City Paper is not for tourists
At Provision No. 14, the Filipino-style fried suckling pork leg arrives at the table on a silver platter with a large white-handled knife stabbed in the middle. The upright serrated blade is the chef’s mic drop. It’s the kind of gesture that dares you to question it.
Earlier, our server suggested—unsarcastically—that we should order some extra dishes. His comment was baffling when we saw the football-sized hunk of meat $65 bought us. Known as pata, the pig leg is braised, hung to dry overnight, and deep-fried, giving it an extra crispy brown skin. It’s served with slices of bread, a banana barbecue sauce, chili vinegar sauce, and cilantro lime aioli. Four of us only polished off half of it. The rest got stuffed in two huge takeout boxes.
Whatever, small plates.
For anyone who’s ever complained about paying $12 for a few measly bites on a tapas-style menu, there’s a counter movement underway. The phrase “family style” is becoming ubiquitous dining lingo as more places institute weekly feasts or devote entire sections of their menus to platters designed for two to six people. From the brisket blowout at Rose’s Luxury to the whole animal rotisserie at Iron Gate to the American Wagyu bao platter at Maketto, bigger is better.
At the same time, it’s hard to really call this a trend. There’s nothing new about people sharing a pizza at Italian restaurants or making the Peking duck the centerpiece of a Chinese meal. In most parts of the world, meals revolve around a shared single protein with accompaniments. In fact, it’s the way most people eat in their own homes. But for whatever reason, the vast majority of American restaurants have traditionally been dominated by the appetizer-entree format or small plates. The occasional exception has been a whole fish or a large steak.
“Our whole suckling pig leg is just something that just wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago considering the style of dining,” argues Provision No. 14 chef James Duke. “But now it’s large ingredients, and it’s more of a wow factor.” He and chef de cuisine John Leavitt say the dish is something they’ve wanted to serve for a while but haven’t had the platform for until now. The restaurant, which opened at 14th and V streets NW last week, features an entire section of “communal” dishes, including miso lamb ribs and chili braised short ribs. Even the cocktails—poured from French presses—serve four to five.
In some ways, the rise of large platters in D.C. dining establishments looks like a backlash to the small plates trend. After all, people who complain about leaving hungry after six mezze shut up when one giant mountain of food arrives at the table. And while people who hate sharing will still have to share with these kinds of dishes, it’s generally a more tolerable kind of group activity.
“The thing about small plates is that if you don’t know how to navigate it correctly, there’s always somebody at the table who’s getting screwed,” says chef and restaurateur Jeff Tunks. In February, one of his restaurants, Fuego Cocina y Tequileria in Clarendon, began serving the “Feast of the Chupacabra,” an entire hind quarter of a goat cooked low and slow for three to four hours with a chile de árbol rub. Served on a large cutting board, the hunk of meat comes with handmade corn tortillas, several kinds of salsas, guacamole, plantains, mushrooms, black beans, and rice. It’s advertised as a dish for four to six people, but Tunks says it can feed a lot more. Only served on Sundays, it must be ordered by 5 p.m. on the Friday before and requires a credit card to reserve.
“If you’re sitting there with four people and out come three oysters, I mean, how are you going to cut the oyster in half?,” Tunks asks. But with an entire chunk of goat? At least everyone will get their fair share.
That’s not to say one is replacing the other. The Partisan and Red Apron Butcher chef Nate Anda argues that the platters help small plates. “You’re going in on a game plan with your table. You can do small plates and then also have a big shareable plate. It ends up working hand in hand,” he says.
Among several family-style dishes, The Partisan offers a $120 pig feast for four to six people with half a roasted pig’s head, a coil of pork sausage, smoked bone marrow, a pig ear and arugula salad, and other condiments. Most groups order a couple small plates to go with it.
In some cases, family-style preparations are just a more authentic way to present food from other corners of the world. (And “authenticity” is the magic word for restaurants these days.)
“Anybody cooking real authentic Asian food, we’re not just eating one plate as our meal,” explained Erik Bruner-Yang upon the opening of his new food and fashion emporium, Maketto, in April. “It’s going to be a bunch of little things, and then a big centerpiece. So it could be salad, pickles, a couple grilled meats, and then a big soup or a big fish or a big piece of meat.” Six of the 15 items on Maketto’s dinner menu are “large format” dishes like Taiwanese fried chicken or wok-fried noodles that are meant to be split by two to four people.
Likewise, Iron Gate chef Tony Chittum says much of his menu was inspired by the way he ate at agriturismos (farm house resorts) while traveling to Greece and Sardinia, Italy. A lot of the restaurants had no menus. Instead, they would just send out food, starting with antipasti and culminating with a large protein like steak or porchetta served with different sauces. In the garden and carriageway of Iron Gate, Chittum offers a daily rotation of four different family-style platters all with a two-person minimum. Usually, there’s a whole grape leaf-roasted fish, a mixed grill with different sausages and skewers, and a whole animal rotisserie that could be anything from lamb to rabbit.
The large plates dovetail nicely into the trend toward whole animal butchery in restaurants. When you have an entire pig to break down, it just makes sense to showcase the animal’s whole head or leg.
It’s also a lot less strenuous on the kitchen. While large pieces of meat may take hours to roast, the work is mostly done before the service rush, especially given that many of these dishes require guests to place an order 24 to 48 hours in advance. There’s not as much to prepare à la minute. Plus, rather than coordinating a bunch of entrees for a group, there’s only one dish that needs to go out.
The format works well for high-volume eateries, or in the case of Iron Gate, restaurants with a small kitchen. “Being able to do a porterhouse for two instead of two plated steak dishes with sauce and starch and veg and garnish, it’s much easier to get out,” Chittum says.
It’s easier for the waitstaff, too. “All they have to focus on then is getting their drinks and not so much mise en place and timing and who’s not getting a course and this type of thing,” Tunks says.
Diners are bound to have some initial sticker shock when they see anything on a menu for more than $100 or even $50. But when you consider how many people the family-style platters feed, chefs say they tend to be a better value for guests.
For example, with most dishes at Fuego, the food costs the restaurant around 28 to 30 percent of the menu price. For the Feast of the Chupacabra, the food cost is 45 percent. But Fuego only sells a few every Sunday, “so it’s not really enough to skew your average base over the course of a month,” Tunks says. “The feedback and the social media and the goodwill and the experience people have is a great offset.” Plus, over the course of a couple hours, groups will end up consuming quite a few cocktails and tequila. And for Fuego, it’s also a way to get diners in on an otherwise slower night.
Family-style dishes end up being their own form of marketing. They turn heads when a server marches the oversized plates through the dining room. People snap photos and share them on Instagram. They beg for attention—even from the restaurant’s staff.
“It gets the most oohs and ahhs from the cooks and the servers,” says Chittum of Iron Gate’s family-style plates. “It’s big. It’s impressive.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery