Appetizers, an à la carte tasting menu.

On a multi-course meal, the appetizer is often the most memorable course. Here are 3 reasons why:

As the first course, it hits your taste buds when they are still fresh, ready to absorb new flavors, open to new experiences. Think of it like wine tasting, it’s in the first sip that you’ll get most of the wine’s makeup.

Their smaller portions peak your palate before tiring it. This is the principle behind Thomas Keller’s tasting menus. Each course is portioned so it finishes before saturating your palate.

Finally, for the most part, you eat your appetizer at the peak of your appetite. When you are most hungry.

Appetizer-only meals seem to be more popular than ever. The reason though has less to do with taste and more with budget. But cost aside, appetizers can be a great way to experience a chef’s cuisine.

The concept of small plates dining is popular in Spain (tapas) and Italy (cicchetti). In the US, it’s a trend many restaurants made a business around it. Places like Beretta, Pesce and Bar Pintxo (pictured above) come to mind.

Creating a meal out of appetizers gives you an opportunity to sample the food but still stay closer to what you like the most. It’s like designing your own tasting menu, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you put together your meal.

Point is, nothing beats a great chef’s tasting menu. Beyond trying different tastes and techniques, the flow of dishes present a thoughtful progression of flavors that add to the experience as a whole. Even in à la carte menus, I’m the first to recognize the importance of a full meal with beginning, middle and end. Very few things are more satisfying than when an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert work together in a perfect meal.

But if you want to try a restaurant in a different way and design your own tasting menu, here are 10 places and dishes you simply can’t miss. In no particular order.

At Town Hall, start with the green fried tomatoes with tuna tartar or soft shell crab BLT if in season and then, without hesitation, go for the veal meatballs.

At Range, try the chicken liver mousse. An appetizer so good you can eat it for dessert.

At Pizzeria Delfina, starters change weekly and I have yet to try one that I don’t like. Highlights are the hand-stretched mozzarella and the fritti–deep-fried goodies.

Anchor & Hope’s curiously named “fries with eyes” are also a must. Deep-fried smelts with remoulade sauce.

If you like fish but would rather not see them eye to eye, Farallon’s champagne cured monterey sardines are fresh and perfectly cooked.

At Kokkari, get a few of the greek spreads with house-made grilled pita bread.

At Jeanty at Jack, trust me and go for the creamy tomato soup. It is served covered with a flaky puff pastry, baked golden brown.

At Craft, try the delicious roasted octopus. Definitely one of the best things you can order.

At Heaven’s Dog and Slanted Door, take the whole idea of sharing to heart and try staying on the first part of the menu.

There are few restaurants like Bar Boulud in NY where appetizers outshine entrées by far. The charcuterie selection for example is worth a whole meal. Daniel’s House made fromage de tête and other many pâtés are second to none; an indulgence of beautifully layered flavors and fat.

So next time you go out, consider skipping the entrée and going right back to the appetizers. The smaller portions will likely leave room for dessert. Which come to think of it, it’s like a sweet appetizer after all.


The Editor said...

I absolutely love the soft shell crab BLT and Town Hall is one of my favorite restaurants in SF. Great post!

MyLastBite said...

The head cheese at Boulud looks phenomenal!

Ricardo said...

The Stanton Social in NYC also has a very fine selection of appetizers.