Of all the big trends in restaurants today, none seems bigger, more influential or more meaningful than small plates.

Expect to see a lot more of them in Louisville this summer.

Pan seared lamb loin small plate from Bistro 1860
Pan seared lamb loin small plate from Bistro 1860

In a nation where many are convinced that value at restaurants means huge portions served affordably, an increasing number of diners are opting for smaller tastes of several dishes—grazing on things, really—“rather than committing to a 16-ounce pork chop and a half pound of mashed potatoes,” said Michael Crouch, executive chef and partner at Bistro 1860.

Since opening a year-and-a-half ago, the restaurant’s menu has offered three portion sizes of every dish: bite-size, appetizer and entrée.

“Between 70 and 75 percent of our customers order bite-size, and only about 7 percent order the entrée portion,” Crouch said. “Customers tell us all the time that having those options is brilliant. Those are their words, not mine.”

For decades Spaniards have eaten small plates called “tapas,” or loosely translated, small tastes on small plates originally intended to cover one’s drink and protect it from flies. Hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar has become a cultural phenomenon in Spain.

Arguably Louisville’s best example of small plate dining is Mojito Tapas Restaurant, created by Fernando Martinez and Marcos Lorenzo, when the two were partners at Havana Rumba several years ago. On any given night, the place is on a no-reservations-ever wait, which makes it hard to imagine why the concept hasn’t been copied and applied to other cuisines here.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, Asiatique chef and co-owner Peng Looi converted his fusion restaurant’s menu into a mostly small plates offering with a few entrées. Why? His wife kept telling him that when their friends dine out, they order lots of appetizers and share them.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you try a small plates concept?’” Looi said. “It’s a trend I’m seeing on other menus, too. And why not? It’s like dim sum, which has been around about 2000 years.”

But Looi acknowledges changing to small plates is due in part to his desire to indulge his creative nature.

“For customers, new is always exciting, but this also gives me a chance to play more with my food,” Looi said. “Entrées are rigid, but small plates, I can change those anytime. I can do street-style food I’ve eaten in Asia on small plates. Not on entrées.”

Looi said the restaurant’s second floor dining room has been renamed “the Chef Room,” and its traditional dining tables and seats have been replaced with lounge furniture. “We also saw how people preferred eating in our lounge downstairs, and that also led us to do this,” he said.

The menu includes a large selection of hot and cold small plates, authentic ramen dishes, and “sides and snacks.” Among them:

  • Goat cheese crabmeat, goat cheese, spicy miso aioli
  • Skirt steak tare with arugula, lemongrass chimichurri
  • Seafood with shrimp broth, shrimp, scallop, mussel, organic egg, enoki, nori
  • Lamb with roasted pepper relish, arugula, radish kimchee, brioche
  • Calamari dill panko, pickled root vegetables, spicy miso aioli

Later this month, Louvino, a wine bar and small plates concept, will open in the former De La Torre’s location. Co-owner Chad Coulter called giving customers the chance to graze and snack “a much more interesting culinary experience … that can keep people from eating more than they need. I think it’s smarter to order a few things, eat those and then if you’re still hungry, get something else. It’s certainly more fun than just ordering one thing.”

Artist's rendering of the new Louvino
Artist’s rendering of the new Louvino

Along with its small plates, Louvino will offer small tastes in the form of flights poured from a list of 40 wines also sold by the glass. The overall experience, Coulter said, is designed to introduce customers to new foods and wines by selling them small tastes of everything.

The new menu, created by executive chef Tavis Rockwell, includes some of the following:

  • Marinated steak on jalapeno hoe cake, poblano tomato sauce
  • Duck confit, flatbread, caramelized onion, arugula, fig jam, goat cheese
  • Smoked gouda hot brown mac and cheese
  • Shrimp and grit cake, spicy tomato jam, micro salad with basil lemon dressing
  • Warm Brussels sprouts salad, chili corn salsa, cilantro lime vinaigrette
  • Chocolate chunk cookie beignets, vanilla bean anglaise

Crouch, who was the longtime executive chef at Bourbons Bistro before opening Bistro 1860, admits that a small plates restaurant creates some challenges traditional eateries don’t. Guests tend to linger longer at the table, nibble some, drink some, nibble more and eat some more.

It also means the sheer volume of plates created in the kitchen is nearly triple that flowing from a traditional kitchen.

“A normal restaurant does 250 to 300 dishes a night, but now we put out 600 to 700 dishes a night, Crouch said. Not long after the restaurant opened, he said, “I doubled up on dishwashers.”

He said it also takes some coaching of diners used to one-plate-and-done dining to get the swing of small plates sampling.

“There are some who feel like they have to order everything at once, so we explain to them to just order something, see if you like it, and then if you want more and order more,” he said. “Sometimes people get intimidated by the menu, so we try to get them to relax a little bit.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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