In fairness, we had been warned by our server: The King Crab with Black Rice would have a mere 2 ounces of its main ingredient. That sounded fine as a “snack,” the first heading on the dinner menu, but it was listed under “plates,” which seemed to correspond to the category formerly known as entrees. “Crabmeat is expensive,” our server said with a shrug. Apparently, rice is too. When you can count the number of grains, it’s never a good sign.
The dish that emerged from the open kitchen belonged in a category not on the menu: amuse-bouche. According to my guest at Waypoint in Cambridge, all four bites were delicious, but at $6 per mouthful, the only way to get filled up would be on bread — which you would have to order separately as a $6 “snack.” At least the pizzas and pastas were more generous.
By contrast, Shepard, a mile away, had given micromanagement a whole new meaning, from the sliver of a single rye cracker with camomile ricotta under “snacks” to the sprinkle of pasta under “starters” to the meager “mains.” On our visit, the main topic at two neighboring tables was the paucity of the portions. Could co-owners Susan Regis and Rene Becker, two of Boston’s most esteemed chefs, have come up with a “very small plates” concept and forgotten to tell their guests? We may never know. Asked to elaborate on their portion-control policies, Shepard did not respond, and Waypoint’s publicist declined to comment.
For many chefs, portion size is clearly a touchy topic. High-end restaurateurs say the trend toward small, shareable plates and calorie-conscious servings is driven by the dining public’s increasing health consciousness. But are owners responding to consumer demand, or shaping it, to reduce costs? Restaurants face higher expenses across the board, says David Scott Peters, a restaurant coach. He believes price increases are steepest for fine dining, because creating the “memorable” meals upscale diners want means exceptional ingredients. “People now expect specialty food products when they go out for high-end meals,” agrees Chef Waldy Malouf of The Culinary Institute of America Restaurant Group. Faced with raising prices, using second-rate ingredients, or serving smaller portions, many chefs pick option three.
Shrinkage is a relatively new phenomenon in Boston dining. For years, the norm was quite the opposite. Remember Vinny Testa’s, that empire of excess known for gut-busting, family-style platters, or the original Olives in Charlestown, which brought a more refined sense of generosity to upscale dining? In their ’90s heydays, the original Vinny’s in Brookline expanded to multiple locations, while Todd English became an early celebrity chef, extending the Olives brand (and his own) worldwide.
Newton native Michael Leviton (Lumiere, Area Four) learned to cook in San Francisco, where, he says, fish and meat portions were typically 6 to 7 ounces, compared with 10 to 12 in Boston. When he returned home in 1996 to work at UpStairs at the Pudding in Cambridge, Leviton, now a consultant and cofounder of food service provider Region Foodworks, recalls having to “relearn to serve more because of the expectations here” that quantity equals quality.
Leviton’s Bay Area portions would seem generous today, when even large plates — the category formerly known as “main courses” — seem to be getting smaller. “I’ve certainly seen some folks leave some of the fancier restaurants hungry,” he says. Proteins are diminishing, accompaniments dwindling, disappearing, or migrating to “sides,” where they can command an $8 or $10 surcharge. Tweezers, the chef’s tool of choice for nouvelle cuisine in the ’80s, have resurfaced for an age where Instagramming your food is as important as eating it.
Generosity now seems almost antithetical to quality. You see a full plate, you think “busy,” “heavy,” “dated.” Your parents’ restaurants come to mind.
Today, Vinny Testa’s founder Marty Bloom owns Mission on the Bay in Swampscott, a more upscale restaurant with moderate portions. But he is still frustrated that “the foodies couldn’t rationalize that [generous] portion size and quality didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
English, whose best-known restaurant locally these days is probably Figs, praises “the small-portion movement” for giving diners more choices, but adds that “smaller portions should be priced accordingly.” Ordering a few “starters” at a place like Shepard costs even more than most of the mains — and looked even less filling. When you’re spending upward of $30 on an entree or a few “small plates,” the last thing you should have to think is “Please, sir, I want some more.”
Or, as the diner at the next table told his companion as he paid the check, “Let’s go get something to eat.”