Oct. 18--There was a comical saying that made the rounds with my mother's generation, "Life's short, eat dessert first." As a kid, I used to see it on T-shirts, notepads and posters. No one knew what a meme or a GIF was back then, but had they existed, the "Life's short, eat dessert first" saying would have been spread across the interwebs and into homes all across the world.
As popular as desserts are, I am 180-degrees in the opposite camp. I can -- and often do -- make a meal off of the appetizer offerings, alone. There are many times I'll go out to eat and never even look at the right side of the menu.
It seems that the most creative offerings are almost always listed among the starters. I have always been a fan of the appetizer section of a menu. In my 20s, when I was spending a lot of time researching various restaurants -- before I opened my first one, and even after -- I would stress out trying to decide which appetizer to order. I was limiting myself to one, trying to save room for an entrée and dessert. One day I finally said, "to hell with it," and just ordered all three of the appetizers I was deciding among. From that moment on, I didn't let the traditional appetizer-entrée-dessert order of service dictate my dining experience.
I'm not sure what it is that makes the appetizer section more attractive to me. It may be that the entrée section is often filled with "required" items. Some restaurants have to offer a steak choice (or two). There needs to be some type of poultry and typically a seafood item or two. Once all of the prerequisites are covered there's not a lot of room for new and inventive entrées. That's why daily features are so important.
When it comes to eating entrées in a restaurant, I find myself eating one of the chef's featured entrées more often than a straight menu choice. I think a lot of people consider a restaurant's feature program as nothing more than a way to dispose of random food items that may be hanging around. That may be the case on occasion, but, more often than not, it's been my experience that a restaurant's nightly features are opportunities to showcase seasonal ingredients and the culinary team's creativity. Daily feature appetizers are usually even more interesting than the entrées.
The Spanish get it right when it comes to dining. I don't believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I would have to believe that at least six or seven of my past lives were spent in Spain as an owner, or frequent customer, of a tapas bar. For the one person out there who might not know what tapas are, they are small portions of savory dishes typically served in a bar or small restaurant. The portions are smaller than American first course offerings, but I've always seen that as a bonus, as there are more options from which to choose.
Spain is ground zero for devotees of small plates and starters. The first time I ever visited Spain, I knew I was going to like the cuisine. Most tapas bars display many of the plated items in a small display case on a counter. My favorite tapas bar in all of Spain is a small spot tucked away in a Barcelona back alley called Tapeo. Chef Dani works the kitchen alongside a prep cook/dishwasher and a bartender serves all of the tapas dishes. Three people run the entire joint. On my first visit to Barcelona, I spent three meals in Tapeo over a four-day period. I never do that. I rarely return even once to the same spot.
There is a rib dish that Chef Dani offers in which he par-boils the individual ribs in a skillet filled with extra virgin olive oil. He then finishes them in an oven with a light glaze that has nothing to do with American-style barbecue sauce, but they are as good as any rib I have eaten stateside. He also fries potatoes in the same extra virgin olive oil in which he par-cooks the ribs. This process takes fried potatoes to an entirely new stratosphere.
During those days in which I limited myself to one appetizer before moving on to the entrée section of a menu, I would also eat a first course that was so good I would often think to myself, "That appetizer is so spot on, I could eat another one and skip the entrée." One day I did just that, and -- what my restaurant managers call -- the St. John Maneuver was born. The first time I ever did that was at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. They served a shrimp appetizer that was so good I wanted another. I was a little embarrassed, but the server didn't care. Actually, I think the server thought it made perfect sense. I ordered another one as a dual appetizer, and then I ordered a third as my entrée. It's a practice I still do, often.
These days I often have an entire meal from the appetizer and salad section. Life's short. Get full on appetizers and skip dessert.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Tasso and Smoked Cheddar Cheesecake at robertstjohn.com.
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