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Traveling Gourmet: Restaurants with Great Small Plates

by Rich Rubin
Restaurants with Great Small Plates

From Spanish tapas and Chinese dim sum to Turkish meze, some cuisines have always embraced the idea of delicious small plates.

All the restaurants we’re visiting have great small plates that are the perfect size for really experiencing the chef’s creativity.

One of my favorite things to do in a restaurant is order a series of small plates. If I’m with a friend, we can share, and if I’m alone, I can really sample what’s on offer. I remember a chef saying to me once, “The main courses have to have a more general appeal, but it’s in the appetizers that I can really be creative.” From Spanish tapas and Chinese dim sum to Turkish meze, some cuisines have always embraced this idea. Now, however, a wide range of restaurants have a great assortment of small plates, so you can explore to your heart’s content without overfilling yourself (or totally emptying your wallet). Sure, some of these spots have great main courses as well, but all the places we’re visiting have a tempting array of dishes that are the perfect size for really experiencing the chef’s creativity.

Fatteh at Oleana | Restaurants with Great Small Plates

Fatteh at Oleana
Photo: Greg Powers

I still remember asking my friends Pat and David who are longtime Cambridge residents: “Is Oleana good?” Their response was immediate: “Better than good!” Pay a visit and you’ll immediately see that my fellow traveling gourmets know their stuff! Take a seat in the comfy interior, perhaps by the fireplace, or on the cozy covered patio that’s perfect for a mild Massachusetts day. James Beard award winning chef Ana Sortun offers her take on Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, including, of course, plenty of meze both hot and cold. Here Borek (a traditionally cigar-shaped meze) is made with broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi, while kebabs of Vermont quail are seasoned with the Middle Eastern spice blend Baharat and livened with bayberries and pistachios (and a perfect presentation that’s not your usual kebab-ish look). The moussaka meze is made of honeynut squash, lamb, and kasseri cheese, for a dish that is an amazing take on this familiar classic. Even something as simple as whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers is a wonderful blend of flavors. Meanwhile, please don’t miss the Fatteh: crispy mushrooms, caramelized onions, pine nuts, and yogurt, with sumac and Romanesco sauce that’s as beautiful on the plate as it is on your palate. Do save room for dessert, since the Baked Alaska, with coconut ice cream and passionfruit caramel, is enough to convince even a non-coconut lover like me (well, I DO love passionfruit). Another great choice is the Turkish-style profiteroles, which use halvah, sesame caramel, and brown butter crème to perfectly span the continents. Meze are a lovely small plate tradition from Turkey, and in Sortun’s hands they spin off the traditional and become a real joy to behold. 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge Massachusetts. Tel: 617-661-0505. www.oleanarestaurant.com

Ricotta Gnocchi at Of A Kind | Restaurants with Great Small Plates

Ricotta Gnocchi at Of A Kind

In Of a Kind, located in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood, California and the Mediterranean merge flawlessly. Take a seat in the softly lit, wood-toned room, and you’ll soon see that while Chef Brandon Duley offers a handful of “main course plates,” the small plates are really the way to go here. Based on seasonal avail- ability, some of the dishes I enjoy might not be there when you visit, but you can always count on amazements. You might start with Heirloom Carrots, their flavor deepened by hints of citrus and basil. Tuna Tartare is a little “cake” with arugula, anchovies, avocado, mustard, and little gem lettuce—a combination that sounds out there, but works to perfection. Definitely try the Chicken Shawarma Hummus, a dish my server assures me will never leave the menu: this Middle Eastern favorite is livened with Castelvetrano olives, pine nuts, and preserved lemons. It’s served with wood-fired pita that for me could be a meal in itself! Labneh, mean- while, is a surprise revelation, mixed with a blackberry-currant gastrique, house-made dukkah, and a hint of mint. I look at my dining companion, he looks at me, and we simultaneously say, “Oh. My. God.” Ricotta Gnocchi have an unusual sauce of corn jus, with a little pick- led corn, guajillo peppers, cilantro, and just a splash of crème fraiche, while summer squash, done as a “lemon tempura,” surpasses any squash dish I’ve ever had, with Fresno chiles adding a hint of heat and an indescribably good tarragon tahini. Duley not only makes me love my beloved dishes even more, he makes me rethink some I’d thought weren’t my favorites. Oh, and then there’s that Pan au Chocolat for dessert, a rich square of brioche, drenched in butter, topped with ice cream, dusted with cocoa powder, and (in my server’s words) “just a kiss of orange.” After eating so many small plates, we totally don’t have room for it. We agree on this. Yet, we somehow manage to make it disappear. When food is this good, it’s a crime not to indulge. 233 Clayton St., Denver Colorado. Tel: 303-551-1600. www.claytondenver.com/food-and-drink/of-a-kind

Manchego-Cheese at Boogaloo | Restaurants with Great Small Plates

Manchego-Cheese at Boogaloo
Photo: Courtesy of Bulrush

With its wide array of Caribbean/Creole specialties, Boogaloo, located in St. Louis County’s Maplewood area, is the perfect spot to get a taste of these piquant and appealing cuisines. Take a seat at one of the wooden tables under- neath the pressed tin ceilings, or sidle up to the bar, where a series of swings await you for a fun alternative to the usual restaurant seating. Music is low-key and nice, and everything about the place says “mellow and fun.” Start off with a traditional mojito or caipirinha, or perhaps a house special like the Maplewood Hurricane, a (literally) intoxicating blend of Captain White, Captain Black, captain 100, passion fruit and orange juices, and Grenadine. Then the culinary wonders start arriving: New Orleans Style BBQ Shrimp has just the right amount of heat in its dusky sauce. Plantains are interestingly paired with a red pepper romesco and a crumble of goat cheese for an unexpected and delicious combination. Empanadas come filled with spinach and artichokes (this one has an amazing caramelized onion/yogurt sauce) or crab, which is a little spicy and accompanied by smooth black beans for contrast. Brazil Nut Encrusted Manchego Cheese has everything a person could possible want: cheese, nuts, rich romesco, a drizzle of chimichurri. They’re not shy about mixing culinary cultures: hummus, for instance is curried here, and comes with Jamaican flatbread. All in all, you can’t really go wrong with anything you order, service is super-pleasant, and you’ll enjoy this gastronomic journey throughout the southern U.S., Caribbean, and, well, the world. 7344 Manchester, Maplewood, Missouri. Tel: 314-645-4803. www.boogaloostlouis.com

Related: World Eats | St. Louis, MO

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