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Wine Me Dine Me: Bring back the appetizer

Time:2017-01-19 15:26wine - Red wine life health Click:

Wine Dine Back Bring appetizer

I’d like my appetizer back, please

I’ve often written with enthusiasm about the small plate dining trend and how it's become de rigueur at many restaurants, especially in the past five years. More than tapas, not quite an entree, but also not really an appetizer or hors d'oeuvres, small plate dining allows us to create our own dining experience without the constraints or implied “rules” of the three-course system.

It’s gone too far. Now, restaurant menus are divided into starters and entrees or lighter fare and entrees, but in many cases the starters are really just huge portions of food to share and if I wanted to just have my appetite stimulated for the next course, my appetite has almost been wiped out, instead. I want the appetizers back, now, please.

The history of the “coursed out” meal is a long one. Our own traditional dining style is adapted from the European service à la russe with sequential courses. In standard American restaurants, this became distilled to three courses – appetizer or starter, entree (alt. “main”) and then dessert. We also have tasting menus where the courses tend to progress from lighter to heftier dishes, but not necessarily different in size and at finer Italian restaurants, for example, we might have antipasti, pasta, an entree, dessert and a cheese course. Hors d’oeuvres tend to be smaller one-bite snacks served with cocktails before sitting down to dinner (or with no dinner at all in the case of a cocktail party) and appetizers just a touch larger and served while seated at dinner. The purpose of the appetizer is to stimulate the appetite, not kill it.

But lately I’ve seen menus made up of small plates alone, which would allow us to create our own three-course meal, e.g. appetizer, two entrees, a dessert or an uncoursed array. Now, we have menus with no appetizers at all. Sure, they’re billed as “small bites,” “lighter fare” or “starters,” sometimes as “shared plates” but I’m not clear on how a huge plate of nachos piled high with pulled pork and cheese stimulates my appetite and helps me further enjoy my 12-ounce ribeye steak. If I eat a delicious bowl full of poutine complete with fresh cheese curds, duck confit and gravy, will I be able to enjoy my braised short rib with mashed potatoes? And it’s not just the quantity. Even on menus where there are dishes that show portion restraint, there’s still overkill in style. Should I be eating these deep-fried ravioli covered with cream sauce then go on to crab-stuffed baked haddock? Well, there’s always soup and salad, right?

There are still ways to accommodate our need to be dining free spirits, ordering just what we want and enjoying it when we want without the restrictions of the three-course system, but also let us have our app and eat our entree, too. There are ways to provide appetizers in the form they were intended – to whet our appetite for more and to allow us to still have the palate to enjoy it. I can snack on fried almonds and olives or shrimp sauteed with garlic and tatsoi or an exciting meze plate at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth and still look forward to a beautiful plate of local steelhead trout. Or, I can have just a small bite or two and then a medium plate so I can enjoy dessert, too. At the Black Birch, my three little deviled eggs and house pickles (a.k.a. First Bites) are just enough to make me be able to go on to poutine and duck confit (notice, not an appetizer, but a small plate) or what they call Suppers, heartier dishes.

And, of course, we have those restaurants where we can have just a whole passel of small plates and sandwiches – Moxy, Franklin Oyster House, Cava, STREET (to a different extent) – to make up a full meal. Other spots like Stages at One Washington are entirely and delightfully pre-fixe. Then we have some menus with no separation of course at all like at Otis in Exeter where the menu is a gradient from smaller to larger and heartier dishes with no separation. In all those examples, I can still have a tantalizing dish as an appetizer. Of course, we still have our more traditional menus at places like The Library (get the crab meat cocktail and a steak) or CURE for their bleu cheese-stuffed dates then duck with forbidden rice risotto.

In a restaurant era where “something for everyone” applies not just to the type of food but also the format of a menu, I still want to see room for appetizers as they were intended on a menu. Let me dine lightly if I like and let me be excited for what’s to come, not done before I’ve barely started.

The Dish:

I had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick Rowan at a beer dinner at The Black Birch about a year and a half ago. He told me all about his concept for a new brewery in Kittery. Well, it’s here! I went to a preview gathering this past weekend and the brewery opens Thursday, Jan. 19 at 1 p.m. It’s at 306 Route 1 in Kittery, across the street from Kittery Trading Post and right next to (basically attached to) the Weathervane. Lots of great lagers and more. Visit 

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