Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Death of the Entree

In recent months, it seems like every time I have dinner in a restaurant I'm blown away by the appetizers (or "starters", "primi", or "small plates") then totally underwhelmed by the entree that follows.

This first started a few months ago when I reviewed Langdon's for the Charleston City Paper. The scallops with sweet corn puree knocked my socks off and far overshadowed the lamb chops I had for my entree. There was nothing wrong with the lamb--it was quite tasty--but when it came time to comment on them for the review, I was at a loss for something to say. The best I could come up with was that they were "everything lamb's supposed to be — rich, tender, moist." (Little wonder I didn't see that James Beard Award this year!)

It happened again and again. At Cypress they do up an unbelievable combination of kumomoto oysters layered with sashimi tuna along with cilantro, lime, and pineapple wasabi that goes down cool, fresh and spicy. The scallops and bacon, with a big slab of smoky bacon and a rich pork reduction over the top, is even better. So good, in fact, that I had little interest in the big pork chop that followed.

At Soif it was something as simple as a radish soup with feta and shallots. At Bacco, the unbelievable roasted olives (from their wood-fired oven) and the caprese salad with made-to-order mozarella are all I can really remember about the meal. Everything else was an afterthought.

I have a few theories for this new appetizer fixation (or, perhaps more accurately, "entree aversion").

One is the tapas aesthetic, of which I am a wholehearted proponent. Food is meant to be shared, and the more different combinations and flavors you get to try the better. Call it "sampling." I love going out to dinner with parties or six or eight because it means more chances to order "a few appetizers for the table" and pass around a parade of savory delights.

For me, it's heresy to go to dinner with someone and order the same entree they do. I've consciously cultivated a group of fellow diners (starting with The Wife) who understand from the beginning that sharing is the name of the game. I mean, really, is it even possible to enjoy being with one of those fastitidious people who get freaked out by the thought of someone else touching their food?

But there's more to it. An entree is a commitment, a major choice that's not to be taken lightly. What if your selection is disappointing or--even more frightening--what if your dinner companion's is even better?

When you surround yourself with Proper Diners, they will, completely unprompted, announce, "you must try some of this duck!" and carve off a large slice for you, taking care to include a little of the sauce and potatoes, too, so you get the full effect. But, even with such companions, the best you can get is a little taste of that entree. If--horrors!--yours is the inferior order, you're cursed with the first-hand knowledge of how good Entree A is while you limp your way dejectedly through Entree B, calculating carefully the exact minimum amount you are required to eat to still be able to justify ordering dessert.

This isn't a problem when you have a table full of small plates. If you have a bite of something less than delightfuly, no problem--just pass the plate on and try another. If you come across something so scrumptuous and sublime--like the short ribs with Anson Mills grits at McCrady's--that it disappears in a flash--just order another!

Last week I stumbled into an invitation to a dinner out at The Lettered Olive, the new restaurant out in the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms. Chef Enzo Steffenelli served up what was for me the perfect approach to appetizers: two sampler plates for each guest, the first with a selection of three or four cold dishes, the second with hot appetizers.

Crab dip is something I would never order on my own. It's the kind of thing that tastes great for the first three bites but steadily goes downhill from there, leaving you overly full and a little sick to your stomach. Three bites from the sampler served up by the Letttered Olive (a restaurant named, by the way, for South Carolina's official seashell) is just about perfect.

Then there were short ribs with a peach BBQ sauce and candied sweet potato that had that rich tenderness you only get from slow-braised beef. The tropical tequilla ceviche was even better--shrimp, scallop, and squid in a tasty citrus marinade with a splash of tequilla over the top. The rest of the sampling--shrimp with grits cakes, seared ahi tuna, bread with pimento cheese for dipping--just sealed the deal. So much, in fact, that I heartily recommend all restaurants add an appetizer sampler platter to their menu.

These are things that are best in small doses. After all this variety, an entree is usually just a let down.

There's an old show business adage that you want to leave the audience not quite satisfied, so they walk out wishing there was just a little bit more. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be the goal for restaurant dining. "I was still hungry when I left," is not an endorsement--it's the kiss of death.

Maybe it's time to change that. Why shouldn't we leave restaurants wanting just a little bit more rather than feeling so bloated and full that our middles hurt and all we want to do is lay down in a cool, dark room?

So, I'm on the "small plates" bandwagon from here on out. I may never order an entree again.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Would you like more Kumomoto oysters? Do you think you could prepare them like that? We're giving away 4 dozen fresh Puget Sound oysters ... check it out at

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