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The Small Plate

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?

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.

Next is the ironically named Den at Opaline, a glassed-in boxlike side room. No knotty pine or taxidermy here; it's more zendo than rumpus room. The banquette is full, so we sidle up to a matte-black counter. We spy on the full dining room through breaks in the etched glass. We stop and smell the coral roses packed into goblets, and order small dishes that come in a convenient, space-saving and, to us, irritating chrome-wire plate rack — that's how tea cakes are served in twee tea shops. You can't really see ä16 what's there. The fried balls of brandade are hot, crunchier and tastier than Cobra Lily's. And I like the onion-infused chicken liver smeared on toast. But the steamed clams with artichokes are dull. Good jazz — Lou Donaldson — tumbles in the background. Oh, and look: People we know are sitting in the corner. It turns out they've been moving too; in fact, they've just come from where we're going next. It's as if some subliminal signal's been given; we've all started eating in small, concentrated punches.

Suzanne Goin's brand-new AOC manages, somehow, to have both the spare, empty, high-ceilinged atmosphere of a train station and the clubby closeness of a library — parchment-colored rooms with wraparound dark-wood shelves filled with wine. Twinned, hanging, oblong linen lamps throw a soft light. AOC (for Appellation Originee Controlee, the quality-control stamp found on French wines and dairy products) is packed to the gills. We squeeze along the bar, admire the intricate wine-tap setup, and scan the long, skinny menu that is composed entirely of little dishes to mix 'n' match. Our bartender — several preside down this long wooden expanse — is Tom Hunter, and he's a pro: intelligent, informed, bright-eyed, personable. We start with octopus salad with preserved lemon; this is Goin's cooking at its best, citric and chewy, blooming with flavor. Each dish, in fact, is a kind of small, intense study, a meditation on a subject. If those dark, luminous still lifes — those Zurbaráns, for example — were edible, they'd taste like this. Long-cooked cavalo negro, dark and warm and soft, plumps up in the mouth, then dissolves. Arroz nero, black rice with calamari, is cooked in the dry heat of the wood oven — its pleasures are ancient, satisfying, profound.

Crammed at the bar next to us are Josh and Elizabeth. He's a screenwriter and looks like a young Nathanael West; she's a beautiful waitress too modest to speak of other aspirations. We trade bites, octopus for sweet potato. My friend has a "flight" of sparkling wines, 2 ounces each of four sparklers; the blanc de blanc is his favorite (Tom Hunter's too), though the lightly alcoholic sydre (French cider, a mere 4 percent), he says, is like biting into a good windfall in an old apple orchard.

Tonight, we've run into people we know and met others. We've taste-tested much of the Mediterranean — Spain, Provence, Italy — the wind has pushed us around the city, and now we redeem our car from the valet and head home in blue-black darkness on gloriously emptied freeways, the wind still giving shoves, the stars scoured clean and white.

Happy Hour in Pasadena

HAPPY HOUR — IF THAT ISN'T THE most misnamed time of day, those several hours when blood sugar sinks and drags the spirit with it. Whether it's 4 to 6, 5 to 7, 3 to 8 . . . however you circumscribe it, what you have is still the post-work, pre-dinner slump, the cocktail and/or witching hour. Some like to drink it away; others, like me, to chew their way through.

At the bar in Xiomara, the bartender muddles mint and limes, then feeds lengths of sugar cane into a stainless-steel machine. Out comes a cloudy off-white liquid, guarapo, which is collected and poured atop the bruised leaves and fruit. These mojitos come in comically slanting glasses — they look like leaning towers, trees in a wind, the hair on the Katzenjammer Kids. It's early evening, the sleek restaurant is quiet. Let's have ceviche, I say. Scallops and shrimp and firm white fish brined in lemon-lime-orange juice, with tomato, cilantro and buttery ripe avocado. At a catered party given for me once, there was a huge bowl of this ceviche, and the next day, three different friends called inquiring as to the whereabouts of any leftovers. Tonight, the bartender's Cuban mother, he tells us, calls ceviche juice "the eye of the tiger." The hit of protein, and big bright flavors, do raise our spirits as the guarapo adjusts our blood levels. Feeling better already, we climb off our barstools, quaff the remaining eye of the tiger, and head out.

Long before it was a fad, the original Border Grill offered half a menu's worth of small plates. We scale the barstools of the new Pasadena branch, scan the various round, bubbled-glass bottles of rare tequilas — they look beautifully crude, dug up, archaeological — and opt for juice and beer. And halibut ceviche verde — we don't want to lose that protein high. This ceviche looks like a mound of guacamole, but beneath all the green mash is juice-cooked snow-white fish, a wallop of garlic and the flavors of greenness — tomatillo, cilantro, lime. Not much eye of the tiger, but we remedy that with a shot of sangrita, a nonalcoholic chaser to tequila. The shot glass, rimmed in salt, holds a hit of pure concentrated flavor: lime, pineapple, orange juice, paprika and enough Tabasco to make your lips sweat. Oh, and we also have a quesadilla with chicken adobado — two flour tortillas filled with what tastes like rich, slow-cooked, caramelized pot roast. How attractive the restaurant looks from the bar, with its weightless, boxy, linen hanging lamps, the fanciful murals, walls the color of terra-cotta clay, fired pottery and cooked pinto beans.

Bodega, just across the way from Border Grill, is a wine bar of the streamlined, mainstream corporate ilk, the French wine bar and tapas bars reduced — ah, capitalism — to a salable concept: small food menus; lengthy, even exhaustive, wine lists. Bodega's pretty enough — industrial hip, with requisite ductwork, unfinished edges (plywood showing), a big glass-and-metal coil-up door to the patio, two small side rooms as red and clubby as wombs. Behind the bar, wine bottles are stuck, cork first, into a vast, etched Plexiglas pegboard.

Even as the small-plates-wine-bar trend begins to take off, it's already being refined and reduced, denatured and commercialized for tender, squeamish all-American palates and sensibilities. Don't worry, kids, nothing liverish or too fishy here at Bodega, just ultrageneric pizza, and a handful of small plates (a cheese plate with havarti and crackers; prosciutto and mozzarella) designed by an unnamed restaurant consultant who, the friendly jock bartender claims, worked at Spago and Patina. We eat red peppers filled with a silken mousse of goat cheese and avocado — what's not to like?

Seaside Grazing

AFTER WATCHING THE STATE OF the Union address, we want something to match our mood — something seriously fishy. So it's the newly configured Ballona Fish Market, the most radical restaurant remodel in years. Formerly Rox, Hans Rockenwagner's Marina del Rey-based adventure in postmodernism and global dining has been visually transformed into a seaside holiday cartoon: a white picket fence outside, a silly interior of fake small-town clapboard buildings that are part playhouse, part theme park, quaint enameled pails and buckets, and Cape Cod whiteness.

We perch in the bar like gulls on pilings — who wants a boring old table? — where Washington's Governor Gary Locke is delivering his Democratic response sans sound. We've missed happy hour listening to war talk — and therefore passed up the bargain $5 pot stickers and salmon spring rolls. (Rockenwagner's smart fusion cooking is still alive amid the clutter of seaside Americana.) I don't, as a rule, like crab cakes, but Ballona's are first-rate, piping hot and 90 percent sweet crab with a bread-crumb crust and a beautiful, gingery lemongrass aioli for dipping. Forget meddlesome wars and further class divisions; let's go for peace and prosperity, so that more people — ideally everybody — can afford such small, intense pleasures. Let them eat crab cakes! (. . . and ahi tuna tartare on thin, crunchy hazelnut toast . . . and clams steamed with spicy Italian sausage.)

At Axe in Venice, the counter is full — the whole place is full — everyone intelligent-looking and dryly stylish. The words screenplay and designer keep drifting up from nearby tables as we wait and wait for a seat. Meanwhile, who's there, happily seated and eating, but that painter of plaid, Ed Moses. I'm not stalking him, really I'm not. And damn the two tables of women both chatting and chatting long after they're done eating while we're shifting foot to foot on the cold, hard, concrete floor. We've darn near built up a whole new hunger after 40 minutes of waiting for them to finish their conversation.

Chef-owner Joanna Moore is another old hand at the small dish; she groks restaurant picnics as well as anyone. We share the antipasti plate, which is really a plate of elements: whipped goat cheese, lovely asparagus scattered with chopped egg, a pink clump of prosciutto, sautéed pea tendrils, a spoonful of cheese-rich polenta, baked beets, arugula salad. Add an order of mixed olives and spicy candied nuts, and the cheese plate — a good, aged French goat, sweet Gorgonzola, a firm Gouda. All washed down with cold mint tea.

Walking back to the car, we can't resist ducking into Primitivo, a new wine bistro serving tapas, and further proof that this blossoming new trend is already decisively mainstream. Primitivo — what a silly name for this predictably chandeliered, generic-looking bar 'n' supper house. The whole scene is a bit bored — it's Tuesday, after all, and almost too late for anything to happen. At least the food comes out quickly. A cheese plate — seven or eight cheeses and a salad — is set down by a runner. We recognize Manchego, a Brie, a good farmhouse Cheddar type . . . but where is there someone to enlighten us? Short ribs are really an entrée masquerading as tapas: deeply tasty braised beef, potatoes and carrots. The grilled quail is amusing, mostly because it's presented in such a wanton, anthropomorphic pose.

Driving home, we think there has to be a name for this kind of eating. Grazing is too passé. Wine-bar hopping? Plate crawling? How about this: attention-deficit dining.

Cobra Lily, 8442 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 651-5051. Opaline, 7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-6725. AOC, 8022 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 653-6359. Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 796-2520. Border Grill, 260 E. Colorado Blvd., No. 203 (in the Paseo Colorado), Pasadena, (626) 844-8988. Bodega, 260 E. Colorado Blvd., No. 208 (in the Paseo Colorado), Pasadena, (626) 793-4300. Ballona Fish Market, 13455 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey, (310) 822-8979. Axe, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 664-9787. Primitivo Wine Bistro, 1025 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 396-5353. Spago, 176 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880.

DEBUNKING THE FOOD PYRAMID

HOW DO YOU EAT SMALL PLATES AT HOME? FIRST, STOP thinking entrée and start thinking tastes and bites. Instead of a dominant protein component surrounded by little satellite side dishes, consider making only satellite dishes — just give each of them the depth and intensity, the punch and interest value, of an entrée. Imagine tapas, meze, antipasti, Japanese country-style dishes — dishes designed to be shared, not eaten in a lump sum. Cheeses, olives, pickles, cured meats and fish, other sharply flavored, shareable products. Then mix 'n' match.

I recently bought a whole foie gras. Nobody can eat more than a few bites of foie gras — or they shouldn't. Foie gras, by its very nature, is a small plate. I seared slices on demand (it was, essentially, like searing ice) and served it with pre-grilled slices of apple and pear. Meanwhile, my eight dinner guests busied themselves with other small plates: dishes of olives, picholine and niçoise. Manchego cheese with sliced membrillo, a Spanish quince paste. Borrowing from Opaline's chef David Lentz, I served other assorted cheeses (Gruyère, Etorki, an Irish blue cheese and a sheep's milk Brie) with chestnut honey, which really ignites their flavors. I put out a fresh, fluffy Corsican bruccia cheese — as they do in Corsica — with fig jam. There were also fresh dressed greens, a beet-and-horseradish salad and a risi bisi (a risotto made with fresh peas and bits of prosciutto) — all bright with flavor and made in quantities that would normally serve four people.

Atkins dieters can happily embrace small plates: Try fresh bufala mozzarella with basil and a good olive oil. Chicken drummies barbecued in the oven. Steamed zucchini dressed with oil, lemon juice, mint and chives. Grilled merguez sausages. On and on, one dish at a time.

—Michelle Huneven

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