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Big Plate Special

Why is it that at restaurants with large plates you always get little food?

12:00 AM, Sep 29, 2003 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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I HAVE NEVER LIKED restaurants with large plates. Big plates usually mean tiny portions--and not just because food looks smaller on account of the vast stretches of porcelain between morsels. Not long ago, I ate at a restaurant in suburban Washington where the waiter presented my meal on an artsy earthenware plate roughly the size of a hula-hoop. I could make out several black specks in the middle of the oversized dish. Curious, I put on my glasses and, upon closer examination, determined that this was my entrée: a thimble-sized filet mignon and three peas.

Restaurants in this mold bug me for another reason. Their menus are impenetrable. No one captured this better than Bill Bryson, a writer from Iowa who recently returned to America from London, where he lived and worked for 20 years. He took his wife to a fancy restaurant in Vermont for their anniversary where, he writes, "I didn't understand a single thing the waiter described to us":

"Tonight," he began with enthusiasm, "we have a crepe galette of sea chortle and kelp in a rich mal de mer sauce, seasoned with disheveled herbs grown in our own herbarium. This is baked in an inverted Prussian helmet at gas mark 12 for 17 minutes and four seconds precisely, then layered with steamed wattle and woozle leaves. Very delicious, very audacious. We are also offering this evening a double rack of Rio Rocho cutlets, tenderized at your table by our own flamenco dancers, then baked in a clay dong for 27 minutes under a lattice of guava peel and sun-ripened stucco. For vegetarians, we have a medley of forest-floor sweetmeats gathered from our very own woodland dell."

And so it goes for anything up to half an hour. My wife, who is more sophisticated than I, is not fazed by pretentious terminology. Her problem is trying to keep straight the more bewildering of options. She will listen carefully, then say: "I'm sorry, is it the squib that's pan-seared and presented on a bed of organic spoletto?"

"No, that in fact is the baked donkling," says the serving person. "The squib comes as a quarter-cut hank, lightly rolled in paya-paya and tossed with Oil of Ulay and calamine, and presented on a bed of chaff beans and snoose noodles."

Bryson exaggerates, of course, but barely. Last week at Nora, one of D.C.'s fanciest restaurants, patrons were faced with what must have been an impossible choice: "Seared Amish Duck Breast with Fresh Black Mission Figs, Herb Quinoa Pilaf, Roma Beans & Calvados Sauce" or "Fragrant Veal & Cashew Curry with Basmati Rice, Apricot Chutney, Cucumber Raita, Broccoli and Pappadam." (The Amish Duck was tempting, but I must say I was a bit downhearted at the prospect of crunching into a little critter that had doubtless been ridiculed for years for his simple clothes and funny haircut. Poor guy.)

If Americans are put off by such pedantry it's hard to tell. In fact, restaurants with more pedestrian offerings are no longer content to serve a chicken sandwich. Go to TGI Friday's and--with a healthy portion of TGI Flair--you'll get your chicken sandwich "marinated in pine nut-basil pesto, then chargrilled. Served with lettuce, tomato, Swiss cheese and pesto mayonnaise on toasted ciabatta bread." The days when Burger King served their burgers "flame-broiled" are long past. It's all "fresh and fire-grilled" now. Can it be long before we order our 20-piece McNuggets with raspberry coulis and plum essence?

But the trend towards fancified menus seems to have spawned a counter-trend that should make quantity hawks happy. Upscale establishments have begun serving portions that don't require a stop at Wendy's on the way home. I recently dined at a posh restaurant in Laguna Beach, California, called Five Feet (5'0"). It came highly recommended by a friend of mine, Chris Richardson, who shares my Philosophy of Food: Size Matters. (I just came up with that--catchy, hey?) Chris and I recently went head-to-head in a unique weight-loss competition that our friends simply called "The Fat Contest." For one week before the weigh-in that would begin the serious dieting, we were required to pack on as many pounds as possible. I'm proud to report that I won that part of the contest. He won the weight-loss segment.

Chris had warned me about the incomprehensible menu, but assured me that I wouldn't be disappointed with the portions. Indeed, a review of Five Feet in Coast magazine seemed to be written as a personal note. "You won't be disappointed by the portions," the author told me, since "they're served on . . . oversized plates . . . with enough food for two."