In Spain, they are called tapas. In Italy, they say antipasti, while in Greece the word is meze. No matter how you may say it, these small plates pack a big punch when it comes to flavor and culinary creativity.
Whereas there is a long tradition of scaled-down dishes throughout the Mediterranean and European countries, up until relatively recently, small plates in America have translated simply into appetizers for diners. Often, these are nothing more than scaled-down versions of available entrées or glorified side dishes.
However, in the last several years, chefs across the country, and the Grand Strand, have embraced small plates as legitimate menu offerings. These restaurant experts have risen to the challenge of presenting tastes and ingredients from around the world, eagerly serving up these small savories to showcase their cooking talents.
Foodies in the know turn to the talented kitchen of City Bar in Myrtle Beach as home base for some of the best and most innovative offerings of small plates. Kurt D’Aurizio, Director of Cuisine with Diving Dining Group (owners of City Bar), says that small plates have been part of City Bar’s mix for years.
“We definitely wanted to bring something new to the marketplace. We put together a menu of small plates that were unique, exciting and very metropolitan,” says D’Aurizio. From the time that City Bar opened as part of Town Square, and especially after its move to its present location in 2005, small plates have held an integral position on the menu.
Speaking as a chef, D’Aurizio says that the allure of small plates is that “you get to be creative in both putting a dish together and in the appearance of it. You don’t have to stick to a meat-vegetable-protein formula. There’s great flexibility for a chef.”
D’Aurizio says that small plates are great for diners because they are a fun way to eat. “You can get a variety of tastes that can be shared; it’s a communal experience sharing food with someone else. You can experience it together.”
According to D’Aurizio, there is a difference between small plates and traditional tapas. “I think traditional tapas usually have one, two or three ingredients. And, they are just a couple of bites. Oftentimes, it is bar food, too. Small plates are more complex, with larger portions that present a contrast of textures, flavors and colors.” D’Aurizio says that some of City Bar’s small plates may be the same size as traditional appetizers, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The success of a small plate offering depends on the food making sense together, he says. “You can’t think of it like a small dinner portion. The dish must really be thought through, with all the parts complementing and enhancing each other. You just can’t scale down an entrée.”
Small plate favorites at City Bar include Shrimp Rockefeller, where oysters give way to fresh local shrimp paired with spinach, cream and Pernod liqueur. They are wrapped with bacon, topped with a citrusy butter sauce and accompanied with a potato puree. “Each ingredient is important and means something,” says D’Aurizio.
Another favorite is Beef Tenderloin Killington that features a 3- to 4-ounce tenderloin served with Grafton cheddar cheese, asparagus, sundried tomatoes and a red wine demiglace, again with all parts working in harmony for a taste explosion.
For Eric Stancell, head chef and kitchen manager of Travinia Italian Kitchen at The Market Common in Myrtle Beach, small plates “provide an opportunity for better presentation. Working with fewer ingredients requires more creativity. You really are making more with less.”
Stancell often uses high-end ingredients in small plates, since they are the central, standout star. “There’s not a lot of hiding going on. Flavors, colors and textures are pronounced.” A favorite ingredient of Stancell? “Pancetta. I love pancetta! It has such a depth of flavor; I can often use it instead of salt or other seasonings.”
A small plate in Stancell’s hands is often a small piece of edible architecture, too. “You want to build the plate up, with things that are easy to maneuver. Ingredients like spinach or other greens just don’t work. They collapse under the other parts.”
Customer favorites include Stancell’s Red Snapper Carpaccio, or other small plate savories made with fresh, local seafood. Another small plate hit is Travinia’s Don & Norma’s Veal Sage Ravioli. This surprisingly light dish features veal-stuffed ravioli with ricotta cheese, sage, herbs, mushrooms and spinach all in an asiago cheese cream sauce. “It’s very popular,” says Stancell. “I like to do a spin on it and use lobster, too. It’s versatile and always pleasing.”
“Small plates offer guests a more well-rounded idea of what the chef is trying to accomplish with the dish,” says John Leichty, executive chef with Tommy Bahama’s, also in The Market Common. “What works is using one central ingredient to really showcase it. Plus, a small plate really demonstrates the technique and talent of a chef.” What doesn’t work? “A lot of sauce! No doubt. You just can’t have sauce everywhere.”
With his culinary forte being fine Southern cuisine, Leichty relishes in taking classic Lowcountry and other Dixie cooking standards and putting a spin on them. “I love working with bacon and heirloom tomatoes. They both can have such depth of flavor, but still retain that note of down-home comfort.”
Popular tropics-inspired small plates at Tommy Bahama’s include fish tacos, scallop sliders and quesadillas. A standout is the Big Island Goat Cheese, featuring warm goat cheese encrusted with macadamia nuts and topped with sweet soy glaze, accompanied by a mango salsa. It is definitely island time for the taste buds.
“Our World Famous Coconut Shrimp is the number one seller in every one of our 12 restaurants,” says Leichty. “Each shrimp is breaded by hand with a beer batter and covered in sweet shredded coconut.”
Beef Tenderloin Killington
Ingredients: (Appetizer, serves 4)
1/4 pound Vermont sharp cheddar cheese
4 ounces sundried tomatoes
1/2 bunch fresh asparagus
4 3-4 ounce pieces beef tenderloin filet
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup beef demiglace
Slice the cheese into thin slices. Soak sundried tomatoes in warm water to soften and slice. Cut 1 1/2-inch tip off of asparagus, blanch and shock. Season beef with salt and pepper, sear for one minute on both sides. Remove to baking dish. Lay asparagus and sundried tomato in alternating strips on top, top with cheese. Broil to melt cheese. Spoon demiglace onto plates and place tenderloin in center, serve.
Ingredients: (Entree, serves 3-4)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup egg yolks
1 cup beer
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound shredded coconut
35 shrimp size 16/20 count (per pound)
1 cup flour for dredging
Mix flour, egg, beer, sugar, salt and pepper until flour is well incorporated. To batter shrimp, first dredge in flour, then in the batter, then into the coconut, pressing gently to make the coconut adhere to the shrimp. Each shrimp will take about 1/2 ounce of the batter, 1/2 tablespoon flour and 1/2 ounce of the coconut. Fry at 325 degrees for 2-3 minutes.
Travinia Italian Kitchen
Ingredients: (Appetizer, serves 2)
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons diced red onions
4 ounces lemon butter
1 ounce Anissette liquor
9 herb toast points
Place mussels in a hot pan. Add white wine. Cover, simmer 2 minutes. Add diced roma tomatoes and red onions. Add lemon butter and hit with a 1 ounce Anissette. Serve with toast points.
A small plate can be ordered at Rioz in the bar only. It consists of two filet mignon wrapped in bacon, two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, two Brazilian sausages, two chicken legs and two pork ribs. It is served with potato salad.