This past summer, long before he was raising Guy Fieri's frosted tip hackles, New York Times food critic Pete Wells was lashing out against the continuing "small plate" trend and its tendency -- as Wells put it -- to lend "the sensation of having eaten a delicious meal without feeling truly satisfied at the end of it." He elaborated further:
Part of the problem is that Americans ask tapas dishes to do things they weren't really meant to do. On their home turf, tapas were meant as ballast for drinkers in bars, and to bridge the long gap between the Spanish siesta and dinner, which nobody in Spain seems to think about before at least 10 p.m. But in the United States, with its narrow-minded insistence on a mere three meals a day, tapas has become dinner.
This is entirely true, and it's what can make an experience at a small plate-based or tapas restaurant so frustrating for American diners. If you're not carving up an already tiny portion of shrimp to split amongst hungry friends, then you're paying $15 a plate for your own rather meager dinner -- which almost always has to be supplemented by a few more small plates, thus beginning a sort of domino effect which ends with a $50 bill and a grumbling stomach.
Adding insult to injury, more places seem determined to steer away from the "small plates" designation and instead bill themselves as tapas restaurants. MF Sushi -- the new Japanese restaurant from sushi whiz Chris Kinjo -- is billing itself as "sushi tapas and lounge," for example. And although early reports are that MF Sushi is nothing short of spectacular, the silly naming convention still grates.
The Woodlands import promises tapas and delivers them: simple, straightforward Spanish dishes, cooked well and served without pretense or fuss. The newest location in Uptown Park is instantly warm and welcoming, and the Moorish-inspired patio architecture even lends the slightest notion that you could be dining on some sunny Spanish street on nice days.
More to the point, these "small plates" are never too small to share. All of the portions I've received at 1252 Tapas are more than enough to split between two or three people, and you could easily make a meal with two yourself: three flaky, fat beef empanadas for $9 and a plate of beautiful roasted asparagus and tomatoes with lemon aioli and a boiled egg for $8. Or maybe a charming dish of baby octopus braised in its own ink for $8 (with at least six plump little guys swimming around in there) and a mixed greens salad with shrimp and goat cheese for $6.
If you go at lunch, it's an even better bet: $12.52 will get you a four-course, bento-style box with a soup, salad, entree and side. My box one afternoon netted plenty of jealous glances from some ladies dining at Cafe Express, whose patio abuts the one at 1252 Tapas and offers a far nicer eating experience at lunch.
When a restaurant calls itself a tapas place, but charges $20 for two bites? That's when my blood runs cold. But when a restaurant is true to its name and serves generous, well-priced portions, it's easy to agree with food writers such as Besha Rodell in Los Angeles who hope the small plates trend is here to stay -- even if the Spaniards have been successfully employing this "trend" for centuries.
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"But much like Japan and sushi, Spain's way of eating has infiltrated to the point where we claim it as our own," Rodell wrote in LA Weekly this past August. "And much like sushi, there will be a period of derision and then it will be such an integral part of our dining culture than people will cease to comment on it at all."