The chefs of Oak Hill CC and La Grange CC found that small-plate success is largely dependent on responding to member preference.
Small plates and downsized dishes are ubiquitous. They cater to members looking for smaller portions, as well as those looking to dance around a menu and try multiple dishes at once. Chefs also love them as a way to try new and interesting ingredients and techniques.
According to Technomic’s recently released “2017 Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report,” small plates continue to proliferate on menus and are helping to change meal dynamics.
“Preference is growing for meals that include several smaller-portioned or shareable dishes, instead of those focused on a single entree,” Kelly Weikel, Director of Consumer Insights at Technomic, said when the report was released.
This is true at both Oak Hill Country Club (Fitchburg, Mass.) and La Grange (Ill.) Country Club, where small plates and starters are satisfying members who increasingly opt for dishes that feature a variety of flavors.
In response, the clubs’ executive chefs, Scott Lagasse, CEC, of Oak Hill and Eric Wiemeyer of La Grange, offer an ever-changing list of small plates and starters that resonate with members. Here are seven small-plate dishes that have proved to be especially popular at their clubs:
1. Seared Tuna Tacos
“Our older members just don’t have the appetites they used to,” says Lagasse, who has been with Oak Hill for four months. “Until we introduced smaller portions, they wouldn’t dine at the club as frequently. Now, with smaller dishes, such as our seared tuna tacos, they’re eating with us more frequently and ordering from the small-plates selection.”
Lagasse’s tuna tacos (see photo, above) start with seared-in-sesame-oil tuna that is then piled atop micro greens, chopped tricolor grape tomatoes, pickled red onion and fresh avocado. The tacos are garnished with a spicy wasabi sour cream.
2. Fresh Deep-Fried Oysters
At a recent golf event at Oak Hill, members decided to order a number of small plates to further complement their meal. Lagasse’s deep-fried oysters were the group’s favorite.
“Members know that we get our seafood fresh daily, so small plates like a seared scallops over a beet risotto or a deep-fried oyster go over really well,” says Lagasse, who does about $1.3 million in annual F&B at Oak Hill, which has 500 members.
Lagasse serves the oysters with micro-greens and a tomato salad tossed with a citrus vinaigrette.
“At my previous club [Lexington Country Club, Fort Myers, Fla.], the small-plates menu actually increased our check averages, because the members would use them almost as a tapas-style menu,” he adds. “They’d order a whole bunch of dishes and share them among the group.”
Four months in at Oak Hill, Lagasse has learned that freshness is key to small-plates success. “[Our] members don’t necessarily want really modern food with super-complicated plate presentations,” he says. “They are more focused on quality and freshness.”
At Oak Hill, what’s old is sometimes new. A few weeks ago, on a whim, Lagasse decided to menu escargot for $17 as a small-plate special. He did it on a whim and went into it with pretty low expectations. What happened shocked him.
“Members bought the hell out of it,” he reports. “We went through fifty orders in two nights. I think it was a novelty, because they haven’t seen escargot on a menu in a long time.”
This thinking now underscores how Lagasse will use his small-plates menu going forward. It will change often and feature familiar, but fun dishes.
“You have to play to your audience,” he says. “Keep trying different things and let your experiments with small plates help guide you.”
4. Portuguese Chicken Skewer
At La Grange CC, globally inspired small plates do especially well and allow Wiemeyer to “take the temperature” of his membership on a dish or a cooking technique before he adds it to the menu.
For his Portugese chicken skewer, Wiemeyer soaks the chicken in a variation of a peri peri marinade that he makes with fresno chilies instead of bird’s eye chilies, because they’re more readily available. The end result is the perfect balance of spice from the pepper, tang from the vinegar and freshness from the citrus.
“It’s good for the members to have a lot of choices, but small plates are hugely helpful to us in the kitchen,” says Wiemeyer, who has been with the club for three years and does about $2 million in annual F&B. “We can see what the member response is on a dish before we add it to our regular menu, [And] if it doesn’t go over that well, but a few members like it, we know that it might be better served at the chef’s table.”
5. Duck Sausage
Execution is especially critical with small plates, as members expect the dish to land on the table within minutes of ordering.
“Our fish purveyor suggested a frozen duck sausage and we decided to give it a try as a small plate,” says Wiemeyer. “Because it’s purchased, we’re not dumping a ton of labor into making our own sausage. Our membership wouldn’t support that kind of program at this time. So this is the perfect middle ground; it’s easy but also unique and flavorful. It’s a win for everyone.”
6. Kung Pao Shrimp
La Grange CC typically menus five small plates, and most members order a handful of dishes to make up a meal.
“It’s nice to see them try something outside their comfort zone,” says Wiemeyer. “There’s nothing wrong with shrimp cocktail, but there are so many other ways to make shrimp, like our kung pao shrimp, for example. Our members are comfortable trying new applications when it’s a small plate, because it’s a relatively easy commitment. Plus, they trust that the dishes we menu are going to be delicious.”
7. Korean Short Ribs
“I’m Korean, so I grew up eating a lot of classic Korean dishes like short ribs [see photo, top left],” says Wiemeyer. “At first I was hesitant to introduce these flavors to members at the club, but small plates are the perfect channel to test the waters.”
He soon discovered that La Grange members genuinely enjoy Asian flavors and tend to order them whenever they’re menued.
“Small plates also allow my cooks to come up with dishes to see how the membership responds,” says Wiemeyer. “My executive sous chef, Robert Dudek, is so creative and so different from me in all the right ways. He’s great at creating new things that are huge on flavor and make for a perfect small plate.”
Dudek and Weimeyer will brainstorm small-plate ideas during lulls in service. This gives them a chance to bounce ideas off other cooks and truly turn the menu into a team effort.
“There’s a lot of collaboration in our kitchen,” says Weimeyer. “That’s often how some of the best small plates get their start.”