17 April 2013

DINING AFTER 'SMART CASUAL' PART III: Small Plates, Big Clatter


 
"LOBSTER ROLL green curry, Thai basil" @ Hinoki & the Bird. March 2013. Photo by author.
To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after Smart Casual.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….

In “The Backlash Against Entrées Rages On” (Eater.com, 3-26-13), Hillary Dixler reports on the further erasure of main courses from trendsetting-restaurant menus and the latest flare-up in the controversy over it.

Those who’ve insisted on the superiority of the tapas-style all-small-plates format include chef Alex Stupak, Bloomberg critic Ryan Sutton and Esquire’s Tom Judot. Other chefs are mentioned as defenders of this position in practice, even if not on Twitter and the like. In the middle of the debate, there are those, such as Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold and Washington Post writer Tom Sietsema. They haven’t been particularly sanguine on the matter, but have still declared the death of the entrée a near fait accompli. Still standing up and fighting for the entrée, against the tide, we find current New York Times critic Pete Wells and former New York Times critic Frank Bruni.

My serving of "KALE Crispy and Raw, Curried Almonds, Pecorino, Red Wine Vinaigrette" @ Hinoki & the Bird. Photo by author.
On the debate that Dixler deflty describes, I have my own view: Notice that no chefs are on the side of the entrée and that the reasoning used by chefs is unique to them. They like small plates because they spur their own creativity and prevent them from getting bored. Witness a tweet Dixler quotes from chef Stupak in response to a question about whether or not his restaurant Empellon is serving entrees: “[N]o longer. I can’t stand them so I’m never cooking them again.” In another tweet quoted by Dixler, the chef stated that small plates “are more fun to work with then [sic] 6-8 ounces of clunky protein.” Apparently, chefs David Myers and Kuniko Yagi of the Los Angeles restaurant I recently visited, poetically named Hinoki & the Bird, agree. Their menu has no entrees but instead novel categories such as "Fun Bites" and "Inspiration."

Meanwhile, those who have strong feelings in the opposite direction, Wells and Bruni, make arguments that represent interests of diners that conflict with chefs’ desire for attention and creative development. They dare to suggest that they, as diners, would like to be satiated by a meal. They entertain the idea of being able, when dining, to relax. As Wells points out, small plates can create stress: “[J]ust as you realize how much you’re enjoying a dish [at a table for four], the person next to you has managed to stab the last forkful.” 

"Sambal Skate Wing" @ Hinoki & the Bird. Photo by author.
The extreme ends of this debate reveal a tug of wills between chefs and diners. Small plates, which arrive piecemeal in more informal situations and in a tight orchestrated succession in more ceremonious cases, constantly interrupt diners to pay attention to chefs. Entrées, in the old-school sense, buy the diner some time to ignore the chef, to put the chef in the background while the diner focuses on their company at the table or—god forbid—ponders matters unrelated to food.

This debate, the power of chefs it represents, is deeply relevant to the story I tell in Smart Casual. The rising economic and taste-making influence of star chefs has resulted in a wide variety of contemporary restaurant features from exhibition kitchens to the elaboration of tasting menus.

This latest kerfuffle over the death of the entrée shows that the power of chefs shows no sign of diminishing. It also reveals that, as with every imposition of will by one faction of a pluralistic society, there’s bound to be a counterpoint.

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