When I was in college in a small Midwestern town, I had a friend, now a chef, who cohosted frequent dinner parties with his roommate. We would pile into their sparsely decorated, wood-floor apartment, and they would serve our ragtag bunch bowls of bicolor soup with drizzles on top and carefully constructed towers of ingredients that often, but not always, tasted good together. Handwritten menus offered choices to circle with the Sharpie making its way around the table, and the wine always flowed.
I hadn't thought of those gatherings in years, until I ate at Small Plates in Harvard Square. Then I remembered the bare-bones romance of them, the sense of experimentation and possibility, and the well-intentioned stumbles, born of ambition. A meal at Small Plates is reminiscent of a dinner party in the university-town apartment of someone who is cooking to please you. The restaurant even feels a bit like a living room, open and light with worn hardwood floors, white walls accented by a red-and-gray stripe, slightly drafty windows, and mirrors framed in dark wood on the walls. It's set back from the street, through a gate and down a path, in the space that was Iruña forever and Conundrum for a heartbeat.
The simplicity of the surroundings is welcome. It's a backdrop to the food, which is lush in conception, rather than the competing force sometimes found at restaurants featuring small plates. The decor at Dali or Cuchi Cuchi, for example, hollers fun; that at Small Plates says "We'll let you figure this out for yourselves." The biggest tip-off to the food's sensibility is the quote emblazoned on the lampshades and the menu, attributed to one Nanthida Bernardeau, whomever she may be (I'm imagining the free-spirited, literary-minded heiress to the fortune of a china-manufacturing clan).
It reads, "Who is to say that 'bigger is better'? I've often wondered that. Can you not fit more kumquats in a jar than you could, say, spools of twine? Flavors are similar. Give me small plates any day & an extraordinary bottle of wine and I will be happy forever." Whimsical, bohemian, and just a bit random in its juxtapositions (kumquats and twine?).
And that's the menu for you. It encompasses Cajun braised rabbit, blue cheese raclette, chicken satay, and "Pi a la Mood: whatever we feel like serving." Though it's mostly tapas-style, little bites for everyone to pass around, a few dishes (lamb chops, salmon) can be upsized to entrees, and there's a paella for two. The whimsy is devised by Jerome Picca, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Stephanie Rossi-Picca. He has cooked in New Orleans with acclaimed chef Susan Spicer and locally at restaurants including former namesake Jerome's (now J's) at Nashoba Valley Winery. She's an interior designer who oversaw Small Plates' makeover.
Nanthida's kumquats appear in the flesh on a "warm" platter of eclectic nibbles. (There's a "cold" platter as well.) They sit beside rich, tasty little squares of grilled polenta topped with braised leeks, a wedge of brie, a dish of the Middle Eastern spread muhammara, green grapes, and dried apricots turned rose-colored and voluptuous after soaking in port. The brie and particularly the muhammara could be warmer. The orange-red spread, made from red peppers and walnuts, still has the chill on it from the icebox; as it comes to room temperature, its flavors start to emerge. But even if this would more aptly be called the lukewarm platter, it's a lovely way to begin a shared meal.
The menu gets cute with a pair of mini-burgers it calls "two killer B's on buns." The kind of burger changes frequently. The night we try them, they are indeed pretty killer - juicy, not-too-lamby lamb burgers. Also killer, though harder to pun on, is a plate of organic wild mushrooms recommended to us by our waitress. A tangle of oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, and more, enhanced by a mellow hit of poached garlic, they're amazingly delicious, far superior to the mushrooms we've found at fancy steakhouses around town. Chicken satay features juicy skewered meat and peanut sauce, the traditional flavors given a jolt with a bright yellow pineapple chutney.
One of the best dishes at Small Plates consists of a combination you wouldn't expect to knock your socks off. New Bedford scallops are seared and served with black sticky rice and caper berries. The rice tastes almost as if there's coconut milk in it (it's just rice, water, salt, and pepper, Picca says later). The caper berries, briny as bladderwrack, offer crunch with their many seeds. The nuttiness of the rice, pucker of the caper berries, and sweet sea flavor of scallops are an improbably complementary trio. This is the kind of eclecticism Small Plates is aiming for.
Not so much that of the vegetable strata, the accompaniments of which are described as "jal freze, curry oil." It sounds so intriguing! And it is beautiful to look at, though nothing like the eggy dish one might expect (it's vegan). The "strata" here are literal - layers. It's a rainbow stack of vegetables: a round of beet, a slice of jicama, a sliver of carrot. But where the description made it sound exotic, it's something a rabbit might enjoy (though not a Cajun braised rabbit). If there's curry oil, we can't find it. It would be nice to taste more of the bright green jalfrezi, a mixture of peas and aromatics.
Likewise, the spicing on that Cajun rabbit is as timid as a mouse. And the blue cheese raclette is not a raclette, but more of a terrine - a crumbly mound not even a little melty. After trying a bite, everyone smiles politely and moves on.
The night we have pi a la mood, it's a dense, cocoa-y concoction that satisfies the chocolate urge. There's no point in describing it further, because the chef may no longer be in that mood if you visit Small Plates. You might find another chocolate version, though, one involving roasted bananas or mango coulis, or maybe a peach-pear cobbler. Or try the pear and frangipane tart, almond-y goo and fruit atop a nice, buttery crust. The jasmine rice pudding sounds seductive, but it's a dry, cold, tasteless hillock of rice; it might worth ordering, though, for the shot of sweet and spicy Mexican hot chocolate it's served with.
Small Plates bills itself as a restaurant and wine bar, and after a struggle with licensing it's now able to start fulfilling the second part of its mission. Right now it has a short but sweet list of glasses, half bottles, and bottles, as well as sangria and rebujitos, the wine-and-soda cocktails popular in Spain. Picca says they'll be introducing more wine and beer cocktails as the weather gets warmer.
Clearly, Small Plates wants to make Nanthida happy forever. And you, too. It's what you'd expect from a restaurant based around the concept of sharing.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.