What better way to eat out than to try everything on the menu? The food trend of small plates dining allows you to do just that.
The culinary style is nothing new—many cuisines have long offered bite-size samplings. Cantonese dim sum, for instance, came from snacks served to travellers along the Silk Road in China. Nowadays, these traditional dishes including dumplings, steam buns, and rice noodle rolls, are shared with family on the weekend.
Chefs around the world and across Montreal are embracing the concept of creating bite-size servings so diners can try a wider variety of their creations.
However, successfully crafting a bite that satisfies and intertwines complexity in each dish is not an easy task. Chefs must balance the flavours and provide the perfect contrast of acidity and salt, or sweet and savoury—there cannot be one superfluous ingredient—while maintaining a pleasing overall aesthetic.
“[It’s] about flavour first[… then] balance, texture, and plating,” pointed out Carlo Mirachi, chef and owner of restaurants Blanca and Roberta’s in Brooklyn, New York.
Another example is Italian antipasti (“before the meal”), which is more centred on the social aspect of dining rather than the food. Served before the main course, antipasti includes many options, such as cured meats, mozzarella and provolone cheese, and vegetables in oil and vinegar.
“The gesture [of serving antipasti] is the symbol […] for a noisy laughing group of family and friends gathered around a table, nudging one another out of the way to reach over and taste something new,” renowned Italian chef Mario Batali was quoated in Food & Wine Magazine.
Vanya Filipovic, a partner at Montreal restaurant Le Vin Papillon, said this serving style is key to creating a pleasing atmosphere.
“[The menu] is really designed to create conversation [and sharing]; it changes all the time,” Filipovic said.
At Le Vin Papillon, chef Marc-Olivier Frappier presents small-plate cuisine utlizing seasonal vegetables. One of the most crave-worthy plates is charred, roasted Brussel sprouts covered with ham from acorn-fed pigs. Another dish worth mentioning is a roasted cauliflower steak sprinkled with caramelized onions, capers, and crispy chicken skin.
Small plates are designed to foster sharing and experimentation. Chefs have found that customers are more willing to try new foods if there is always another dish present.
Iannict Lessard is the chef for tartare bar Lustucru in Montreal, where the pint-sized dining approach to minced, raw creations has been applied.
“We wanted people to experience different types of tartares and to encourage people to enjoy the diversity of the tartares, [so] we thought it best to serve them tapas-style to inspire sharing and trying something new,” he said.
The Plateau restaurant offers some more eccentric raw presentations including shark carpaccio served with strawberries and horse tataki with mango salsa. The Vitello Tonato is especially good, with an encrusted veal tenderloin served atop panko-fried tuna with capers and a fresh dill sauce laced with cucumbers.
Montreal has a range of restaurants that go beyond the typical small-plates experiences. Opened in June, Bar Bouyna offers fresh and delicious Turkish mezze—a feature of Middle Eastern cuisine that comes at the beginning of all large meals and can include foods such as hummus, falafel, tahini, kofte, and halloumi cheese.
Chef Fisun honours classical Mediterranean cooking techniques such as grilling and heavily spicing, and creates plates including Mackerel Escabeche (poached fish), chickpea salad tossed in tomato sauce and black garlic yogurt, and duck kebab with fig confit.
Lastly, Spanish “tapas” are perhaps one of the most well-known examples of small-plates meals. In Spain, dinner can be served as late as midnight, which creates a large amount of time between the end of the workday and dinner. To pass the time, it is common to go bar hopping after work and eat tapas while enjoying a drink—tapas often come free as long as the alcohol is flowing. Customary dishes include olives, aioli on bread, calamari, and chorizo.
To get your tapas fix in Montreal, visit Los Pintxos—a traditional tapas bar serving specialties such as pepper gazpacho, grilled prawns, and a marinated sardine filet with avocado.
Ferran Adria, the creative mastermind behind ElBulli restaurant in Spain explains the appeal of tapas for both diners and chefs. He says cooking in such a manner allows him to embrace “passion for what [he does], freedom, sharing, and risk-taking.”
From Spanish tapas to Cantonese dim sum, small plates are taking off. Take advantage of the countless options in and around Montreal to enjoy your own small-plates dining experience. Recruit a big group of friends, find a restaurant, and enjoy the company with some impeccable food.