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Small plates

Good food, small packages
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  April 9, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars
BLAST FROM THE PAST: The paella may be a tribute to Iruña, but here it gets a new twist. 

Small Plates | 56 JFK Street, Cambridge | Open Sun and Mon, 5–10 pm; and Tues–Sat, 11 am–10 pm | MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Up six steps from sidewalk level (up three steps at winthrop street entrance) | 617.441.0056
Why spend a lot of money on advertising when you have a menu dedicated to small plates and can name the restaurant after the concept? I suppose they could have named it Tapas, as an homage to the long run of the Spanish restaurant Iruña, which formerly inhabited this space. (Iruña nostalgia is referenced here in sangrias and paella.) But after Iruña came Conundrum. The main physical change since then has been to brighten the walls to pale yellow with bright red accents and to add some political correctness: “Individual Bottled Water: not sold here because plastic bottles are BAD, BAD, BAD for the environment & that water is really no better than tap water,” reads the menu’s drink list. “City of Cambridge Tap Water: really good for you AND the environment. No charge.”

Small Plates serves meat and seafood, but much of chef Jerome Picca’s creativity shows up in vegetarian dishes. The menu is all miniature dishes, other than the paella ($24 for two) and a few protein items that are priced as both small plates and entrées ($11/$22). We started with the warm and cold “à partager” platters ($12 each). The cold one features roasted vegetables: red bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and micro-carrots. A fresh goat cheese spreads easily on some toasts, and marinated artichokes and wonderful olives sharpen the appetite. The warm platter is actually lukewarm, as it would be served in Italy, and features the quintessential tapa: a small slice of potato omelet. There are also nice toasts, a red sauce I’d describe as romesco (though the menu calls it muhammara, which for me has to have more pomegranate flavor), ripe brie, and winter fruits: Bartlett pear, plumped-up bits of dried apricot, and fresh grapes.

The chef struts some stuff with “warm squash ‘fettuccine’ ” ($8). Anybody can make spaghetti squash, but not everyone can slice summer squash into fettuccine-like ribbons, nor build a thick-enough tomato sauce to sell it as mock pasta. Vegetable strata ($8) is based on similar thin slices and features beets of different colors, jicama, and carrot. The accompanying “jal freze” sauce (we usually see jalfrezi on Indian menus) is a beautiful green color with Indian spicing. A winter napoleon ($8) — since my visit it’s been promoted to a spring napoleon — is two slices of somewhat over-fried eggplant and a cooked, pink tomato slice, plus excellent tomato sauce. A baby-greens salad ($6) was really robbed from the cradle. (At the two-leaf stage, these are micro greens.) Organic wild mushrooms ($8) are woodsy and delicious, mostly oyster mushrooms, with plenty of mellow, roasted-garlic flavor.

The meat and seafood options are quite tasty, especially a couple of perfectly seared scallops ($10) on black sticky rice with a caper berry — which looks like an undersize, unripe cherry on the stem, but tastes like a caper. Spicy grilled prawns ($11) are lightly grilled, but they pick up smoke and heat from chipotle seasoning. The small-plate version of grilled lamb chops ($11/$22) is two baby chops with some buckshot-size Israeli couscous.

Picca previously worked in New Orleans, and he’s not afraid of hot pepper. But lobster étouffée ($11) is too spicy for the lobster meat. The rich sauce and impeccable puff-pastry shell are probably better suited for the more strongly flavored crawfish typically served with this dish. Three tiny asparagus and some micro greens round out another pretty little plate. The only item I really doubted was the chicken satay ($8). The dip was the right peanut sauce, but the two skewers of chicken weren’t marinated in the familiar galangal-turmeric mixture.

Paella ($24) also has a bit of New Orleans heat. The sausage is as hot as andouille and the dish is still somewhat soupy, like some jambalaya. It’s the right short-grain rice, but the saffron is sprinkled on top. The mussels and chicken are not overcooked, and snails are an interesting addition. “Two killer B’s” ($8) are those mini hamburgers we’ve been seeing a lot of lately. They are lovely little bits, with a lot of onion mixed in. We ordered medium-rare and got rare.

The wine list is important with this kind of grazing menu, and it’s off to a good, if modest, start. A glass of 2005 Luigi Bosca malbec ($7/glass; $28/bottle) was light, with an aroma of raspberries. It wasn’t the usual style of this Argentine red, but was quaffable with food. On a cold night, we enjoyed hot mulled cider ($2.25) — no alcohol but a yummy hit of cinnamon. The sangria ($5) here is not up to Iruña’s standard, but we’ll never be that young again, either. Rebujitos ($4) are mixtures of wine and soda. I preferred the white version, with a dash of orange flavor and a kumquat garnish. Tea ($1.50), alas, is a bag in a cup of hot water. Decaf espresso ($2.95) was decent.

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