Three restaurants are enough for a trend, right? If that’s the case, Dallas dining officially has an exciting new fashion: small, creative, snack-sized appetizers, priced per person. For $3-7, you can enjoy one or two bites of an inventive dish at El Carlos Elegante, Quarter Acre, and Rye.
It’s a variation on the old idea of the “amuse-bouche,” a tiny appetizer sent out for free by the chef to welcome guests to the meal. These aren’t free, but they’re priced appropriately for their modest size and meant to be ordered by one person. (I tried splitting some at Rye. It resulted in arguments over who got more.)
And—let’s cut to the chase—this trend is great! I love it for many reasons. For one thing, all three restaurants are knocking their tiny snacks out of the park. El Carlos Elegante’s “one-hitters” are some of the restaurant’s most memorable bites, including a single dressed oyster, a crab-and-masa fritter with guajillo pepper, and the world’s tiniest crispy taco, filled with a “surf and turf” combination of raw A5 beef and caviar. (That last indulgence pushes up to $9.) Rye’s $6 raviolo—yes, singular—takes serious craft, with housemade eggy pasta dough, ricotta, braised rabbit, and, in a sly tribute to Bugs Bunny, carrot sauce and carrot chips. Quarter Acre’s offerings include a $3 vegetarian “brassica ball,” with diced-up bitter veggies mixed up with sweet goat cheese and topped with a crispy quinoa crumble. If you’re feeling indulgent, you can spend a whole $5 on a potato chip topped with smoked fish and caviar.
Second reason I love this trend: it’s practical for both the restaurant and customer. Many of these snacks are deluxe canapés, easy for chefs to prepare ahead. Even when they must be made to order, it’s easier to drop, say, a couple of ravioli into the pasta pot than to mix a tiny two-bite salad.
For diners, these snacks can help to settle some of the age-old headaches of shared appetizers. Have you ever been given an appetizer plate of five fritters, deviled eggs, or meatballs? Unless you brought four friends, your table is going to have a little argument about who gets the last piece. Not if everyone orders their own tiny appetizer! Same goes if you are dining with (or you are yourself) a picky eater.
Toby Archibald, chef-owner of Quarter Acre, says that customers are loving the snack format.
“Obviously, at friends and family, they just gobbled it up because it was free,” he explains, referring to the private preview nights where a restaurant practices for service by cooking for invited friends. “But the general public, they’re loving it. It’s a fun way to start a meal.”
It really is a fun way to start a meal. In a weird psychological trick I can’t explain, these little snacks don’t quite feel like part of the dinner itself. When I’m planning what to order, trying not to eat too much and feel too full, somehow the snacks don’t count. I’ve caught myself thinking, “That sounds like a good amount of food. And then we can throw in two or three snacks, too.” That’s not how metabolism works, but snacks are just that irresistible.
I must regretfully report that the original iconic Dallas restaurant “snack” has, sadly, graduated to full appetizer status. Lucia’s menu long opened with the suggestion of one single foie gras-stuffed prune, for (if memory serves) $3. When I visited in November, that offering had been replaced by a grown-up plate of six stuffed prunes for $12. Another dish with the potential to become a beloved “snack,” Meridian’s beef tartare folded into shiso leaves, has left its menu entirely.
But the bigger trend is still heading in the opposite direction. Next time you go out for a nice dinner, make tiny snacks a part of your meal. Try a thumb-sized caviar taco. Splurge on a wedge of Icelandic hot dog. Devour a brassica and cheese ball.
If we’re lucky, Dallas chefs will use the petite snack as a new avenue to express some of their most creative, clever ideas.