The idea of small plates in restaurants—small-portion dishes, not smaller portions of a main course, ordered à la carte—has been around for a while. But it seems to have gained greater popularity since the pandemic, with diners ready to try new cuisines and dishes in “revenge dining”. Recognising this, several new restaurants are keeping a strong focus on it.
“Small plates are slightly more versatile than appetisers in that they are intended to be eaten before, during or even in place of a meal, if many are ordered and shared among a table,” says Anirudh Kheny, partner, Daysie: All Day Casual Bar, Bengaluru.
They are supposed to have been inspired by the Spanish concept of tapas—small plates of food, shared over drinks—though the concept exists in other parts of the world too: the Mediterranean mezze platters, Italian antipasti, Korean banchan, Russian zakuski, to name a few. For the solo diner, not keen to be restricted to a main course or appetisers, small plates can be the perfect answer. Whether they make sense for large groups from a monetary perspective remains a matter of debate.
“Around the world, diners are becoming more accepting of different types of food than they were in the past and in Mumbai, where at the same table you can find people from various backgrounds, small plates make sense. People can share the table without necessarily having to share the same food,” says AliAkbar Baldiwala, executive chef, Slink & Bardot, Mumbai, of his “Cuisine without Borders” approach to the menu.
Since the restaurant opened in June 2022, Baldiwala has worked on familiarising his guests with this culinary philosophy. “Initially, people found it hard to understand a small plate like ‘Crumbed Feta’ (served with truffle honey and pistachio mint) but today it’s one of our highest-selling dishes,” he says. His à la carte menu today has 53 dishes; 34 of them are small plates. The brunch menu is separate.
At Daysie too, the small-plates menu offers a modern interpretation of global cuisines—think Salmon Papdi Chaat, Pepper Fry bao and Mangsher Chop. “We are primarily a restaurant and bar and focus extensively on the food. With small plates, guests find it easier to try out a variety. We also offer add-ons—vegetarian, meat, garnishing and more—to give guests the flexibility to elevate a dish based on their preferences,” adds Kheny.
Small-plate menus are becoming longer and customer preferences and the desire for customisation, clearer.
Foo, founded by the brothers Ryan Tham and Keenan Tham, has seven outlets in Mumbai and recently opened one in Bengaluru. Besides a regular menu, they offer à la carte choices of small plates exclusively for Jain, vegan and gluten-free diners.
“We have gone bullish on small plates and plan to introduce new rice and noodle dishes as a part of the tapas experience we offer. We have understood that people enjoy the variety on their plates, as they get to try dishes they wouldn’t have had the portion size been bigger,” say the brothers. They even considered removing the “Big Plates” from their à la carte selection—but retained these for families.
Moreover, small plates offer a wide canvas for creativity. At the Comorin in Gurugram, Haryana, the bar programme invites you to indulge in small bites with your drink. “Our small plates shine the spotlight on unique regional Indian dishes which don’t usually feature on restaurant menus. Think lamb seekh kebabs, but made with loads of butter and served with crusty bread, inspired by the Chandni Chowk kebabwallas who serve theirs with roomali roti; or the Kolkata chaiwalla’s innovation of the cheeni malai toast,” says Manish Mehrotra, culinary director, Comorin.
EXPERIMENTING WITH FLAVOURS
At the Blue Turtle in Goa, with its local cuisine, fresh seafood and continental fare, Rohan Dsouza, co-partner and chef, says his experience has taught him that sharing plays an important role when large groups visit. “Smaller plates can mean reasonable pricing and guests can order more. With our variety of small plates, we offer options for vegetarians, seafood and meat lovers, ensuring something for everyone at the table. It is why our menu is small-plate heavy,” he says, adding that substitution of core ingredients like chicken with prawns, or a vegetarian version of a dish, are also choices offered.
From the perspective of guests looking to experiment, ensure portion control, customise a dish or even opt for healthier dishes, small plates can be of great value, though some may find the choice overwhelming.
How economical it is depends. Some believe the option of multiple small plates over a few main courses or a multi-course meal is a good deal. Others believe small plates can, in fact, add up to a substantial amount, given that many more of them will be ordered at a table.
From a restaurant’s perspective, Mehrotra says: “Sometimes it can be expensive for a restaurant to offer small plates. The portion may be smaller but its ingredients may cost more. However, this can be managed with good planning, which ensures that the entire menu is cost-effective. For the diner, it’s a great way to ensure less wastage.”
The more the number of small plates on offer, the more the prep needed. The Tham brothers believe they have hit the sweet spot with their menu engineering. “The demand for Jain, vegan, gluten-free dishes is quite high, so all our base sauces for all these dishes are made fresh and pre-batched for the day each morning. When an order comes in, the dish is finished with the sauce and this eases stress in the kitchen during busy hours,” they explain. Baldiwala adds that it is important for kitchens to have a strong internal forecasting system to reduce wastage and ensure fresh stock is in rotation.
Small plates, it seems, are here to stay.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.