The small-plates concept has been around for ten years or so in this country, although its origins go way back. What originated in the Mediterranean as a convivial way to soak up drinks when out with friends has been translated here to a supposedly cheap and fun new way to dine out. You can make a meal out of small plates, but that is not what they were originally intended to do.
The ancestor, the inspiration for the current modern small-plates trend is specifically tapas: little snacks arrayed on bars in Spain. The name tapas, meaning lids or covers, comes from a plate, piece of ham or slice of bread (sources vary) once laid on top of a drink to keep the flies out, as it allegedly originated a few centuries ago in the Andalusia region. To go out for tapas before lunch or dinner is a way to unwind with friends, an important part of the day. It also helps keep the appetite at bay until dinner (which in Spain is served about 10 p.m. or later). It’s not meant to be dinner itself, normally, as the concept has evolved to become in this country.
Tapas – or their big brother the ración, twice the size – can be garlic-grilled shrimp, savory meatballs, manchego with quince, potatoes in spicy tomato sauce, spiced roasted almonds, a wedge of thick omelet, mushrooms in a savory sauce, small red peppers stuffed with salt cod, funky cured ham, baby eels with hot pepper and garlic, a marinated seafood medley or various items skewered on a toothpick or layered decoratively on toast.
A couple of weeks ago in San Sebastian, in the Basque country, I had an unforgettable puff-pastry round filled with rich wild mushrooms and foie gras. I also had tapas in the Catalán region of the northeastern part of the country, and last week at my cooking demonstration at the Dutchess County Fair I attempted to recreate some of them: pa amb tomaquet, rustic bread toasted and rubbed with super-ripe tomato, drizzled with Arbequina olive oil and fleur de sel, topped with anchovies or Spanish cheese. I also did an escalavida salad of roasted peppers and eggplant and some dense, tasty calamares á la romana.
I’ve thought, when wandering neighborhoods in Spanish towns, that their delightfully extroverted culture has to be healthier than ours. Rather than staying home at night with the TV and a microwave dinner, they’re out and about, meeting friends and socializing: a much better way to live. And tapas are a part of that culture.
This delightful way of eating has inspired many US restaurants and wine bars, in the past decade or so, to offer small plates meant to be shared with friends. Some cranky detractors say that “small plates” are a way for restaurants to serve tiny quantities with big prices, and that diners experience variety and new tastes without, however, filling their bellies. A friend in Kansas City recently went out for an anniversary dinner at a new “small plates” eatery there, and although she and her husband had a few things and racked up a big bill, hubby went home and had to have some mac-and-cheese and some leftovers.
But I know that after an evening at Elephant in Kingston, I am full and happy. Paying homage to the Spanish tradition of enjoying good food and wine with friends (although in Spain you’ll find people enjoying sherry, sparkling wine or beer with their tapas as well), Elephant’s chef/owner Rich Reeve offers an ever-changing array of both traditional and creative nose-to-tail-type tapas, appealingly executed, that might include chorizo and chocolate on toast ($6), marinated white anchovies with green sauce ($8), beets and blue cheese with arugula and almonds ($8), snail toast with bacon, mushrooms and sherry cream ($9) or a “lamburguesa” ($8).
For small plates close to the Spanish ideal, there’s Rei Peraza’s “Progressive Spanish” Tivoli eatery called Panzur, offering an evolving menu that is mostly Spanish-inspired, with tapas like ham croquettes with aïoli ($7); crispy pig belly with a sherry/cherry glaze ($11); foie gras with jasmine gelée and candied kumquat ($17); wild Maine shrimp with garlic, sherry and guindilla peppers ($15); beef tripe with giant white beans, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), poached egg and Idiazabal (smoky Basque cheese) ($13); house-cured air-dried beef ($16); rabbit pâté with prunes and apple salad ($13); or black fried squid with black aïoli, smoked pepper drizzle and roast lemon coulis ($13).
For small plates inspired by the concept of tapas but not necessarily Spanish, try the Village Tea Room Restaurant & Bakery in New Paltz, where Agnes Devereaux offers small plates like organic edamame with lapsang souchong salt, and Dingle Pies, an Irish-style lamb pie served with cornichons and mustard, for $4 to $6. Some plates are customizable, where you can order a slightly bigger serving for a little more change: a very nice option.
Brand-new Il Gallo Giallo (the Yellow Rooster), a wine bar in New Paltz, is all about small plates, with a large array of Italian tapa-sized dishes to go with their wines. Owner Darrin Siegfried offers five kinds of bruschette, like one with locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms, a rustic chicken liver with balsamic onions and thyme or Gorgonzola dolce with fig jam and toasted spiced walnuts. Or try one of their panini, like mortadella with grilled peppers and provolone. Mortadella also features sliced thick and grilled, with mostarda de Cremona, made of fruit, mustard oil and spice. Tempting is shredded local caciocavallo cheese made from raw milk, baked until bubbly and flambéed with grappa.
Other treats include octopus salad with fennel, citrus and olives, deviled eggs in pancetta cups and baked shrimp with white beans and preserved lemon. Pastas include a baked quattro formaggi, a cacio e pepe with fresh spaghetti and other pastas including house-made ravioli. Don’t miss the assortments of salumi (from New York’s Salumeria Biellese) or Italian cheeses. Small plates run $5 to $11, pastas $10 to $13.
The Local in Rhinebeck has a crab-claw-and-avocado Napoleon with furikake seaweed crackers, cilantro/jalapeño dressing, wasabi aïoli, pea shoots and charred tomato in Chinese five-spice vinaigrette ($16) and Thai-fried Brussels sprouts and pork belly with diced watermelon, fish sauce vinaigrette, shaved bonito and togarashi-spiced rice puffs ($14).
Prices can run the gamut. At La Bodega in Kansas City, in the more moderately priced Midwest, you can get Catalán tomato bread for $4 or top it with iberico and manchego for $8. Meatballs in spicy garlic cream sauce will cost you only $7. But closer to home, here in the pricier Hudson Valley, the Local’s braised-lamb-and-sautéed-snail crêpe with Cognac/portabella mushroom béchamel, white truffle oil, caramelized onions and frizzled leeks is $20, while at Panzur some very special cured ham from Spain called paleta iberica, from acorn-fed black-footed pigs, will set you back $21.
If you’d like to stay home and make your own tapas – Spaniards don’t entertain at home much, but a tapas night is a wonderful and fun theme for having friends over – I recommend the encyclopedic resource Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain by Penelope Casas (reissued by Knopf, 2007; my own copy is an earlier 1985 edition). The Culinary Institute of America is offering one-day classes this fall called “Spain and the World Table” featuring tapas, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on September 15 and 29, October 13 and 27, November 3 (parent/teen class) and 10 and December 1 and 8. See www.ciachef.edu/enthusiasts for details.
Find Panzur at 69 Broadway in Tivoli, (845) 757-1071 or www.panzur.com. Elephant is located at 310 Wall Street in Uptown Kingston, (845) 339-9310 or www.elephantwinebar.com. Find the Village Tea Room Restaurant & Bakery at 10 Plattekill Avenue in New Paltz, (845) 255-3434 or www.thevillagetearoom.com. Il Gallo Giallo is located at 36 Main Street, also in New Paltz, reachable at (845) 255-3636 or via the Facebook page (search “gallo giallo new paltz”). The Local is located at 38 West Market Street in Rhinebeck; try (845) 876-2214 or www.thelocalrestaurantandbar.com. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s www.dinehudsonvalley.com.