Little Pleasures 

Missoula embraces the small-plate trend

When Missoula’s legendary chef Ray Risho first agreed to let his teenage son, Abraham, work in his restaurant, he gave his boy one condition: “I will teach you to cook if you promise me one thing—you won’t make a career out of this.” Much to the delight of several thousand fans of his global approach to creating exquisite small plates, Abraham didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

His restaurant, The Silk Road, (co-owned with his brother Sam Risho and sister-in-law Elise Winston-Risho) has been offering adventures in small-plate dining for more than four years, and several other Missoula restaurants have also recently joined the trend.

Beef Medallions, Top Hat Lounge - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Beef Medallions, Top Hat Lounge
“Ray calls it ‘gastronomical diplomacy,’” says Sam about the popular Missoula restaurant’s constantly changing dishes that reflect cuisine from all over the world. Their current menu incorporates flavors from France, Japan, Egypt, Austria, and even features a killer crab dip from the U.S. Northeast. They also sell a line of spices they’ve developed over the years, culling flavors from all around the world.

“You get a huge variety of stuff without getting full,” said one Silk Road diner on a recent busy Friday night.

“It’s like going to a wine tasting, only with food,” added his companion, spearing a fried ravioli stuffed with lemony ricotta and goat cheese.

The Latin version of small-plate dining, tapas, is enjoying some major success at Missoula’s Top Hat Lounge. Erin Crobar, the Top Hat’s chef and epicurean mastermind, has been drawing a packed house every weekend with his traditional, Spanish-based tapas menu ever since the longtime Missoula landmark reopened last spring, fully remodeled and ready to rock.

“We’ve developed more than a hundred dishes in seven months,” he says. The venue’s opening menu, which he spent several months researching and creating in test kitchens, listed 32 dishes. He has since rotated the entire menu twice.

Crobar, like the other Missoula chefs who specialize in small plates, draws his ingredients from local sources as much as possible. But for his traditional tapas recipes, he keeps it authentic, using serranos, olive oil and chorizos from Spain. He develops all the dishes on his own, giving everything a bit of a twist that reflects his background in French and Pacific Rim cuisine.

“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.”

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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