Since about 2013 or so, acres of trees have given their lives to the musings of writers on the phenomenon of the “small plate.” The first few hundred pages were lamentations; jeremiads borne of empty bellies and wallets, and mournful elegies to the Old Way of Dining. Here, at the tail end of the second decade of the new millennium, we as diners find the concept well defined, so there is very little space left for meditations on “what.” “Whom” and “why,” though, are still very pertinent questions to ask, especially in F&B-rich Charleston.
The origins of small plate dining are no secret, really; legend has it that Spanish tapas — originally a simple invention intended to keep flies out of wine — inspired foreign chefs to offer a more varied and eclectic dining experience in their own restaurants. Whether we owe it to the Iberian palate or perhaps Middle-Eastern mezze, Korean banchan, Chinese dim sum, Japanese kaiseki, Venetian cicchetti, or any number of potential antecedents, it is an undeniable fact that American cuisine has shifted toward what most of world has known all along: that it’s fun to eat a lot of different stuff at the same time.
Chef Eric Milley, of Mt. Pleasant’s The Shellmore, cites New York City tapas temple Casa Mono as one of his inspirations, but was cautious about pigeonholing his own cooking. “I wanted to avoid the word ‘tapas’ for sure,” he recalls. The diminutive footprint of The Shellmore required a format that allowed for maximum spatial efficiency. This limitation has led him to continually develop a small but agile menu that highlights what is seasonally available, while still allowing him to provide a fresh experience each time a diner visits. “The size of the restaurant, and what you want to be able to control, really dictates that ‘small plate’ idea,” he notes. “It forces you to put a lot of thought into very specific, singular items.”
A smoked pork loin dish recently featured on his blackboard menu, for example, involved a three-day process of brining, seasoning, smoking, and finally cooking to order — a commitment of time and manpower that would be uncommon or downright impossible for a restaurant with a more sprawling menu. Other shareable dishes, like his pristine steak tartare or his hefty smoked ribeye for two, work to complicate the non-Euclidean geometry of the “small plate” and are emblematic of what defines Milley’s playful artistry. “I can put a 20-ounce pork chop on a coffee saucer,” he jokes. “That’s a great idea — we might do that tonight!”
A similarly jovial attitude can be found at wild-eyed Spero, helmed by chefs RJ Moody and Rob Laudicina, and renowned for a hyper-creative, risk-taking approach to shareable dishes. Their passion stems from a desire to provide a truly inclusive and thought-provoking dining experience. “Our original idea behind opening Spero was that blue-collar people who don’t make a lot of money, who can’t afford to go out on the town on King Street, have a place to come where they can get the style of food they might get at McCrady’s or FIG and not shell out hundreds of dollars,” Moody explains.
While the price point at Spero certainly draws many diners in, the “shared dining” format can still be a little confusing across generational lines. Laudicina cites the more traditional dining crowd as asking, “so, are these sides?” “Kinda?” he responds with a chuckle. “It’s because we don’t want you to have one thing for dinner, we want you to have different temperatures, textures, tastes…” “I feel like eating is communal,” adds Moody. “It should be like a shared experience, you know? You’re letting down your guard, you’re inviting people to join you.” “Breaking bread,” affirms Laudicina. “It’s a very personal thing.”
To encourage just that sort of experimentation, their menu changes often, following seasonality and overall kitchen workload, although, their Scotch egg — supple, runny, and secreted within a layer of bouncy Szechuan peppercorn sausage — had to be returned to the menu after its removal amid what Moody recalls as “almost violent protests.” In any case, providing a novel and surprising experience at each visit is a hallmark of Spero’s particular “small plates” idiom.
This distaste for structure and repetition is echoed in Sorghum & Salt’s chef Tres Jackson, who notes that restaurants seem to be the only places where humans consume food in a linear format. “Nobody ever eats like that when you’re at a family gathering,” he muses. As for why chefs like him embrace a “shared” or “tasting” approach, he explains that, “it forces them to be a little more eclectic, funky, and out-of-the-box as a cook.”
Jackson’s menus are the product of a focus on sustainability and seasonality, particularly when it comes to giving vegetables the center stage. “Small plates can be less meat-driven,” he notes, and with a smaller format, rather than committing to a single idea in a larger, entree-sized preparation, “you can focus in on an ingredient and do something cool with it.” Following the seasonal bounty of the Lowcountry allows for an endless supply of inspiration, but at the same time this evolutionary and open-ended creative exercise can be taxing. “I will say, it’s the hardest way to work,” he admits. “It never levels out, because you’re always moving progressively. There’s a different pressure to it; you can never settle.”
Jackson’s commitment to creativity has an analogue in chef Josh Walker of the brand-spanking-new Tu and perennial darling Xiao Bao Biscuit. Walker recalls first enjoying a more communal and convivial approach to eating while traveling in Asia long ago. “What struck me… was this idea of everyone sitting at the table, where we’re kind of sharing, and you’re getting a bite of this and a bite of that, and how fun and exciting that can be as an eating process.” Walker has found that his clientele has responded well to his subtle calls to embrace sharing dishes. “At both restaurants we try to mix it up, be creative, and have everything be affordable so you can come in and have four, five, or six things with a group, get to taste a lot and hopefully have a fun and enjoyable experience.”
Walker notes that the younger generation of diners seems especially comfortable with a shared dining format, a sentiment shared by many of those interviewed. Michael Shemtov, whose expertise and passion has made small-plates specialist Butcher & Bee a household name in Charleston, offers that “from the consumer perspective, sort of ‘snacking’ your way through the meal is just one more disruption that the millennials, and the generations on either side of them, are bringing to the table.” “They’re not looking for the linear experience of going out for soup, salad, appetizer, entree, dessert,” he confirms. “It almost seems like an anachronism to eat like that.”
Shemtov credits his wife with inspiring the vegetable-forward approach taken by the current iteration of Butcher & Bee. “I did it to try and impress her,” he says with a smile. As for the concept of small plates itself, Shemtov is clear. “To be totally honest, I don’t love the term ‘small plates’ because it sort of makes it sound like you’re not getting good value.” The misconception that restaurants that serve tasting portions are just raking in cash is, as well, a fallacy. “Most restaurateurs I know are just doing it out of passion and trying to make ends meet,” he shares. “If we were in it for money, we’d be doing something else.”
In the end, “small plates” as we once knew them — for better or for worse — may no longer exist at all. At least here in Charleston, what was once a trend has given way to a more relaxed, modern way of dining out — one more focused on fun, shared experiences, and chefs’ creativity, rather than on the stern performance of a rote and discretely-ordered gustatory ritual.
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