Snacking gets social with small plates restaurants

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 3.2.16

Only a few years ago, the yearned-for dining experience revolved around a white tablecloth and the hope in receiving as much food as possible for the number written on the bottom of the check.

As small plate and tapas restaurants, which are eateries that encourage people to purchase several small dishes to taste and share with companions, throughout Central Jersey have gained in popularity, it’s clear that the times have changed.

Instead, the primary demographic – those about 25 to 45 years old, said Gus Sleiman, owner of Barca City Café and Bar in New Brunswick and Mike Proske, owner of Tapaste in Somerville, said – can be seen swapping plates, trying out new dishes and bringing a social element back to dining.

“There has been a shift in dining perception – nobody wants a three-pound plate of pasta anymore,” said Proske. “People want lighter, smaller portions and tapas restaurants are exactly that.”

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Tapastre has been a fixture in Somerville for nine years and since then, Proske said that he has definitely seen dining as a whole moving towards the small plate trend.

So what is making people clamor for less food with more varieties? According to Sleiman, it’s the focus on healthy eating.

“The more the American consumer moves away from large plates and starts to eat healthier and do portion control, the more popular tapas become,” he said.

Plus, as Proske pointed out, dining isn’t just about the food – it’s about great company and conversation, too. Tapas-style dining allows people to have a constant conversation as their share and taste the various dishes on the table.

Tapastre, an eatery featuring tapas paired with craft beers, receives about 500 to 1000 visitors each week. Their small plates range from $5 to $14, with include popular dishes such as the beer-braised short ribs with mushroom sauce and seasonal vegetables, shrimp and chorizo in a hot garlic oil and duck confit crepes with caramelized fennel and onion.

The chorizo tapa. ~Courtesy of Barca City Cafe and Bar

The chorizo tapa. ~Courtesy of Barca City Cafe and Bar

Barca City Café and Bar has seen its visitors quadruple since its opening in May 2015, now fetching 1,100 weekly customers. Tapas at Barca City range from $2.25 to $16 with some of the most popular dishes being the chorizo al fuego, a tableside flamed sausage, the tres leches and Eduadorian-style ceviche.

“Before going to a tapas restaurant, know that you are here for the whole experience, so order slow, order a variety and as you need, then take a break and feel free to order again,” said Sleiman.

Proske also mentioned that two to three tapas per person is usually enough to fill someone up, so keep that in mind when ordering and prepare to be social and share – in food, drinks and conversation.

A common misconception, said Sleiman, is that tapas are simply a sampling, when really, they are a normal-sized appetizer.

Plus, another misconception is that one style of a tapa dish is the only style, when really, some tapas have ten to twelve ways of being prepared and also differ by region and ethnicity.

Tapastre actually avoids using the term ‘tapas’ because the menu isn’t limited to Spanish-style dishes and instead, have dishes that are also influenced by Asian, American and other types of cuisine.

“Our menu is reasonably priced and allows you to live the true tapas experience by sampling a variety,” said Sleiman. “I sum it up by ‘stimulate your spirit, nourish your appetite, wet your lips and sooth your senses.’”

Scallops over roasted butternut squash with crispy leeks and brown butter. ~Courtesy of Tapastre

Scallops over roasted butternut squash with crispy leeks and brown butter. ~Courtesy of Tapastre

BARCA CITY CAFE AND BAR

Where: 47 Easton Ave., New Brunswick

Cost: Dishes range from $2.25 to $16, with two to three being enough to fill one person

Contact: barcacity.com, 732-640-1155

TAPASTRE

Where: 1 W High St., Somerville

Cost: Dishes range from $5 to $14, with two to three being enough to fill one person

Contact: tapastre.com, 908-526-0505

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