Little Pleasures 

Missoula embraces the small-plate trend

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“People really eat in-season in Missoula,” he says. “Menu writing is a three-month process, so when I write the menu in July, I’m thinking, ‘what’s in season in the fall?’” His planning is reflected in several items on the newest menu, which includes eggplant fries, roasted fingerling potatoes and a grilled fall vegetable medley.

“I get the staff involved,” he says. “Sometimes we go back to the drawing board, make some changes. Then it’s a success.”

click to enlarge Kale Ceasar, James Bar - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Kale Ceasar, James Bar
All dishes, he adds, must get approval from their main taster, owner Nick Checota.

On a busy Friday evening, Crobar’s six-man line will put out 500 plates. That includes 150 handmade flatbread pizzas. The walls of the kitchen are floor-to-ceiling dry erase panels, and covered with lists of prep items. “We go through a ton of produce. We make everything from scratch. We cook as fast as we can, and the staff runs food as fast as we can. I feel like what we’re doing is a little groundbreaking.”

The whole small-plates trend is definitely taking off in Missoula, in part because of the exceptional quality and wide variety of the dishes, and partly because of the social aspect of small-plate dining.

“Smaller plates offer the ability to draw out the dining experience and create a platform for human connection through conversation,” says Brett Evje, owner of Plonk. His restaurant’s menu is about 50/50 between small plates and full-sized offerings.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Beef Tartare, Plonk
“The foundation for our food is in Western Europe and the Mediterranean, with the New American twist, which focuses on local products as much as possible,” he says. “We try our hardest to reflect the seasons in our menu creations.” Currently the most popular small-menu item is the beet and goat cheese terrine.

Evje is not new to the small-plates phenomenon, having offered sampler-portioned items 10 years ago in his Bozeman restaurant. In addition to the social gathering aspect of small-plate dining, he points out that the trend is actually a move away from the supersize mentality of restaurant portions in a country struggling with epidemic obesity.

“It eliminates the ‘feeding trough’ mentality of dining, which is to shovel as much food as possible in as short of timeframe as possible,” he says. “Plus, you get to try many different flavors throughout the course of the meal and drink way more wine.”

Indeed, the conversational lubricant of alcohol is one of the elements of this dining style that attracts more social, lively groups who would rather tip back a few and gabble the night away than eat themselves into a food coma with a monster steak or a platter of pasta. It’s a different approach than traditional restaurant dining. Servers must be well-versed in a wide variety of cuisines, and the rhythm of their service is far different from the standard three-courses-and-the-check meal.

“We’re really trying to teach people how to eat and drink in this community,” says Sam Risho. “Missoula is a very cultural town.” The Silk Road does have its favorite items that loyal patrons (they have a 3,000-name mailing list) will not allow them to drop from the menu, some actually holdovers from father Ray’s late, lamented Perugia. Still, he says, “our customers know they’re going to try something new every time. Our menu is constantly changing and evolving.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Crab Dip, Silk Road
The tapas-style movement is having an impact on other restaurants, some who have put together a small-plates menu, others that have greatly expanded their appetizer menus to accommodate the growing popularity of sample-and-share dining.

Small plates are ideal for the adventurous diner with a sophisticated palate, but it’s also a good fit for those who are skittish at the prospect of gambling $32 on a full-sized entrée they’ve never tried. Pricing for a bona fide small-plates experience in Missoula ranges from the $7–$8 per plate at the Top Hat to the $12 average at Plonk. That means you can spread a few choices out among your group, have an extra glass of wine or two, and have the best of both worlds that combines a broad buffet with fine cuisine.

Sam Risho sums it up: “It really all just comes down to making people happy.”

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