Small plates are the chef’s creative playground. Most restaurants diners expect to see steaks, roast chicken, and grilled salmon entrées. These basics will quickly fill up the entrées list because customers gravitate towards the familiar, especially when they are spending $20-$30 for an entrée. Restaurants need to sell what their customers want, so it’s less risky to take a chance on a small plate for both the chef and the customer. That’s why, even at less adventurous restaurants, you’ll find chefs experimenting with the most interesting ingredients and techniques in the smallest plates on the menu.
The trendiest techniques in appetizers, tapas, and small plates at the moment are different kinds of fermentation, preservation and pickling.
Fermentation is a part of food cultures all over the world – it’s not limited to one style of cuisine. From sauerkraut to kimchi, and sourdough to miso there are hundreds of starting points for exploring natural fermentation. All you need to get started is a large jar and a bubble airlock to allow gas to escape but no dangerous bacteria to get in. I’ve seen fermented ramp leaves, fermented hot sauce, house made yogurt and kefir, and small batch fruit vinegars popping on menus all over the place.
Preservation includes a wide range of techniques, all of which were originally simply about preserving food before the invention of refrigeration (whereas fermentation is really just one way of prolonging the life of a food so that it can be stored for long periods of time). By drying or dehydrating foods when they are plentiful chefs can extend their useful life and find ways to enjoy them out of their growing season. Grind up dried tomatoes into tomato powder and sprinkle over risotto for a punch of tomato flavor and color in the middle of winter.
Pickling is another popular way to preserve food and is all over restaurant appetizer, tapas and small plate menus these days. Pickles add some brightness and acidity to round out a dish’s flavor profile and are a great blank canvas for experimentation. Any fruit or vegetable can be pickled – it’s not just for cucumbers. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen pickled mustard seeds, pickled avocado, and even pickled strawberries.
Unique, wild ingredients and vegetable highlights are also trending in appetizers, tapas and small plates these days.
Foraged wild ingredients like kudzu, ramps, or wood sorrel are getting a lot of attention on restaurant menus today. Much like the rediscovery of preservation techniques, chefs are turning to these traditional foods with a sense of rediscovering food knowledge that was lost or ignored for a few generations. Wild foods can even be more nutritious than some of their tamed agricultural cousins. Chefs are not just finding these ingredients in the forest but have also rediscovered the big beautiful world of sea vegetables, which are turning up on small plates up and down the seaboard.
In the culinary world there is now a giant spotlight on vegetables in restaurants and cookbooks. There is no longer such an emphasis on the center of the plate protein. Now the vegetables that come with it are just as, if not more, important. This is a great focus for small plates too, giving diners the opportunity to try new vegetables and different preparations.
More and more often I find that I want to skip the entrée section altogether and order two or three small plates for my meal. I love being able to experience a variety of flavors, textures, and ingredients this way. Small plates and appetizers are often the best way to experience the real creativity of a restaurant’s menu, and see what ideas are being explored by chefs around the world.