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In India, small portions are more likely to whet indignation than appetite. Diners, even posh ones, believe that value for money can only be got from plates heaped with food. But a new trend in fine dining is teaching Mumbaikars that small is desirable. It's a bipartite trend that involves the spread of tapas on the one hand and 'small plates' on the other.
The two are related as the small plate evolved from finger foods like tapas and pinchos. In the US and UK, the small plate is a popular concept that involves petite portions of highly inventive food. Basically it's a starter, but much prettier.
In Mumbai, the newly opened The Table in Colaba and Busaba's new outlet in Lower Parel are possibly the only restaurants whose menus are split into small and big plates. The Table, which does modern cuisine, is a fine dining restaurant with none of the stuffiness of one. One of the reasons for that is a large communal table that extends from the bar and from which the place derives its name. The idea was to create a sociable eating environment, chef Alex Sanchez pointed out. So serving small plates, which are meant to be shared, made sense. "I think that the previous notion has been that if you want really high quality food you have to go to five-star establishments and you have to pay high prices, " said Sanchez, who previously worked at Manresa, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Los Gados, California. "With that has been a more formal style of service and a less approachable way of dining. Certainly less social. So what we see now is this desire to receive skilled and professional service in a more sophisticated environment with high quality food but in a more casual atmosphere with more approachable pricing. "
The small plates at The Table are slightly larger than an average starter and much more sophisticated. For instance, the menu has chicken wings, a rather prosaic item for a fine dining establishment. But here, the dish is a transformed into cubes of confit chicken dressed with a ginger glaze. They're as pretty as petit fours. The day we met Sanchez, he had introduced a new small plate to the menu: an heirloom tomato salad resting on a pool of gazpacho and topped with heirloom radishes, breadcrumbs and a coriander granita. "If someone's only going to be taking two bites of something it has to make an impression, " Sanchez said.
At the pan-Asian Busaba, on the other hand, the small plates are decorative versions of its traditional starters like sushi, spring rolls and satay. They're often served in larger plates so that "the chef has a larger canvas to play with", said owner Nikhil Chib.
The appeal of smaller portions follows a global trend of healthier eating by way of modest amounts of freshly cooked food. "It's not like you have to have a lot of food on your plate to feel good, " Chib said.
This also seems to be one of the reasons for the popularity of tapas, traditional Spanish bar snacks. "People are getting health conscious, " said Gracian D'Souza, the executive chef at the three-month old Svenska Design Hotel in Andheri. "They want smaller portions, cooked to perfection so that they don't lose their nutrients. "
D'Souza runs Miro, Svenska's Mediterranean restaurant. Instead of doing classic tapas, D'Souza has focused on Spain's Moorish culinary influences. So ingredients such as chickpeas, cumin and coriander are prominent. "The classic tapas is a bit boring, so I thought let's give it a bit of a twist, " he said. Apart from traditional tapas like patatas bravas, Miro serves items like Moorish style white bean with artichoke and spinach, chickpea, chorizo and spinach stew with country bread and confit tenderloin with a blue cheese glaze. The restaurant also serves pinchos. Similar to tapas, pinchos are commonly eaten in Spain's Basque region. Pincho refers to the toothpick or mini skewer that holds the food together. D'Souza sears his pinchos on a hot pan and finishes them in a wood-fired pizza oven before serving them on black slates for an "earthy look". Tapas also prompt an easy sociability. Who wouldn't want to while away time at bars chatting over miniature installations of food? They certainly beat chakna like peanuts and papad. "The idea is that people keep ordering, " said Deepak Bhatia, executive chef at the Leela Kempinski. The hotel has been serving tapas for the past eight months in its lounge and restaurant, Six Degrees. The tapas-eating crowd, he pointed out, is not the kind that would eat at the bar and then have dinner at a restaurant. It's a trend that has been slow to come but is here to stay, Bhatia predicts. One of Mumbai's first Spanish restaurants was Caliente, which opened promisingly in 2003 and shut not very long after. Valhalla at Churchgate really popularised tapas as it opened in 2009, a time when well-travelled Indians were more familiar with international food. It has since gradually spread across the city to bars like Bandra's Escobar. Small plates could well take off in the same way. After diners get over their initial confusion. "We get people coming in and they want to eat their own plates, " Sanchez explained. "And we're encouraging people to break that, share maybe three-four small plates, share a couple of large plates, share desserts, talk about it. It really is a fun experience. But most people don't expect that from a Western approach to food. People know how to eat this way but they don't know how to do it in this setting. "
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