Small Plates, Modern Greek-Style
by Grace Nguyen
Just when you thought tapas might have peaked, they’re back with a timely purpose. In this economic downturn, small is the way to go as appetizers are outpacing entrees in popularity. Offering small plates gives diners more options while also enticing them to order more dishes, making the convivial "small plates" dining economical for both the consumer and the restaurant. Though listing more appetizers on the menu might increase check averages, it is hardly the end all of strategies. Jason Hall, corporate chef of Anthos and Mia Dona in New York, and executive chef Michael Psilakis are using the Greek equivalent of small plates—mezedes—to add value to the guest’s experience.
At Anthos, Psilakis’s modern Greek restaurant, Hall welcomes guests with an assortment of mezedes upon sitting down. “Gifts from the restaurant,” Hall calls them. A tradition throughout the Mediterranean and intended for the entire table to share, mezedes should be simple and not elaborate: grilled anchovies dressed with olive oil, lemon, and parsley, marinated olives, fried vegetables like zucchini, tiny meatballs—these are the basics of meze (singular for mezedes) dining. In the tavernas—small casual Greek restaurants—meze options are abundant and are often served in a continuous stream. In the home, a table is speckled with mezedes awaiting arrival of expected guests.
At Anthos, Hall raises the meze ante, offering snacks that match his refined cuisine. One meze that Hall offers is a duck fat confited rabbit loin that’s been breaded, fried, and served alongside a celery root remoulade. Another is a soft-boiled quail egg, encased in a spicy lamb sausage and then roasted, keeping the yolk runny inside. As a fun play on salt and vinegar chips, Hall uses a technique developed by Psilakis; he pickles fingerling potato chips in distilled white vinegar before frying them. For service, he packs freshly fried chips atop a mound of tarama aioli (salted carp roe folded into a garlic aioli), sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper.
Operationally, meze offers a way to utilize excess trim or by-product and works particularly well in fine-dining kitchens, as exacting specific geometrical shapes inherently produces waste. For the smoked halibut taramasalata, Hall uses the excess trimmings from the entree portions. When swordfish comes into the restaurant, Hall takes the belly, confits it in duck fat, and uses the result in keftedes, a traditional Greek-style meatball meze. In the summer, Hall makes a lamb tartare with pickled crosnes using the trimming from the lamb loin.
But regardless of cost efficiency, mezedes are not just a dumping ground for food waste. For Hall, it’s a collaboration between him and his cooks that takes place at the end of each day—a great outlet for their creativity. From his line cooks to the economy to operational issues, Hall funnels these playful bites toward providing a sense of added-value for his diners. He encourages other chefs to play with the idea of incorporating meze, or even the concept, into their menu. The idea of meze is already out there—small bites meant to be nibbled and shared—it’s just a matter of how the spirit of mezedes is translated into the style of your restaurant. “In this economic climate, it gives people the satisfaction of eating more for their money, which makes them happy,” Hall says.