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Dishin’ It: Are Small Plates The New Entree?

At a tapas bar in Salamanca, Spain

Are Small Plates The New Entrée?

Irene W. Yukash

The trendiest dining spots no longer have one dish that hits the table upon mealtime.  Traditional entrees like filet mignon with seasoned vegetable are being traded in for small plates, sometimes referred to as tapas, on the menu.  But each emerging trend raises the question: Where did it come from?

Several theories have surfaced on the birth of tapas.  Of Spanish origin, the word tapa literally means “lid” or “cover.” Correlating with the translation is the theory that small plates of food were put over wine glasses to keep flies out.  It also is believed that food was handed out in bars to mask the smell of cheap wine.

But regardless of which story is accurate, tapas are widespread throughout Spain.  A euro or two will buy a drink, perhaps a cana (a small draft beer) and a little something to nibble on.  Depending on the spot, the tapa choice is yours.

Marinated anchovies, fried potato bites doused in aioli and tomato sauce and fried pig’s cheek are displayed atop the bar in a glass case.  These are only a small fraction of traditional Spanish tapas.  Anything goes when it comes to a tapa and several spots in Spain never make the same tapa twice.

Ferran Adria inspired and challenged chefs internationally with his concept at Catalonian tapas restaurant, El Bulli.  According to elbulli.com, Adria’s concept consisted of an avant garde menu, meaning that the menu was subject to creativity and change, the importance of top quality products and that collaboration amongst experts is essential for progress.

“Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture,” is number one on the synthesis of the El Bulli menu, elbulli.com.  Although El Bulli closed in 2011, it is possible that Adria’s ideas reached across the Atlantic to gastronomic cities such as New York.

It could also hold true that a few Americans became inspired by personal trips to Spain and surrounding countries to introduce tapas to American menus.  Whatever the reason, tapas have made their way onto menus in the U.S. and may even overshadow the one plate entrée.

Boqueria in New York City and Coppa in Boston have Americanized the tapas concept.  Both restaurants offer traditional dishes with modern flavor.  Variety allows guests to pick and choose each detail of the meal and small plates yield a small risk.  If you’re not a fan of a dish, there are several others to eat from.

Even restaurants that have yet to officially classify a section of the menu as small portions can be utilized as such.  Closer to home is Firebox in Hartford. A restaurant that stands behind local ingredients and creativity, Firebox can be treated as a tapas experience.  The portion of the menu that reads “first course” can easily and reasonably be stacked to create a meal of their own.

Before committing to an entrée, take a moment to consider the little guys.  More information on the mentioned restaurants can be found on their websites.  Ratings and reviews can be found on zagat.com.