Paired here with southeast Michigan food stylist Megan DeKok’s seasonal small dish inspirations (here), regional culinarians share varied and versatile ways they make the most of their own mini-sized plates.
Freelance writer Kathy Gibbons is based in greater Grand Rapids and Traverse City.
Cork Wine Pub, Pleasant Ridge
Native of Ferndale, Mich.
Creds: Graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco.
Kitchens he has known: Midtown Café and Forte, Birmingham; Bloomfield Hills Country Club.
In a society rife with “commitentphobes,” small plates are a gesture of friendliness at Cork Wine Pub in Pleasant Ridge, where Executive Chef Ruben Griffen offers 21 choices inspired by season and what’s available.
Developing myriad dishes is also part of Griffin’s permanent quest to topple the venue’s top-seller: a blend of wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and goat cheese wrapped in homemade “brick dough” that’s presented over wild arugula salad with whole grain mustard vinaigrette and a bit of shaved raw or roasted mushroom on top.
The item is one of the few remaining holdovers from Cork Wine Pub’s previous chefs, and people love it, he said.
Griffin’s own approach to small plates looks simpler than it is: Order the grilled cheese he offers in cooler weather and you’ll get smoked cheddar and bacon with quince sauce, cut on the diagonal. (It’s how his grandma did it.)
Playing with a new shrimp and grits small plate, he’s perfected a technique for making grits by shredding fresh corn on the cob on a cheese grater. He sautees garlic and shallot in a little oil before adding the corn and stock to create what he said is a “sweet but delicate and complex corn meal.”
On that goes caramelized onions with a little bit of honey and spicy sautéed shrimp. Rich and fulfilling though not overwhelming, it satiates a need for heat when it’s cold out, he said.
Other deliciously complex “simple” dishes Griffin has devised include a roasted fingerling potato cut in half, pan-seared and served with truffle aioli; fried female squash blossoms stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese and lemon zest, tempura-battered, garnished with a tiny squash and served with sun-dried tomato Greek yogurt; deep-fried crispy chickpeas made with house-made dark chili powder, toasted coriander and salt — you get the idea.
“I’ve found people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t like liver,’ and I’ll say, ‘Just try it,’” shared Griffin. “I want people to experience new things — I want minds to be open, and mouths to be closed.”
But only until the food is served.
Blue House Bistro Catering Company, Holland
Native of Savannah, Ga.
Creds: Attended culinary school for a time but supported herself by working in as many different types of restaurants as she could.
Kitchens she has known: “Every single restaurant in New Orleans.”
Beautiful to look at. The best the cook has to offer.
Those are Angie Anderson’s criteria for small plates, which she serves up with gusto through her popular Holland-based catering business. In fact, when she and a partner originally operated Blue House Bistro as a restaurant in 2009, Anderson wanted to do mostly small plates.
“I often eat appetizers when I go to restaurants because I don’t want the salad or starch and all that comes with it,” she said. “The emphasis on small plates is you’re getting the best of everything that comes from the chef — like beef tartare, a little potato cochon, different types of food.”
Having come from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with experience in French, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, people expect her to offer Creole, she said. A little bit of all of it comes through in her small plate offerings and menu as a whole, which she develops around aphrodiasiac-style foods including multiple cheeses.
“They’re rich in flavors,” she said, “and people love them.”
Enter small plates like lump crab meat sautéed in a cream sauce with spinach, artichokes and fresh mozzarella baked atop house-made baguettes, or a curried hummus with spicy feta cheese spread and Greek olives Anderson serves with made-from-scratch pita.
Or summon her popular phyllo feta rolls, a recipe she acquired working in a New Orleans Turkish restaurant. Anderson serves the cylinder-shaped rolls stacked “like a teepee” in the plate’s center, accompanied with marinara or homemade tzatziki sauce. “I put feta, a little bit of garlic, roll it up in phyllo dough like a pastry and pan- sear it, finish it off in the oven and serve it,” she said. “Addictive.”
“Lamb lollipops” with an amber ale reduction — also stacked centered high on the plate — are another menu favorite.
“I find that the taller they are, the prettier they are,” she said.
And in Anderson’s view, looks matter as much as taste. “What you eat,” she believes, “is about 50 percent done with your eyes.”
Siren Hall, Elk Rapids & Lulu’s, Bellaire
Native of Traverse City, Mich.
Creds: The Culinary Institute of America, trained in Paris at Le Grenadine.
Kitchens he has known: Former owner Spencer Creek Landing, Alden; Black Bass
Hotel, Penn.; worked in Paris for a short time.
Chef Michael Peterson noted that in some cultures, small plates equal the meal: At an Indonesian restaurant he visited in Amsterdam, he illustrated, “we had 40 plates of food in front of us.”
To the Traverse City native, small plates are also simple. Peterson describes dishes containing four or five ingredients that complement each other, but star just one central item.
“What is the main ingredient?” he asked. “It really comes down to the item: Did you make it yourself? How fresh is it?”
Peterson’s small plates might translate to pieces of house-made duck sausage accompanied by a piece of fresh-toasted pretzel bread and manchego cheese, or a fig; maybe a piece of cured fish with a basil oil or a couple different kinds of oils topped by crushed green peppercorns, paired with a bitter green. Wintertime employs heartier combinations like lentils or a duck confit, perhaps “a little butternut squash gratin or cauliflower gratin curry.”
He likes the idea of three or four small plates as dinner, shared with friends.
“A lot of times we go out to a restaurant and order three or four appetizers, a couple of drinks, and then move on to another one and do the same thing,” Peterson said. “With tapas or small plates, there’s a chance for people to try different things.”
The key, he added, is to make sure they are interesting things.
“Simple things,” Peterson clarified, “done well.”