Magic Portions

New Orleans, LA – We're told from an early age not to play with our food. But that hasn't stopped local restaurants from playing with their portions.

The upscale restaurant menu used to be a fairly regimented affair no matter where you dined. Appetizer, entree, dessert. Everyone understood it, simple as one, two, three.

Now though, it's increasingly common to open a fine-dining menu and find a new focus on portions much smaller than the traditional meat-and-potatoes main course, and diners are now increasingly invited to fill their table with a smattering of diminutive dishes. Some of these are bigger than typical appetizers, but not nearly so substantial as entrees. Some are smaller than typical appetizers, but still more than an hors d'oeuvre.

The option of creatively ordering an all-appetizer meal has always been out there, of course. But now it is being explicitly packaged and promoted by restaurants themselves. It's the small plate trend, and it's one that seems to be gaining momentum.

The Old Metairie restaurant Vega Tapas Cafe long cornered the local market for this meal style with its very contemporary, fine-dining interpretation of the Spanish small plates tradition. But the format is turning up more and more frequently today, and with some interesting new twists.

When the French Quarter restaurant Peristyle was re-branded as Wolfe's last year, chef Tom Wolfe added a second menu of small plates -- from fish tacos to steak tartare - alongside his more conventional list of appetizers and entrees. At Le Meritage, the new restaurant at the Maison Dupuy hotel, every dish is available as half or full portions. Like crab cakes? Get one as a small portion or two as a full entree. Even suggested wine pairings are offered in full and half pours here.

There's no doubt chefs are trying to build excitement with this format, and appeal to diners' curiosity. And it does provide an easy overview of their cuisine without requiring as much commitment --- in terms of money or appetite.

One of the more surprising new entries in the small plates trend is Emeril's Delmonico. This has been the most reliably traditional of chef Emeril Lagasse's three local restaurants, firmly rooted in the old school. Yet even here, the menu was recently rewritten to include what are now termed small, medium and full plates. Smalls can be as simple as marinated olives or as engineered as a miniaturized portion of fish and chips. Mediums are another step up the ladder, but not quite so substantial as a full plate, previously known as an entree.

Delmonico still preserves some traditional Creole dishes, now dubbed "Delmonico classics," and the restaurant's dry-aged steaks remain a focal point. But the small plate trend has been embraced so fully here it even extends to dessert. If fruit cobbler seems too daunting, there's cheesecake "bites" under the small category. Ice cream qualifies as a "medium" dessert, by the way. But the list goes all the way up to mega finales, like bananas Foster prepared tableside for two.

Perhaps there's another twist to this whole small plates thing, then, something in line with that old mealtime advice we always heard about not playing with our food. Maybe the restraint of smaller portions up front will help more people save room for dessert.

Emeril's Delmonico
1300 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, 504-525-4937

Le Meritage
1001 Toulouse St., New Orleans, 504-522-8800

Vega Tapas Cafe
2051 Metairie Rd., Metairie, 504-836-2007

Wolfe's Restaurant
1041 Dumaine St., New Orleans, 504-593-9535