Five years ago, when The Table — now a popular South Mumbai restaurant — opened, it introduced a menu segregated into small plates and large plates. Barring a few high-fliers and globetrotters in the city, most diners had never experienced this concept before. At this modern European restaurant, the small plates feature dishes like fish tacos, Swiss chard ravioli, among others, and the large plates consist of spaghetti, asparagus risotto and Australian slow-roasted lamb shank, all signature dishes. Then, in 2012, at Ellipsis — another Colaba restaurant — small plates made an appearance again, setting the stage for a trend that was going to dominate restaurants across the city in the years to come.
Small plates, big appetite
Walk into any newly opened neighbourhood bar today, and you’ll find patrons sipping on their cocktails as they chomp on small plates — from tacos to a quirky take on our desi vada pao or baos stuffed with pretty much anything. For instance, at One Street Over, Kelvin Cheung (previously the executive chef at Ellipsis) plates up his arty take on burrata and roasted cauliflower.
At Monkey Bar, Manu Chandra serves tacos stuffed with baingan pakoda, and Goan chorizo pao, both signature dishes. At The Bombay Canteen, Floyd Cardoz and Thomas Zacharias put together a menu with dishes labelled as chota (small) and bada (large). So, desi tacos (with refried beans, or rajma) and Goan pulled pork vindaloo feature in ‘chotas’, whereas the ‘badas’ consists of multi-grain khichdi and banana leaf-wrapped fish.
Like all food trends that travel to our shores from the west, small plates, too, have been hugely popular in American restaurants over the last few years. Inspired by the Spanish tapas-style food, they are chefs’ favourites, as they allow them to experiment with big, bold flavours and offer variety. At the same time, thanks to shows like MasterChef Australia and increased exposure to international trends, diners want to experience everything they see or read about. “With appetisers and entrées, you are less inclined to take a risk. But with small plates, the risk is less because, even if you don’t like it ,there’ll be someone on the table who will like the dish and the food won’t go waste,” reasons Alex Sanchez from The Table.
Even for gourmands, the interest in small plates stems from the desire to experiment; to be able to talk about different kinds of food during conversations. And to further this curiosity, three-Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar will open Lima (next to NRI in Bandra-Kurla Complex), a bar that focusses on tapas-style food from Peru, Mexico and Brazil. At the two-year-old Eddies in Bandra, Nishant Mitra, too, is introducing a bunch of dishes as small plates. “We will use seasonal and local vegetables like ridge gourd, bitter gourd, string beans, yams and flat beans infused with Persian flavours,” says Mitra.
The economics of sharing
“As a concept, I had always been keen on small plates but never really had the right opportunity until Monkey Bar came along,” says Chandra. For him, the idea fit into the gastro pub mould. “Small plates allow us to create a bunch of dishes that can be shared and ordered in multiples. This gives the customer a larger variety to choose from, and for us to focus on quality and presentation rather than quantity,” he adds.
While the focus, globally, is on quality, quantity remains a grouse with diners. Noted critic and food writer Pete Wells of the New York Times, in his piece, The Big Problem With Small Plates, writes: “At places where there is some skill and dedication in the kitchen, this style of eating (small plates) leads to a curious phenomenon: the sensation of having eaten a delicious meal without feeling truly satisfied at the end of it.”
Not all small plates lend themselves to sharing, especially when there are more than two people to claim their share. “I often go out with a large group of friends. We end up ordering two or three portions of a dish,” says Prachi Gaur, a marketing professional who dines out thrice a week on an average. This indicates that small plates also translate into better profits for restaurants. More food sent out of the kitchen means more money spent on each table.
In a country where eating out, traditionally, consisted of appetisers/starters (kebabs and tikkas) and main course (gravy with breads and rice) followed by desserts, small plates have come as an aberration. “When we came in, initially, there was criticism about the portions, but it took some education to make people understand the concept of small plates and large plates,” says Sanchez, adding, “However, we still get people who want to have the whole portion by themselves.”