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White House assistant chef Sam Kass is standing to my left at the 20th anniversary celebration for Jaleo. To my right is a guy in a suit with an earpiece. Is he guarding one of the many ambassadors circulating the honeycomb-ceilinged dining room? Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Virginia Sen. Mark Warner? Or perhaps the now larger-than-life restaurateur José Andrés himself?
Mayor Vince Gray is here, too, to officially proclaim April 9 as Jaleo Restaurant Day in D.C. He trumpets the restaurant’s pioneering role in the revitalization of now-bustling Penn Quarter. (“This was euphemistically called downtown,” Gray tells the crowd.) Andrés, who takes the mic next, waxes poetic about the American dream and all the opportunities he’s had as an immigrant from Spain. After all, Jaleo helped make him into the celebrity chef he is today.
But beyond all the fame it’s brought Andrés, the restaurant may have had an even bigger effect on D.C.: the popularization of small plates.
“He’s the godfather of that,” says Proof and Estadio chef Haidar Karoum, a sentiment echoed by chefs across D.C. Karoum, who’s never worked for Andrés and wasn’t at the party, says he’s eaten more meals at Jaleo than any other restaurant in the area. But the spot he believes really cemented Andrés as the king of small plates was Zaytinya, which opened in 2002. “I thought, ‘Wow, you can really take that same approach and cookie-cut almost any style cuisine out of it.’”
In the two decades since a 23-year-old Andrés stepped into the kitchen of Jaleo, tapas-style dining has exploded to the point where many of the District’s most popular restaurants have abandoned traditional entrées. The format is no longer limited to Spanish tapas or Greek mezze. The small-plate craze pervades D.C. eateries of every kind: American, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Southeast Asian—even Czech and Serbian, cuisines whose traditional portions could satisfy a lumberjack.
Andrés can’t take all the credit for the evolution of small- plate dining in D.C. over the past 20 years. There are plenty of business motivations to swap entrées for tapas (or whichever language’s word for shareable snacks you prefer). Plus, small-plate eating fits the current zeitgeist, in which sharing is cool, eating out is casual, and diners are more eager to try everything.
But for all its popularity, there’s still a backlash to the style. I often hear groans at the mention of another small-plates restaurant. It’s much harder to convince diners they’re getting a value when they have to order three to four dishes to satisfy their appetites. And then there’s the occasional awkwardness: Who gets the odd-numbered scallop on the plate? How should we split the bill? And is the server giving us dirty looks for not ordering the “recommended” number of dishes?
Even chefs and restaurateurs now seem to shy away from the phrases “small plates” or “tapas” if they can. “When it wasn’t as commonplace as it is now, it was a lot easier to use,” Karoum says. “You can kind of get into the same territory talking about ‘fusion,’ in which it has such negative connotations…But almost all cuisines have gone through some fusion.”
When I ask chef and restaurateur Bryan Voltaggio about choosing to do small plates at Range, his new restaurant in Friendship Heights, he shoots back, “It’s not small plates. No. It’s a shared plate environment.” The majority of dishes are appetizer-size, but they’re not one or two bites like many traditional Spanish tapas, Voltaggio says. Plus, there are also seafood platters and pizzas, he points out. “I know that there might be a fine line between the two, but we’re definitely on the side of the shared plates.”
Sounds like semantics to me. But I don’t blame him; “small” isn’t exactly the strongest marketing word. There’s a reason Starbucks calls its small coffee “tall.”
Still, even if the practice requires some careful phrasing, chances are chefs aren’t going to turn away from the trend Andrés helped unleash here. One of the biggest appeals is a practical one: It tends to be easier on the kitchen to turn out small plates rather than coordinate appetizers and entrées all at the same time. “It’s a real ballet act to be able to synchronize all of those things,” Karoum says of traditional tiered courses. “Making sure the duck breast is medium rare at the same time that the striped bass is finished cooking…It takes a much higher skill set to be able to do that. It’s technically very trying.” With small plates, the kitchen can send out dishes as they’re ready—with no detailed coordination between stations required and little risk of food getting cold.
At Range, the 5,000-square-foot kitchen includes a pasta station, bakery, wood grill, raw bar, patisserie, pizzeria, and more, which turn out a menu of nearly 100 items. “From the meat station to the bakery is quite a walk,” Voltaggio says. “And to try to bring that food together at the same time is near impossible.”
If the kitchen is disorganized or falling behind preparing a three-course meal, it becomes more apparent to diners. Small plates buy the kitchen some time because there’s likely already something on the table to nibble on, says Daikaya chef and co-owner Katsuya Fukushima, who spent years working for Andrés. “When people are hungry, they want something, and they don’t really want to wait.”
Karoum and Fukushima say it’s also possible to turn tables faster serving small plates, which means more volume (and profits) for the restaurant. (That could also mean more seats for diners, though often demand is higher, too.) If a table orders appetizers, then entrees, there’s a lot of wasted time in between, because the second course won’t come out until the last diner has finished the first course. With small plates, tables have all their food faster. “A three-course meal could take like an hour, hour and a half,” Fukushima says. “Depending on how fast people eat and how much time people hang out, we could do two turns or three turns.” (Not every small plates restaurant turns tables quickly, however. Ambar co-owner Ivan Iricanin says his guests spend an average of an hour and a half at a table.)
While the chefs I spoke to claim they don’t build in higher profit margins into small plates, the style does make it is easier to over-order. It would seem indulgent to order two entrées per person, but there’s no limit to how many small dishes a table might get. “You can easily get lost and be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s $80 per person,’” says Ambar’s Iricanin, who’s also a partner in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F. But he says that happens less frequently now that people know what to expect from small-plates restaurants.
At Ambar, Iricanin wanted to bring a taste of his home country of Serbia and the surrounding Balkan region to D.C. But the food there is traditionally very hearty and heavy; there is no such thing as Serbian small plates. Nonetheless, Iricanin chose the tapas-style format as a way to give Washingtonians a way to sample more of the cuisine, with which they might not be that familiar. Foodies have commitment issues anyway. They don’t want to be married to one dish throughout the evening; they’d rather snack around.
Sharing plates is a more casual way of eating, too, which coincides with the way dining in general is going, with fewer white tablecloths and more fast-casual options. It helps that people are more open-minded about sharing. Jaleo head chef Ramón Martínez says Americans are getting over their fear of “double-dipping”—something Spaniards couldn’t care less about. Iricanin adds that shared small plates tend to appeal more to a younger crowd, of which the city has seen an influx in recent years.
While Spanish tapas, Greek mezze, and Chinese dim sum are now familiar terms to Washington diners, other cultures’ forms of small plate dining are just becoming part of the popular lexicon. Fukushima still struggles with how to describe the format of izakayas, the Japanese taverns which traditionally serve small plates (with a heavy emphasis on drinking, too). “I hate saying it, but I tell people izakaya is like Japanese tapas. I hate saying it,” Fukushima says. “I remember when I opened Minibar, the only way we could describe it—and we hated it—was molecular gastronomy…It’s the term we had to throw out because people knew what that was.”
Fukushima worked with Andrés 20 years ago at the very beginning of Jaleo. Back then, he remembers having to explain to people how to order and share tapas. “Just like José kind of educated people about what tapas are,” he says, “I would like to do the same with izakaya.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery