Dine: Trendy nibbling not for all

As new spots push smaller plates, they're finding Pittsburgh diners still prefer their bigger meals

Who would have thought that in the city that invented french fries on a sandwich that a bar would be selling single rounds of toasted baguette?

At The Livermore in East Liberty, which opened last month, the Bar Marco sibling with really small plates sells individual crostini for $1.25 a piece, topped with duck liver, beef tartare, salt cod, anchovy or tomato chutney and their accoutrements. Like selling a rustic amuse-bouche, it's a two-bite dish.

As trendy spots roll out all sorts of choices when it comes to portion size, many Pittsburghers still believe that bigger meals are the way to eat out.

Small plates -- which have been offered at some Pittsburgh restaurants for years -- resonate with diners who are health conscious and price conscious. They certainly provide less food and less expensive options (each plate is often less than $10) -- unless several small plates are ordered at a time, which can rack up a hefty tab and combination of calories. And while they're often designed for sharing, a bite per person among a table of four can be less than satisfying.

Contrast these with Pittsburgh's old-school, gargantuan-sized entrees, plates piled with meat and sides or a mound of pasta. These appeal to diners looking for value and possibly some leftovers. Diners equate quantity with quality.

While assertive restaurants such as The Livermore fall in one camp, in this in-between era, many restaurants offer both.

In East Liberty, Brian Pekarcik's Spoon features a dinner menu that gives small and large plates equal real estate. One side of the menu displays appetizers such as a $7 Caesar salad or a $14 seared scallop with foie gras, while full plates range from the $19 short rib and oxtail tagliatelle to the $28 surf and turf.

Yet at Grit & Grace, Mr. Pekarcik's restaurant that will open late fall in the former Taste of Dahntahn space on Liberty Avenue, the chef will feature smaller portions that align with how he likes to eat these days.

Mr. Pekarcik said it's because he enjoys variety. "I don't know if it's restaurants I've sought out in New York or San Francisco, but in the last few years, I've enjoyed small plates or that in-between size that's bigger than a small plate or smaller than an entree," he said.

Portion size was addressed elsewhere last week in "I'll Have What You're Having" in The New York Times' dining pages, as the dish for two gains popularity. It's a wedge bigger than the old-fashioned entree, served on oversized plates, platters and trays for emphasis. An example is the chicken parmigiana for two at Quality Italian, "so expansive that it looks as if it could serve as the landing pad for a remote-control helicopter," Jeff Gordinier of the Times wrote.

As he collects ideas in his travels for his new Downtown restaurant, Mr. Pekarcik cites Avec in Chicago and Rich Table in San Francisco among his favorite recent dining experiences. "Everyone is drinking, passing plates," he said. "That's really energetic and social."

"I like to order five or six things without committing to a coursed, sit-down dinner," he said, noting the irony that it's different from the more traditional dining at Spoon.

Casa Reyna in the Strip caters to traditionalists and small-plate zealots by offering some appetizers and entrees of essentially the same dish.

For $9, diners can order four mini tacos of steak, barbacoa, al pastor, seafood or carnitas, garnished with onions, cilantro and a choice of salsa. For a $7 to $10 entree, it's a pair of tacos, same filling, served with rice and beans. The restaurant gets twice as many orders for the entree-sized tacos as the appetizer.

"A lot of people come here and take things to go," said owner Nic DiCio, citing the restaurant's large portions and his consideration of whether the kitchen should make them smaller.

Fifty percent more diners order entrees at Casa Reyna than appetizers, he said. Despite the trend, Mr. DiCio said he prefers small plates. "I don't really eat a lot."

At fine-dining restaurants with just-right-sized entrees (with little chance of leftovers), brunch service allows a restaurant to beef up portions and drop the cost per person.

The dinner menu at Eleven in the Strip displays more $12 to $14 appetizers and salads than $22 to $39 entrees, with proteins weighing in at about 6 to 61/2 ounces per entree, such as the wild-striped bass with heirloom tomatoes and poached potatoes for $34.

On the bar menu and for tasting menu courses, the portion sizes are halved compared to the regular menu, said executive chef Derek Stevens.

Brunch is another story. "Brunch is a little crazy," he said. "Especially if you get those giant sticky buns," which arrive at a table as a warm slab of cinnamon bread with icing.

During Sunday brunch, most diners opt for the $25 prix fixe, which includes a choice of appetizer and entree, as well as a choice of fresh juice or brunch cocktail. "The cost for brunch items is lower," he said. "And we want it to be perceived as value, a good bargain."

Very few new restaurants debut with big portions, though Matteo's in Lawrenceville goes against trend.

Chef Matthew Cavanaugh, an alum of Sarafino's in Crafton who opened his restaurant on Butler Street in February, was advised to serve smaller portions like other restaurants in the neighborhood.

"I was told people will pay more for less here," he said. "But I just can't do it."

During lunch and dinner service, it seems like an entire farmed row of greens fill the bowl of the $15 greens and beans with sausage or shrimp. And it's a challenge to make a dent in the $18 lamb ragu or $16 linguine vongole without a voracious appetite or help from a friend.

"I go out to dinner at some places and spend $200 for a tasting menu," he said. "After I'm through I can go out and get something else to eat. It's not enough food."

At Matteo's, brisk business during lunch and dinner suggests that despite restaurants' focus on small plates, many Pittsburghers seek out dishes plated for value, with plenty for leftovers.

"That's where I come from," he said. "It's what we do."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published September 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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