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The Small Plate 

How the little things make a meal

Thursday, Feb 13 2003
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A LONG, LONG TIME AGO — 30 YEARS NOW — MY first brother-in-law introduced me to a different way of eating. I remember it clearly: He and I were sitting at the island in my parents' kitchen — the island had a grill top on it — and periodically he would get up and cook something small and intense-tasting — a bit of fresh fish in soy sauce and ginger; a hot dog, likewise; some sautéed greens with garlic — it was amazing what he found in the refrigerator to mess with. We talked and ate for hours because nothing he made was big or filling. It was dinner and conversation both attenuated, leisurely. I mean, you have to like to eat and talk to appreciate this way of dining, and I'm terribly fond of both.

More recently, I went through a phase where, for over a year, I ate lunch weekly at Spago, Beverly Hills. Every Friday a friend and I settled in and ordered the same thing: a tasting menu. It changed weekly, seasonally, starting usually with chopped raw tuna in a sesame cone, say, or a translucent morsel of hamachi sashimi, some bit of protein to tell the body that it's being fed and the appetite can relax now and take its time. Then, a demitasse of soup, squash or fresh pea, and maybe some beets with goat cheese, or a small assemblage of heirloom tomatoes, or a mouthful of seared foie gras with fruit. After that, a filled pasta, agnoloti with sweet corn. All of these delectables just a few bites wide. Then some kind of line-caught fish: turbot, loup de mer or rouget, followed by fowl — guinea hen, woodcock — or maybe rabbit, then lamb or long-braised beef brisket. And when we absolutely couldn't eat another bite, the honey-lacquered duck — we'd laugh and laugh at the beautiful duck and our utter lack of appetite. Funny, though, we could always find room for dessert, a melon-scoop of sorbet and something chocolate, just a taste. Those Fridays, we ate and paused and ate as the afternoon sunlight shot sideways over the olive trees; we ate through stretches of conversation, gossip, friendly silences, each little dish a new bright splash of interest.

Unfortunately, Piero Selvaggio, of Valentino, was 18 years ahead of his time in opening the first small-plates restaurant in Los Angeles; he named it Primi, but the public didn't quite know what to do with it, and over time, the place agreeably morphed into something more familiar, i.e., meal-size entrées. Since then, other prescient restaurateurs have offered the option of small plates, and there have always been appetizers, but now, there's definitely something in the air, a paradigm shift perhaps nudged into being by the resurgence of Dr. Atkins' slimming eating methods. At any rate, the Zeitgeist has swerved away from the stodgy old square meal, the boring old food pyramids. Who says dinner has to be protein, starch and vegetable? Why not protein, protein, nuts and olives? Or vegetable, vegetable, cheese and wine?

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Along with the small plate, there comes a certain freedom. No longer do you have to commit yourself to one entire entrée — or even, one restaurant.

Small Plates and New Places

THE SANTA ANAS ARE KICKING UP, AND THE TRAFfic is one long SigAlert through the Valley. By the time the two of us finally meet up, our dinner reservations have long since expired. That's fine. We're too annoyed, too pissy now for anything so formal and serene as a sit-down. So first, we hit the new offspring of the tapas bar Cobras & Matadors, Cobra Lily on Wilshire, which is full up and noisy, and with the warm darkness of a cave. Small chandeliers trickle light over the closely packed tables; we're happy to grab seats at the bar, with its glassy, deep-green and sea-blue tiles. Los Angeles, we're reminded, is the land of beautiful people — even the bartenders . . . not to mention the gaggle of women at one end of the bar. Ed Moses the painter, tall, a bit gaunt, and looking more and more like Samuel Beckett, sits near us, waiting and drinking, drinking and waiting, politely unrecognized. We eat free olives, order small plates of lamb chops, and lomo (ham and cheese); the bartender asks us to move down to fit in more people, and rewards us for this fleeting inconvenience with champagne and juice. When our food arrives, the girls to our left approach like calm, nosing animals — tame deer. "The lentils are my favorite," sighs one. "Excellente, no?" another asks in Spanish. Each time the door opens, there's a gust of wind and more lovely faces, stylish clothes. The noise ricochets. We drink up, take another bite of lamb chop, another mouthful of crunchy lentils, and one more, then we duck out into the dry, agitating night.

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