that serve nothing but small plates.
Recently in London, where culinary trends often blossom, I found a wealth of small plates restaurants, or riffs on them. Many of them, incidentally, are in Theatreland, and make for excellent pre-theatre eating.
First, let’s credit Joel Robuchon as the father of serious small plate dining. His Paris l’Atelier was the first to serve a succession of great classic dishes in small portions, and patrons sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen so they could follow the chefs at work. The London l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon has the signature long wooden bar, high red leather counter seats, and red glassware, table seating for 20 and a welcome wall of greenery, plus two Michelin stars. The changing list of 20 small tasting dishes (£9-21) currently includes mackerel tart; ravioli of langoustine in Savoy cabbage; beef and foie gras burger. The fun is watching and chatting with the chefs prepping, cooking, and plating, and dishing with your counter neighbors. There are also tasting, pre-theatre, and lunch menus. 13-15 West Street, 020 7010 8600, joel-robuchon.com.
Gordon Ramsay does small plates at maze, an airy space on Grosvenor Square where his inventive miniature constructions and compilations have earned him a Michelin star. In addition to a la carte, a special menu (daily at lunch, supper Thurs-Sun 6-7 pm) might include wild garlic soup, maple-glazed chicken oysters, lemon emulsion; Loch Duart salmon, fondue of leek, vinaigrette of brown shrimps, horseradish; and summer fruit crumble. £36 for four dishes. 10-13 Grosvenor Square, 020 7107 0000, gordonramsay.com/maze.
At the less pricey end for French small plates is Terroirs, a multi-level minimalist wine bar off The Strand that combines hearty rustic fare and superb wines from France and Italy, including a large list by the glass. For a pre-theatre tasting, I ordered dressed Dorset crab on toast, duck rillettes with cornichons, and smoked eel on celeriac remoulade that arrived on separate wooden boards. Each day there are a dozen small plates (£6.50-£10), plus charcuterie, cheeses, and five changing plats du jour (£13-£15), as well as a lengthy wine list that reads like Oenology 101. 5 William IV St, 020 7036 0660, terroirswinebar.com.
If you’re thinking Italian, Bocca di Lupo, a relative Soho newcomer, features an extensive culinary tour through the country. Name a region, they have a dish or two: Veneto: fried prawns; Campania: linguine with gurnard; Tuscany: grilled porcini in guanciale; Romagna: grilled scallops; Sicily: Cassata Siciliana. You get the idea. And virtually every dish comes small size (£L5.50-£13) or regular. Eat at the marble-topped bar or the spacious back dining room. 12 Archer St., 020 7734 2223, boccadilupo.com.
More Italian: Polpo, a popular new Venetian-style wine bar serving small plate regional specialties and northern Italian wines (41 Beak St, 020 7734 4479, polpo.co.uk). Princi, long wooden tables and a splendid buffet of salads, pizzas, tarts, and breads replenished from the on-site bakery. 135 Wardour St, 020 7478 8888, princi.co.uk.
No surprise that some of the best in the small plates derby are Spanish tapas bars. Dehesa headlines a quartet of casual Soho spots with creative tapas, charcuterie, cheeses, and that great Spanish ham, Jamon Iberico. Among its signature tapas are honey-drizzled zucchini flowers stuffed with goat cheese, char-grilled prawns, and house-cured duck breast (£3.60 to £8). 25 Ganton St, 020 7494 4170, dehesa.co.uk. You’ll find virtually the same menu at its sibling, Salt Yard, 43 Goodge St, 020 7637 0657, www.saltyard.co.uk.
More Spanish: Fino, with a large selection of authentic tapas and an impressive collection of sherries (33 Charlotte Street, 020 7813 8010, finorestaurant.com). Barrafina, counter only seating for its cured meats and great shellfish specials. 54 Frith St, 020 7813 8016, barrafina.co.uk.
Seafood, English style, is the signature of J. Sheekey, Theatreland’s famous fish restaurant. In the small plates trend, it recently spun off J. Sheekey Oyster Bar next door, a smart panelled room where diners sit at a counter surrounding the food prep island, and its centerpiece of shellfish astride a massive glass platter of ice. Big sellers: Sheekey’s legendary Fish Pie (£12.75) and six kinds of oysters (from 6/£11.25), potted shrimp and jellied eel. 33 St Martin’s Court, 020 7240 2565, jsheekeyoysterbar.co.uk.
Extending the small plate concept, originally a European phenomenon, to Asia is the recently opened Colony, a stylish Indian eatery in Marylebone inspired by the street traders of the British Raj and launched by Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar. From the small menus of snacks served in the front bar-lounge and more complex dishes in the back dining room, I sampled an aromatic spread that included cumin flavored spinach soup, tandoori monkfish, tikka masala, fried white bait and chutney, scallops three ways, and stuffed chickpea pancakes; (£4.50-£16.50). 7-9 Paddington Street, 020 7935 3353, www.colonybarandgrill.com. And to complete the world wide reach, a popular Marylebone neighbor, The Providores, recently downsized all its Pacific Rim fusion entrees to small plates. (109 Marylebone High Street, 020 7935 6175, theprovidores.co.uk.)
Call it global tapas or mini tasting menus, welcome to the small plates revolution which promotes adventurous eating, and camaraderie among diners.
Joan Scobey, an award-winning freelance writer, has covered the world from Shanghai to Sri Lanka, and Barcelona to Bangkok. Her stories have appeared in many national publications, among them Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Diversion, Wine Enthusiast, Food Arts, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Denver Post, and Creators Syndicate. She is currently Senior Contributing Editor at Travel Arts Syndicate and Contributing Editor at Worldwide Spa Review.