In spite of the many eulogies mumbled over the grave of the small plates craze, it continues to gain traction. Partly it's because anything that injects a bit of informality works in a restaurant's favor. The option of grazing off multiple plates, or the intimacy of sharing with other diners, strips away a lot of stodginess. And it also provides the chance for adventurous diners to take a chance on smaller portions of unfamiliar flavors, which helps the kitchen keep things hip and creative. And with some small plates, you almost feel the chef took it as a dare to see how much flavor you can pack into a single bowl. Whatever the case, here's a look at our 10 favorite little dishes.
Locally grown vegetable plate, around $9
High praise for a plate of veggies? Yes, when they're this good. Chef Doug Hewitt Jr. isn't afraid to mix the cooked with the fresh and the pickled, which makes for an intense variety of flavors that rotates with the seasons. In winter, it might be a plate of lovingly prepared fingerling potatoes from Sunseed Farms, decked out with tasso ham, winter squash, and a green onion emulsion. In springtime, it could be a seasonal bounty of heirloom beets and asparagus tips, charred kohlrabi and baby radishes, baby green beans, lemon-pickled golden beets, all topped with an emulsified cherry viniagrette. The lemon-pickled beets were most surprising of all, bearing a revelatory sweetness.
The Triple Nickel
Stuffed calamari, $13
We tend to think of calamari as this chewy ring, whose essence is lost after having gone through a deep breading and trip into a greasy vat or skillet. That's not the case here. While the classic flash-fried version is on the menu for fans to enjoy, the real treat is the stuffed variety, in which the squid is used like a dough, into which minced ham and Maryland lump crab are enveloped, and then laid out with lemon caper sauce. The result is a bountiful, savory seafood dumpling.
Johnny Noodle King
Bacon fried rice, $6
Sure, it's mainly about the ramen here, but you'd be silly not to grab a bowl of the bacon fried rice to scarf down before your bowl of noodles arrives at the table. Salty in all the right amounts, with balance from ume, scallions, cucumber, and corn, it's the elevated version of the fried rice you get at the corner Chinese place. There's nothing wrong with that stuff, but there's also nothing wrong with adding some bacon to the mix.
Croquetas de choco, $7
It's not a perfectly authentic interpretation of Spanish tapas, but Royal Oak's La Dulce is damn near close. Tapas, by definition, are small plates meant to be shared or eaten as a snack, so the whole menu is filled with small wonders. But we can't say enough about the croquetas de choco, little fried wonders filled with cuttlefish and squid ink. Served in an adorable mini fryer with an equally adorable miniature Mason jar for the accompanying sauce, the bite-sized balls are mellow and filled with deep layers of flavor.
Lucy & the Wolf
Flank steak, around $17
The menu at this Northville eatery is seasonal, which means it changes several times a year, but they usually have at least one flank steak small plate. In the colder months, it might be flank steak served with charred scallion crema, caramelized onion jam, and a compound butter made with garlic and blue cheese. In summertime, don't miss their chimichurri flank, a crowd-pleasing dish that mixes the "chilled" and the "charred" to perfection. The kitchen brings out the best in the beef, but even that is improved with the addition of a simple chimichurri, made with parsley, garlic, oregano, and oil and vinegar, and an infinitely fresh corn relish on the side, along with a little heap of pickled shallots for a tiny bit of bite.
Shaved Brussels, $5
Om Café does some wonderful things to Brussels sprouts, shaved and pan-seared with garlic and enlivened with a creamy sauce made of salt, pepper, vegenaise, and whole-grain mustard. It's hard to get sprouts to that perfect point where the interiors offer slight resistance to the teeth but the outer leaves aren't overly charred. For this to be a quickly prepared appetizer attests to a high level of sophistication back in the kitchen.
Central Kitchen + Bar
Green chili, $5
OK, so soup is probably stretching the definition of small plate, but we'd be remiss in devoting an entire special issue to Detroit's dining scene without mentioning Central Bar + Kitchen and its fabulous menu. And talking about small plates gives us an excuse to extol their green chili, a cup of which is tart and spicy and served with or without pork, depending on your preference.
Charred octopus, $14
Chef Andy Hollyday takes Spanish octopi and cooks them until tender, then gives them a beautiful char. But it doesn't end there: It comes in a saffron vinaigrette with salsa verde, Kalamata and Castelvetrano olives, and tender, cooked chickpeas. The recipe has changed a bit over the last year, and there are probably a few tweaks ahead, but that's one more reason for diners to return to this Cass Corridor gem.
Parks and Rec Diner
Lamb Bacon, $4
Technically, it's merely a side dish at Parks and Rec, but the house-made lamb bacon has earned its share of converts since the eatery opened in summer 2015. As the diner shares its kitchen with Republic Tavern, it can order whole lambs, pigs, and cows, and house-butcher all its own animal proteins, using them "from nose to tail." And lamb bacon is just one example of the kind of house-cured meat Parks and Rec can turn out. It's just a bit smaller, sweeter, and denser than pork bacon, with a more jerky-like texture. Server Amber Deem tells us customers are generally surprised to learn there's something other than pork bacon, and so she'll offer it, saying, "If you don't like it, I'll bring you the pork bacon." Hundreds of orders later, Deem says only one diner exercised that option. It's that good.
Local Kitchen and Bar
Mac and cheese, $12
This Ferndale eatery's menu only officially embraced the "small plates" concept this autumn, but the mac and cheese was on the menu long before that. Among the more generous "small" items in metro Detroit, this decadent dish is definitely meant for sharing. It's had some tweaks over the years, but chef Jared Bobkin says it's more or less finalized: spiraling noodles covered in a cheese sauce made of milk, flour, butter, and Parmesan, mozzarella, Gruyère, and Vlaskaas, a cheddar-like cheese with flakes of salt in it. For good measure, the creamy dish is covered with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs seasoned with butter and paprika, and chunks of sweet, caramelized, candied bacon. We aren't alone in loving this dish: It's Local's second-biggest seller.
Rock City Eatery
Green beans, $8
Who knew whole green beans could make such a formidable offering? Cooked al fresco, mixed with cilantro, cashews, and scallions, and dribbled with a pungent hoisin sauce, these whole beans punch above their weight.