Food & Drink » Mouthful

Small Is Big Time

Restaurants dish it out

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A table set with a mass of small plates is the trend in 2005. Clearly the Phoenicians, today's Lebanese, started the delightful custom of small plates with their leisurely paced mezza. This meal includes an abundant selection of hot and cold plates. Servers deliver a parade of plates: olives and small nuts, trays of fresh vegetables, baskets of steaming flat bread, hummus, baba ghannoug, boiled wild chicory, artichokes, cheeses, salads and dolmas. And that's just the first course. If you have never experienced a mezza, put it on your list. Unfortunately, the closest place to Charlotte for outstanding mezza is the Lebanese Taverna in Washington, DC. Charlotte is developing its own brand of small plates. Traditionally, Spanish restaurants have cornered this market; however, newer American restaurants are producing small plates in a big way.

When TOWN opened in late 2003, its menu was revolutionary. Items are a la carte, and the menu features a large selection of small plates ($4 to $6.50). The roster of American and Asian-influenced dishes ranges from macaroni and cheese and a flat iron steak to tempura shrimp. TOWN offers 23 side items. With the trend of small plates sweeping the nation, funky TOWN spawned a sister restaurant: Sonoma [Kitchen] opened three weeks ago and features 32 small plates ($4 to $9) ranging from tuna tartare tabbouleh to lobster gnocchi with roasted peppers. (The original Sonoma Bistro moved to the BOA center on the square and reopened last week as Sonoma Modern American.)

TOWN, 710 West Trade Street, 704-379-7555; Sonoma [Kitchen], 129 West Trade Street, 377-1333.

In Europe, small plates became popular in Spain about the same time the Arabs conquered them. In Spain, these small plates are known as tapas, which means "lids," and may have been started when bread topped with ham was used to keep insects out of wine.Charlotte has enjoyed a number of Spanish restaurants since the 1980s. One of the older ones is Miro Spanish Grill. They offer gambas al ajillo, sautéed shrimp surrounded by a flotilla of sweet garlic slices and a hot pepper pod served in a small clay casserole; manchego cheese with prosciutto, and the ubiquitous fried calamari.

Miro Spanish Grille, 7804-A Rea Road, 704-540-7374.

Tom Sasser of the Harper's Restaurant Group opened ARPA Wine Bar last year. Arpa features a lengthy menu of Spanish-styled small plates ranging from $3 to $12. They also have an in-depth wines-by-the-glass program.

ARPA Wine Bar, 121 W. Trade St, 704-372-7792.

Chef Tim Henderson opened Vidalia & Grapes: A Tapas Restaurant a few years back before the wave of small plates swept over us. His menu presents items in two portion sizes: tapas and entree. Henderson, who trained at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, has become known for his black and blue oysters and his Low Country cuisine.

Vidalia & Grapes, 1626 East Boulevard, 704-358-8188.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Tricia Childress is married to Pierre Bader, proprietor of TOWN and Sonoma [Kitchen].)

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