How can mascarpone crepes, brie en croute with honeycomb or Malbec-braised short ribs possibly fit into the framework of a healthy diet? They can, as long as long as the size is right. Operators are taking advantage of the small-plates trend to deliver calorie-controlled bites filled with indulgent flavors customers crave while also staying on top of rising food costs.
Consider this: A typical order of potato gnocchi with creamy gorgonzola and walnuts might contain more than 1,000 calories. But at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, small plates such as this can weigh in at 200 calories or less.
On any given day, dining services offers anywhere from two to 12 of these small plates alongside the usual standard-size fare arancini with pesto or tomato sauce, fried banana spring rolls with palm sugar and mashed potatoes.
“We’re really talking about a taste,” says Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for dining at the University of Illinois. “Some students choose to make a meal out of small plates, while others treat a small plate as a side.”
Operators such as Aubrey see small plates as a way to keep costs steady amid customer demand for increasingly sophisticated fare.
“The trend has actually helped us stay flat with food costs,” Aubrey says. “With increased food prices, this is a great way for us to serve items that are higher in cost in a really spectacular, special way.”
At Kettering Medical Center in Kettering, Ohio, nutrition services offers bistro-style dishes such as sliced flank steak with blue-cheese biscuits or polenta wedges topped with black-bean salsa on dessert plates in the doctors’ lounge. Cheryl Shimmin, network director of nutrition services, says the presentation makes the dishes look more elegant, something busy physicians appreciate.
At Reading Health System in West Reading Pa., Executive Chef David Robison indulges medical staff with lavish small plates for catered events. “They’re really meant for one person, no more than four bites,” Robison says. “But in my opinion, anything can be a small plate.”
For example, at the annual National Doctor’s Day banquet, Robison’s menu typically features seven to 10 small plates, including exotic dishes such as tandoori-spiced chicken roulade, quinoa garbanzo bean cakes with avocado tzatziki and wild boar sausage.
Of course, a heavy emphasis on higher-end menu items means there’s always the possibility for plate costs to skyrocket. “If you’re not cross-utilizing core ingredients, it has the potential to become wasteful,” Robison says. “So like any menu, it has to be written skillfully.”