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Do small plates have to be a big annoyance?



There are certain restaurant trends that I'm ready to see go the way of the salad bar and the relish tray. Red velvet cake. Duck confit. Bacon anything.

And small plates. Enough already.

What the hell are small plates, anyway? They're not really appetizers, and they're not actually tapas (which were originally pieces of bread or meat small enough to perch on the rim of a glass of sherry in order to keep the flies away), and they're certainly not dim sum. Yet restaurants now seem to classify all of those once-distinct things within the small-plates rubric.

Look, I don't hate small plates. And before all you foodies exile me to Squaresville, be honest with yourselves: Do you really like to share your food that much? I don't — not even with close friends. And small plates require you to subdivide your dishes, some of which have been conceived as delicacies.

Besides, if you believe, as I do, that "visual appeal" is half the meal, to split up small portions is to commit a brutality. As New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote last year, "Many dishes served at allegedly tapas-style restaurants simply don't split well. Either they look like a car crash by the time you've divided them in four, or your portion ends up being so small you hardly get to know it before it's gone."

Yes, yes, small plates encourage the communal-minded as well as the experimental, allowing you to share new and exciting dishes among friends or sample the unfamiliar as a solo diner without committing to an entrée. But if one more server gives me a definition of small plates that includes the word fun, I'll hurl a real-person-sized dish in his direction.

"A small plate is 4 ounces," says chef Martin Heuser, of the 15-month-old Affäre restaurant, whose menu is dominated by pretty little dishes.

See? Simple.

By Heuser's standards, anything smaller than 4 ounces is in the tapas category (by my standards: a bite). Anything between 7 and 10 ounces is a full meal.

If that sounds petite, well, Heuser says he has had to increase the portion sizes of many of Affäre's dishes. His more well-fed customers couldn't abide all that daintiness. "I couldn't take one more complaint about there being only one seared scallop on my plate featuring a scallop and a piece of foie gras with a hollandaise sauce," he says. "So now there are two scallops."

That extra scallop adds about six bucks to that plate's price, but it's hard to quibble when the place operates like a Rolls Royce factory. "The only product I buy," Heuser boasts, "is tomato paste." That kind of quality control means that his cabbage-wrapped baked quail (in a supple cassis jus) takes more than six hours to prepare, with as many complicated steps as a Susan Stroman dance routine.

Around the corner, at chef Michael Smith's Extra Virgin, the small-plate menu is divided into seven categories, ranging in price from $3 (for deviled eggs) to $27 for a rib-eye roasted in the kitchen's oak-burning oven. It seemed like a good place to test the protocol for a single diner, so one evening I sat alone at a high-top table with a window view of the venue's sunny deck.

I asked the server to give me his best estimate of the right number of small plates for just me. I challenged him to do this without using the predictable phrase "It depends how hungry you are."

"It's about size," he said. "Some of our small plates are bigger than others. But for one person, I'd suggest two or three."

I made three choices that met his approval: smoked-paprika shrimp with tissue-thin slices of celery and Missouri peaches; a watermelon-and-arugula salad in a tart citrus vinaigrette; and a small bowl of caramelle pasta (they looked like wrapped hard candies and came filled with fontina and house-made mozzarella) in a tomato cream sauce. Each would have been difficult to share, even for two people. But they made a complete and rewarding entrée for me. In fact, I really didn't need that fourth small plate I impulsively asked for: grilled bread with fluffy ricotta.

"You'll ruin your appetite with this," the waiter chided me. It didn't, but I passed on dessert.

It's folly for a solo diner to load up on a lot of inexpensive dim sum dishes at the ABC Café in Overland Park. I know because I have. Here, 19 little plates are on offer, priced at $2.88 each. So you see that it just wouldn't be economical to order fewer than 10.

This noisy dining room feels designed for public displays of gluttony. Two of the bigger tables have big Lazy Susans in the center for easy sharing. Not a lot passes Heuser's 4-ounce rule, but if your definition of small plates is simply sharing piles of tasty food with friends without ending up shamefully bloated, the ABC Café is the perfect dictionary illustration. It's an ideal place to sample unfamiliar Chinese dishes affordably, and ABC has a vitality that other, swankier small-plate emporiums lack. With its fine hot and cold dishes and its unfussy array of bottled beer (Bud Light, Bud, Heineken and Tsingtao — that's it), ABC is a chatty Asian snack shop.

Kansas City's best-known tapas vendor, the original La Bodega on Southwest Boulevard, is considerably more expensive than ABC, but while the plates are small, the portions aren't toddler-sized. It remains a brash, loud dining room — people who like to share prefer to talk loudly, too, apparently — and heavy on the meaty dishes.

"We don't often get diners who come here to eat alone," one of the servers told me not long ago. "Big parties like to come in here and order a lot of different things."

Bulk, after all, likes more bulk. If one diner can find satisfaction with three small plates, it figures that a raucous group will reward itself with at least that many little objets d'art per person. And that's if no one at the table feels threatened and orders accordingly, knowing that a little too much sharing lies in store. Restaurateurs know how you are. And by going small, some of them are scoring big.

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