I have a big appetite, but when it comes to going out for dinner, I am absolutely always down for small plates.
I love the nibbling, biting, trying, tasting, ooh'ing and aah'ing that comes with passing several different plates of food around a table of friends.
You see, I'm very fickle. I've heard this is a sad consequence of being a redhead, though I think it's probably even sadder for the people who dine with me and particularly for my lovely boyfriend (who usually gets stuck with the tab for my "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" meals). It's just so hard for me to choose one, and only one, entree at a nice restaurant.
"You mean, I have to PICK? But everything looks so good! What are you going to order? Can I have a bite? Can I have two bites? Let's just get another appetizer, I'm bored with this one."
For the food fickle, but for anyone really, I think the Spanish have the right idea with their tapas tradition. Its origins aren't exactly clear, but my favorite explanation for where tapas come from goes something like this: In medieval Spain, it was against the law to serve alcohol without food (this was important to cut down on drunken Middle Age debauchery), so bartenders would place a small dish of food, like a cover or "tapa" in Spanish, on top of a glass of sherry, wine or beer.
The American version of tapas, called simply "small plates," expands upon that snacking tradition and challenges chefs to invent tasty, satisfying dishes that can be enjoyed in just a few bites. With all the great restaurants serving small plates in the Triangle, I no longer have to whittle a tantalizing menu down to one favorite dish.
The only thing I have to decide when I'm going out for small plates is which of my Five Fave restaurants will be treating me tonight?
This is one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the Triangle. Its selection of beautifully presented, delicious small plates is exquisite. I particularly love the black bean crepe – filled with crab meat, cream cheese, lime, cilantro and salsa – and the sesame seared Ahi tuna. Both are incredibly flavorful, even though they stick to simple ingredients. The ambiance is also a winner. It's dimly candlelit with colorful, art-covered walls and a rustic wood bar. The large and inviting patio, strung all around with white lights, is the perfect place to relax with a refreshing cocktail and a wonderful meal when the weather allows.
Though Lantern is not really a small plates restaurant, the back room, which is small, dark and intimate, serves delightful appetizers until 2 a.m. The little dishes of Asian-inspired food are a delicious treat and, because it is a common stop for me when I need a late dinner, I think it qualifies for my small plates list. Two varieties of dumplings – pork and cabbage with mushroom – are warm, comforting pockets of food that set the tone for a wonderful meal. The salt and pepper shrimp is equally lovely. But there is one dish that is absolutely not be to missed, both for its delicious flavors and its beautiful presentation. The bento box, a Japanese take on a lunch box, is brimming with separate compartments of goodies that can be wrapped in nori sheets for what I like to call "roll your own sushi." It's yummy, sophisticated and so fun to eat.
For authentic Spanish food, Tasca Brava is the best in the area, so it's no wonder that goes for authentic Spanish tapas as well. This restaurant is cozy and homey – better for a quiet date than a night out with friends. But that, combined with truly special bites of food, is what lends it that romantic European flair. The croquetas de bacalao (salt cod fritters), which are on a rotating list of specials, are true Spanish delicacies. The mussels are always a winner, but be adventurous here – octopus, wild boar and smelts might sound unappealing, but when you're in Tasca Brava, you're in capable Spanish culinary hands.
bu•ku is an eclectic downtown Raleigh restaurant that specializes in global street food. I love the concept so much; I wish I'd thought of it myself. Cuisines from the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America comprise an interesting and extensive menu that will make you feel like a globetrotting foodie without leaving the Triangle. On a cold winter day, the Hot Pot will soothe whatever ails you. When you need something light, bu•ku has a selection of raw foods. I really enjoy the Filipino Lumpia ground pork with mango salad and chili. It's a great standby choice when I'm feel indecisive – it always tickles my fickle appetite!
Six Plates' menu looks exactly how it sounds – six dishes that rotate depending on the best ingredients the kitchen has on hand and a really long wine list. Luckily, they've made it easy. Each dish is paired with a recommended wine selection that best brings out the flavor profiles of both the food and the wine. The menu is different each time I go, but it always includes a flatbread topped with seasonal, local ingredients. That's my fallback choice, because, I mean, you can't really go wrong with bread, cheese and toppings. My friends keep telling me that I have to try the "lamby joes," lamb versions of sloppy joes, which are a permanent menu item, but I just can't seem to resist whatever new and exciting dish they've got among their "six plates"! I'll get to those lamby joes, eventually, I hope.
What do you think? Where do you like to go for small plates or tapas?