The Hazards of Sharing Small Plates

Dear Helena,
The other night I went out to a restaurant with a couple of friends and ordered a bunch of small plates. All the plates were beautifully composed with sprinkles of this and fronds of that. In one of the dishes, the centerpiece was a cylinder of stuffed grilled squid. When I tried to cut it, the filling squished out everywhere. Then I had to chase all these lentils and microscopic bits of chorizo around the plate to make sure each of us got some. How the heck do you share these kinds of small plates, anyway?
—Dots, Daubs, and Fronds

Dear Dots, Daubs, and Fronds,
For those who haven't followed recent dining trends, let me clarify what type of restaurant we are talking about. Sharing little dishes of this and that is, of course, nothing new. Many cultures have a tradition of doing so, from Spanish tapas and Middle Eastern meze to Japanese izakayas. But the contemporary composed small plate is as different from a rustic tapa as a Manolo Blahnik pump is from a wooden clog. Take the "pintxos" served at Txoko in San Francisco. As Jonathan Kauffman, SF Weekly's restaurant critic, explains, in the Basque Country pintxos are "pieces of bread or potato with stuff on them, spiked with a toothpick." But at Txoko, a pintxo might consist of a tempura-fried, ricotta-stuffed squash blossom perched on a baguette slice and topped with "micro-chives."

Precious though they can be, such restaurants are increasingly common, says Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic for the LA Weekly: "Half of the interesting new restaurants that open [in LA] are of that sort." These restaurants are designed, says Gold, "to expose people to the variety of a tasting menu without the expense or formality. ... Lots of people in their mid-30s and younger are profoundly uncomfortable with white-tablecloth formal service."

But while tapas, meze, and the like are usually easy to share, it's quite a challenge to split a Jenga tower of sweet potato tempura and sea urchin blobs balanced on a few dots of shiso-scallion purée. It's hard to make sure every diner gets a bit of every element. Gold says: "There's often a purée or a swirl of something or a little tile of Sichuan peppercorns or some special salt that probably only one person gets the benefit of."

The favored plating method isn't much help. Instead of the now-classic vertical-stack approach, these chefs often favor "the vortex method," as Jason Fox of Commonwealth restaurant in San Francisco, calls it: "We like everything to flow into each other so we imagine everything being spun out of a vortex." It's not easy to divvy up a vortex, and you usually end up with a mess.

So pause a moment to admire the artful composition before you each take your portion. When ordering, if you suspect a particular dish is going to be popular, get multiples. That should also help you avoid the problem of how to split, say, two scallops among three people. After that, the basic approach is the same as for sharing any dish, be it a pan of lasagne or a porcini flan topped with frico shards: Each diner should take a portion from the common dish and eat it off his own plate. If there are no separate serving utensils, as will be the case at this type of restaurant, diners should use a clean knife and fork to take their share, and be careful not to double-dip.

It would, of course, be easier if all of you just ate from the original plate. But this is a bad idea, and not just because it may spread germs. Back when I was a naive young thing, I once made the mistake of splitting a crème brûlée with my boss. We each ate from our own sides, until finally all that remained between us was a fragile wall of crackle-topped custard. As soon as our spoons shattered that wall, my boss immediately made sexual advances. Lesson learned: Unless you want to indicate that you would be receptive to saliva-sharing outside the dining room, it's always better to have your own plate.

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