My local paper, the Reading Post, has invited me back for the second instalment of RG1 EAT, my column about food and eating out. My friends, by and large, are very happy for me - mainly because they think I'm going to get offered lots of free meals and they'll get to accompany me to restaurants for nothing. Wendy, for instance, read my column in delight on the funbus and said "You're going to be the Carrie Bradshaw of food!"
"No, I'm going to be more like Gil Chesterton." I said, because I know my limitations if nothing else.
Later on, one of my favourite local restaurants told me on Twitter that they were nervous when I went in for dinner shortly before my column was due in the paper. "It's like having Giles Coren in" they said, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that that felt like a compliment, although I keep telling myself that I'm not quite as much of a cock as he is.
Anyway, the piece below appeared in the Reading Post on Wednesday and is written by someone who is approximately 25% Carrie Bradshaw, 25% Giles Coren and 50% Gil Chesterton. I hope you like it.
The London Street Brasserie used to have something on its menu which I found really odd. Not a dish, a suggestion: at the top of the list of starters was this sentence, in italics - Two starters makes an ideal light lunch. I remember thinking it was the silliest thing I’d ever read, but it turns out that they were ahead of their time; small plates were the next big thing in London a couple of years ago, and now they are coming to a chain restaurant near you.
For most countries, this idea of eating lots of little dishes with friends or family is second nature. Tapas is the one we’re most used to (and good tapas, even if it’s something as straightforward as slabs of manchego and slivers of jamon, is a wonderful thing) but there are many others, from sushi to mezze. On location, it makes sense; watching the Turks eat out in Istanbul for instance - a good-natured hubbub of shouting, gesticulation and passing plates around - it’s difficult to imagine a better way of eating.
You don’t see anything remotely like that in restaurants here; it seems a British fetish to lock ourselves in the three-stage cage of starters, main courses and desserts. There are tasting menus, I suppose, but they’re high-end stuff and even then it’s one dish at a time, a conveyor belt of miniature delights like a culinary Generation Game.
Besides, I have a sneaking feeling that sharing food just isn’t in our nature. My meal is my meal, we seem to say, you can have a forkful if you must, but if you want any more you should have ordered it yourself (unless my meal is disappointing, in which case you can have as much as you like). The main exception is curry, but I reckon that’s because everyone always orders more than they can physically eat, so letting other people have some is no great loss.
I’d like to see small plates catch on. I liken them to my iPod (bear with me) - I have a playlist on there of songs I love which are less than three minutes long. I listen to that playlist when I’m in a rush and it’s perfect; every track is bite-sized and if I’m not in the mood for one it doesn’t matter, because I know another will be along in no time.
Will they catch on, though? I’m not sure. So far, they’ve mainly been picked up by the Italian chains; Zizzi, Strada and Carluccios are all experimenting with them on their menus, calling them Cicheti, Antipastini and Stuzzichini respectively. The thing is, it feels like lip service; they are at the beginning of the menu before the starters, and the suggestion is that you have them too, just a middle-class way of going large for people too posh to go to Burger King (only Zizzi, in fact, seems to have grasped the idea that you might want these instead of a pizza).
Meanwhile, if you want to try small plates as they should be I recommend you go to Kyrenia in Caversham. It’s their tenth birthday this year and their mezze is still as perfect as it was on day one, whether it’s smoky houmous or squeaky halloumi. Best of all, for me at least, is the octopus - marinated in red wine and oregano and simply grilled, it’s one of my favourite dishes in the whole of Reading. It proves my other theory about small plates right, too – when you really love a dish, the plate is always too small.