Friday, February 15, 2008

Critics' Notes: Small Plates and Service

In Seattle, where I work as a restaurant critic, as well as the whole length of the West Coast, small-plates dining has outlasted both faddishness and trend fatigue to become a permanent change in the way we dine out. Most of the new restaurants I’ve reviewed this year no longer divide their menus into starters and entrees. Now it’s “pizzette, crudi, and big plates,” or something even more ethereal like “tossed, crisped, and sparked” (still can’t figure that one out). Most of this year’s new bistros omitted divisions altogether, democratically listing $7 dishes between $16 ones for no clear reason. Ask the server how to put together a meal, and 95 percent of the time, the answer is “However you like.”

As an ADD eater who’s tired of making my way through a 20-ounce pork chop sitting on a liter of mashed potatoes, I am all for the small-plates cultural shift. My problem is that, by and large, service has still not caught up with it.

Restaurateurs and diners both like to talk about how small-plates dining is more casual. But when you tally up the check at the end of the meal, it’s not much cheaper -- and in my experience, it requires servers to be more, not less, attentive to their tables.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been seated at tiny tables (to fit the tiny plates, of course), only to have all eight of the dishes I’ve ordered show up at once, so that everything cools to lukewarm before I’ve had a chance to make my way through half the plates. I’ve begrudgingly learned to dine in 3-D, where my friends and I hold a couple of plates aloft while we pick at the rest, glaring at the party next to us in the hopes they’ll leave so we can pull a Manifest Destiny on their table.

The strongest waiters and cooks will take my order, then automatically arrange the items on it: light to heavy, raw to cooked. There may no longer be such a thing as an appetizer or an entree, but if I’m going to be paying the same prices for a meal of small plates, I expect it to be a multi-course one. Plus, the best way to sell diners more wine (and bump up the tip) is to help us move from white to red or bright to rich as the meal progresses, not just dump a bunch of different flavors on the table and let us figure out what we want to drink with it.

That old rhythm -- serve a course, wait a few minutes, check back to see how the course is, return to clear plates, wait a few minutes, serve the next course -- is gone, so servers need to learn a new one. Good waiters at small-plates restaurants pay attention to how quickly we’re eating, staggering the arrival of new plates so that we’re never overburdened, and check frequently to see whether new share plates or clean cutlery are needed. And the rarest, and best, waiters start their good service at the time we order, helping us pick out just the right number of dishes and finding a good balance of cold, hot, delicate, and hearty.

-- Jonathan Kauffman

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