I was recently at a very fancy catered reception at a private home in San Francisco, and all the appetizers were served in ceramic spoons or shot glasses, reminiscent of amuse-bouche in restaurants.
Every bite and shot delivered a distinct and memorable taste. It was so pleasant not to be balancing a tiny plate while trying to eat, or holding a half-eaten something on a napkin while managing my wine glass at the same time, not to mention trying to eat something with a fork. As the appetizers were passed, the server kindly waited for guests to replace their empty spoon on the tray. Voila! Free hands and no looking for what to do with an empty plate or a crumpled napkin.
It seems that everywhere I go these days, tasting portions are on the rise. In fact, I was in Healdsburg recently for an overnight getaway with my husband to visit our friend’s Sanglier Vineyards tasting room and to have dinner at Chalkboard restaurant. Before our 7 p.m. dinner reservation, we decided to go to Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar for a glass of wine and an appetizer.
The server there explained to us that all the dishes on the menu were small, sort of like tapas, and encouraged us to order several different ones to make a meal-size equivalent, or perhaps fewer, if we were just looking for an appetizer with the wine. Although we perused the menu, we ordered only a half-dozen oysters, because we anticipated a serious dinner.
At Chalkboard, the same thing happened. Our server explained that the dishes were small, and that we should order several to make our meal, which we did. Pork Belly Biscuits (worth the drive just for these), Halibut Crudo, Bucatini with Sea Urchin Sauce, Seared Scallops with Risotto Cakes, and Petrale Sole with Duck Fat Potatoes, plus a cheese course, constituted our meal. All was preceded by an amuse-bouche soup shot of foamed Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perfect.
It’s an idea that translates perfectly to the holiday season. Instead of a party with a buffet table groaning with dips, spreads, salads, meats, cheeses, stacks of little plates (plus utensils), consider setting out appetizers of interesting soups in shot glasses or demitasse cups, and tasting-size portions of ready-to-savor dishes in one-bite sizes on spoons.
Part of the entertainment is gathering pretty demitasse cups and a collection of spoons, if you like that sort of thing, and I do. It’s an opportunity to be casual – not everything matches – and at the same time to offer a sophisticated presentation of complex dishes and tastes. And, in terms of handiness, the quickly emptied spoons and glasses or cups can be placed on a tray and discreetly removed at your convenience.
Of course, the question arises, as it did in the restaurant in Sonoma, or any time that small plates or tapas are offered: How much is enough? How much is appropriate?
For me, if the shots and bites are the food for a cocktail party but are not meant to be a full meal, I’d offer four to six different ones. If they are meant to be an appetizer before a full meal, I’d serve no more than two or three. In addition, I always like to set out a few dishes of olives and salted nuts in different parts of the party area, just to help keep the crowd moving around.
Regardless of the occasion, I like to offer these tastes in mini-courses, so that each flavor experience is distinct. For example, from the recipe collection here, I’d begin with a shot of Shittake Soup paired with a spoon bite of Crispy Won-Ton Ahi, followed by the rich and elegant Vichyssoise, then Shaved Beef Tenderloin with its horseradish on its own, due to the bite of the condiment. I’d conclude with a classic taste of cheese with honey. As appetizers before a meal, I might start with a spoon bite of cheese and honey, and then follow with the smooth Cauliflower Soup with Truffle Oil to lead into the meal.
Serving bites and shots is an elegant yet practical way to approach holiday appetizers, allowing you to entertain in high style and your guests to have enough samples to be satisfied without being overwhelmed.
Most of us don’t have on hand enough shot glasses or demitasse cups to serve 12 or more, but I advise adding them to your cupboards because they are such a convenient way to serve small tasting portions. We may have enough traditional soup spoons, but even so, I recommend adding a collection of ceramic Asian-style soup spoons as an option.