Small plates, tapas-style dining, shared courses, family-style service, and large format meals have been slowly and steadily encroaching on territory that once squarely belonged to the entree. The latest gain: Last weekend, chef of New York City's Empellon Cocina Alex Stupak and Bloomberg critic Ryan Sutton aired their mutual grievances with main courses over Twitter, each concluding that they are no longer necessary. Stupak, who has removed entrees from his menu and vowed he's "never cooking [entrees] again," chalks up his decision to boredom. "Our tacos seem to be what anchors us," Stupak tweeted, "and besides they are more fun to work with then 6-8 ounces of clunky protein."
Sutton applauds Stupak's choice on The Bad Deal: "We also hope Empellon's move helps divorce all of us from the silly notion of a traditional entree, where every guest orders (or ever worse, asserts ownership over) a large protein or pasta. So we're calling this move by Alex Stupak a GOOD DEAL and a STRONG BUY." These two aren't the only ones with strong opinions about the value and future of the entree.
Small plates and shared courses are undeniably holding their own in the battle against entree traditionalism, with restaurants like New York City's Momofuku Ssam Bar and Los Angeles' Son of a Gun eschewing the entree category entirely. Several critics have made the case that entrees just aren't as exciting as other dishes on the menu. This past February, Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold suggested the notion of the main course is dying out. "The idea of appetizing entrees have all disappeared," Gold explained in an interview with UCLA's paper The Daily Bruin.
Of course, this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If chefs like Alex Stupak are bored creating main courses, it stands to reason that their customers will be bored eating them too. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema noted last year that "Appetizers ... tend to be some of the most interesting dishes on the menu, in part because a diner is less likely to become bored by them when they're only a few bites big." A 2011 article for Esquire titled "The Death of the Entree" by writer Tom Judot captures this sense of entree-fatigue well: "You've been conditioned to think of the entree as the climax of the meal, it never is. It is, indeed, almost always disappointing."
[Photo: @alexstupak / Eater NY]
Not everyone is on board with the decline of the main course, however. New York Times critic Pete Wells outlined the shortcomings of small plates dining in a review he filed last summer on a Spanish style restaurant in Brooklyn. "But the pleasures of eating tapas-style can get lost at a table for four, where you may find that just as you realize how much you're enjoying a dish, the person next to you has managed to stab the last forkful." He went into the subject in more depth in a post for the Diners Journal he called "The Big Problem With Small Plates," explaining "At places where there is some skill and dedication in the kitchen, this style of eating leads to a curious phenomenon: the sensation of having eaten a delicious meal without feeling truly satisfied at the end of it."
And it's not a new debate, either. When this issue reared its head after Kim Severson suggested entrees were "heading for extinction" all the way back in an '07 article in the New York Times, then-critic Frank Bruni's response was quite similar to Pete Wells': "A too-long sequence or too-broad collection of too-small plates is like being tickled and tickled and never flat-out hugged. It keeps you alert and leaves you impressed, but it doesn't always leave you sated. It doesn't necessarily leave you feeling fed."
Eater reached out to Ryan Sutton to elaborate on his anti-entree stance:
My mantra -- is that small plates or shared plates menus almost always end up giving diners more precise control over both their culinary and financial experience. With app/entree/dessert restaurants, you typically have to order everything at once so the kitchen can pace the meal. But with small plates venues, waiters often encourage ordering as you go along. That gives the diners a heck of a lot more power to control their individual levels of satiety and spending. Ordering the appetizer/entree/dessert, by contrast, is putting all your eggs in one basket up front at the beginning of the meal. I don't really mind making that commitment to food and time and money for a tasting menu. For an a la carte restaurant, it's a tougher sell.
Do you think it's time to Deathwatch the entree? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
· Stupak Explains Why He Stopped Cooking Entrees [Eater NY]
· The Importance of Small Plates [The Bad Deal]
· Is the Entree Heading for Extinction? [NYT]
· The Big Problem with Small Plates [NYT]
· All Trend Watch Coverage on Eater [-E-]