Whether it’s to help them gain exposure to new flavors and ingredients, control their portion sizes, or share their dining experience with friends, club chefs are responding to their members’ growing preference for finding good things in smaller culinary packages.
When the Detroit (Mich.) Athletic Club (DAC) opened its new Stadium Club rooftop restaurant in October of last year, Executive Chef Kevin Brennan designed a menu that is predominantly small plates, with a only a few full-sized entrees.
|Summing It Up
• Small plates are on-trend.
• Diners like more tastes per meal.
• Chefs are taking small plates way beyond chicken wings and sliders.
• Small-plate creations can be simple or complex.
“We have a fine-dining Grill and we wanted this new restaurant to be a more casual, contemporary concept, while still maintaining the same thought and execution processes that go into our fine-dining menu,” Brennan explains. “Like our full-size entrees, our small plates are made from scratch and each dish requires multiple steps—maybe five to seven touches each—to prepare.”
Initially, Brennan reports, he was concerned that the Stadium Club might cannibalize covers for the Grill—but that worry has proved to be unfounded.
“We haven’t lost any covers from the Grill and we’re seeing a larger number of our younger members dining here since we opened the Stadium Club,” he says. “We’re tickled with the results.”
Actually, DAC’s Grill has offered a variation of small plates itself for the past seven years. If diners want to combine smaller portions of two entrees on one plate—say a Wagyu steak and a piece of perch —they can order what Brennan calls a “duet.” Duets such as sautéed chicken breast and shrimp scampi, or pan-seared filet mignon and panko-crusted crab cake, are also available on the club’s banquet menu.
In addition to the duets, members have the option to order petite portions of many of the regular entrées on the Grill’s menu. Eighty percent of the entrees on the menu can be served in small-plate portions, according to Brennan.
Small in Many Shapes
DAC’s Stadium Club features 16 small plates on its menu, including four different kinds of house-cut French fries: rosemary garlic, poutine, truffle with lemon aioli, and buffalo. One of the most popular small-plate items is the mini (four-inch) tacos, which Brennan prepares in two ways. One has Angus flat iron steak, pickled red onions, queso fresco and chimichurri, served on a fresh corn shell that he sources from a local Mexican market. The other variation uses pork with a truffle barbeque sauce, cole slaw and pico de gallo.
Tickling Their Tastebuds
On the first Friday of every month, Executive Chef Chris Nealon throws a tasting party for members of the Montrêux Golf & Country Club in Reno, Nev., that provides a sneak peak of items that Nealon plans to add to his Clubhouse dining room menu.
“It’s a standing cocktail party where we pass around small bites of food for them to try, and ask them for their feedback,” Nealon says. “We’ve been doing these tastings for two years, and our members really look forward to them.”
“During the tasting, they’re eating, drinking and laughing—and, afterwards, they continue doing all three in the dining room over dinner,” he reports.
Originally, Brennan served one taco per small plate, but he has since increased that amount to two. “It was hard for our members to share a single taco, and the second taco adds value to the plate,” he explains.
Another favorite is the signature fried green tomatoes small plate, with lemon aioli, roasted red pepper ketchup, pesto and goat cheese. Brennan also offers unique slider selections, including perch with remoulade sauce and jalapeno crab with lemon aioli and crispy pepperoni. He even had a well-known local company create a three-inch hot dog that he serves in two different styles—chipotle with black bean salsa, and Detroit-style, with Coney chili.
Cheese is the star of two other small-plate specialties at the Stadium Club. Goat cheese toast is made on artisan bread topped with honey, pears, walnuts and thyme. A “Michigan cheese gratin” comes on a crostini, with sun-dried tomato-olive salad.
Small plates at the Stadium Club are priced at $4 to $9. In addition to those on the menu, several small plates are featured on the restaurant’s daily-special chalkboard.
To keep the small-plates menu fresh, Brennan tweaked it at the end of January, three months after the Stadium Club opened, and plans to change it again in April. “We want to keep the menu seasonal,” he says.
Big and Growing Demand
When the National Restaurant Association surveyed nearly 1,600 professional chefs for its 2016 “What’s Hot” list, 75% of them cited small plates as either on-trend or a perennial favorite. And like Brennan and the DAC, many other clubs and their chefs are embracing this trend, for many good reasons. It’s a way to encourage diners to be a little more adventuresome without committing to a full-size entree, or to enjoy a light bite if that’s all they crave, or to pass a number of plates around the table, so they and their friends or family can sample a variety of different dishes.
The trend has become pervasive enough, in fact, that it’s not being confined just to casual or bar-menu settings. During the peak activity season of late May through October at Montrêux Golf & Country Club in Reno, Nev., small plates now account for between 25% to 30% of Executive Chef Chris Nealon’s fine-dining Clubhouse menu. And over the past year, he has increased the number of small plates on that menu, in response to their popularity.
“Some groups will order a bunch of [small plates] as appetizers and then dive into entrees; others will just have drinks with them and call them a meal,” Nealon says.
At Montrêux, Nealon sells a lot of Wagyu sliders and “a ton” of chicken wings. But he also likes to get creative with his small plates, with innovative selections such as duck confit spring rolls that are slightly warmed in the oven rather than fried, to keep them lighter. The spring rolls, served with house-made kimchi, were so well-received by members when they first appeared on the menu that Nealon says he will be bringing them back as a regular feature.
Guinness-braised beef has become one of Nealon’s favorite go-to ingredients for small-plate specialties. He has made sliders and mini-tacos with it, and is planning to use it as a stuffing for onion rings that he will top with Emmentaler or gruyere cheese, horseradish crème and scallions.
Other well-received small plates at Montrêux include crispy Oregon oysters with chipotle remoulade and celeriac cole slaw, and grilled artichoke hearts with lemon pepper aioli that is finished with chili oil and Parmegiano Reggiano. Members who want some pop on their palate also like Nealon’s pan-fried Shishito peppers garnished with Maldon salt, toasted Marcona almonds and a preserved lemon, and a small grilled-cheese sandwich made with ghost pepperjack. “The ghost pepper makes it ‘atomic spicy,’” Nealon notes.
Nealon has been including small plates on his dining room and bar menus for over 10 years. While many weddings and other special events at Montrêux feature small plates as appetizers, Nealon has done parties in which the whole meal has been built around a progression of small plates. For one such event, he did 24 different courses.
“Members like the small plates because they can control the portion size of their meal or snack, and they get to sample a lot of different tastes without overeating,” he says.
Prices for small plates at Montrêux range from $6 to $10. The menu is refreshed up to eight times a year, based on seasonal ingredients and to allow for appropriate preparations. “You don’t want to do a hearty braised meat in the spring and summer, so we offer lighter items that we might poach, for example,” Nealon explains. “Nobody wants to be weighed down, especially on the golf course.”
Small plates also provide an easy way to gauge diner acceptance of a new dish. The beet salad on Montrêux’s regular menu, for example, began as a small plate. It can now be ordered in a larger size, and even topped with grilled chicken for a heartier meal.
Small Pleasures for Special Occasions
Although Morten Wulff, Executive Chef of Green Island Country Club in Columbus, Ga., doesn’t yet offer small plates on his regular dining room menu, he does for the wine dinners that the club holds seven times a year, generally serving between five and six small plates per event.
Wulff has also done small plates for banquets. For one wedding a couple of years ago, in fact, the entire meal was comprised of them.
Dishes that Wullf prepares for these events have been as simple as shrimp and grits, mini-lamb chops with whipped potatoes, or large sea scallops with salsa or chutney. More complex fare has included Thai seared Saku tuna on wasabi pea mango chutney with yuzu crème fraiche and fried chiffonade sweet potato.
“For a big event, small plates are great—you can have a hotel plate in the back with seared scallops, large shrimp or mini-filet mignons,” Wulff notes. “To serve, you just add a little bit of starch and some mini-vegetables to decorate.”