Shared plates go mainstream in Vancouver restaurants

When food is shared, people feel connected; now, this Asian and African tradition is finding its way into western cuisine

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      Growing up in Kobe, Japan, Etsuko Needham remembers her mom bringing out plate after plate at dinnertime, her family members passing and sharing dishes, usually sitting around the table for hours. When she moved to Canada with her husband, Peter, the Bistro Sakana sushi chef was struck by the predominant North American style of dining: a more formulaic experience, with people ordering their own appetizer, main course, and dessert. It just wasn’t the same.

      “In Japan, people share a whole bunch of food together, and that helps people feel more connected,” Needham says on the line from the pair’s Yaletown restaurant. “Eating dinner with your family or friends or coworkers is our main social event, and eating at home or at a restaurant is the same thing: people share a whole bunch of dishes together. People focus on the food and talk about it together. You get excited every time someone passes you a new dish.”

      Peter adds: “Interactively, you’re more involved. In Kobe, sharing a meal is a very big part of business, as well. Most of Etsuko’s customers on weeknights [at her izakaya there] were groups of businessmen sitting together, eating and drinking. There’s more of a feeling of connectedness rather than everyone being focused on their own plate of food.”

      At Bistro Sakana, as at other Japanese restaurants, food-sharing is the norm: order up plates of sashimi and sushi and pass them around. In other cultures, it’s the same, whether it’s dim sum or tapas. Fragrant bowls are passed around the table in India; in Ethiopian restaurants, diners literally break bread together, using spongy injera to scoop up meat and vegetables from a big centre dish; platters of aromatic stews and saffron-steamed rice for communal consumption are present at Persian dining tables. Italians call it dining alla famiglia.

      In those and many other cultures, the old way of doing things remains. And that simple tradition of communing over shared food is finding its way into western cuisine. It used to be mostly appetizers and desserts that were intended to be shared; now it’s the whole meal. Restaurants are catering to those who want to experience a wider variety of dishes and a dynamic way of dining out, one that’s more participatory, celebratory, and fun.

      Consider some of the local spots where shared plates star. At Salt Tasting Room, people pick from a selection of artisanal cheeses, cured meats, and condiments to design their own charcuterie boards. Tuna poke and pork rillettes are among the share plates at the Grain Tasting Bar at the Hyatt Regency hotel. Skewers of grilled lobster tail, halloumi cheese, wild mushrooms, beef tongue, and other items make up Glowbal’s robata platter, a hands-on indulgence meant for a group.

      Check out the mixed bruschetta plates at Uva Wine and Cocktail Bar, Chill Winston’s platters (including one called the Beast, with roasted lamb rack and a whole duck and chicken), and the “tackle box” options at YEW seafood + bar, with items like Viking Bay mussels, We Wai Kai scallops, and poached Selva shrimp.

      The shift to share plates reflects Vancouver’s hybridization. The food scene is one of the strongest demonstrations that the city is truly international, with more and more western restaurants morphing into fusion joints. We’ve moved beyond being a city of silos when butter chicken is on the menu at Urban Fare, Indian-style Chinese restaurants are more common, and Chinatown is home to a place like Union, with its bánh mi bibimbap. Even White Spot has a large Asian repertoire.

      Hong Kong native Curtis Luk remembers his family sharing dishes like steamed whole fish, sweet-and-sour pork, and beef-brisket curry while he was growing up in Toronto. At Mission Kitsilano, the chef puts the focus on tasting menus, but another option is share plates.

      “I like the diversity [of sharing]. You can have a lot of tastes without feeling the need to commit to a single plate of food, and, obviously, if you want more you can always order more,” Luk says by phone. “You can try a bit of everything.

      This Bistro Sakana shared plate, aji tataki, is created with Japanese horse mackarel imported from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

      Amanda Siebert

      “It’s great for a gathering of friends, because there’s more a feeling of togetherness,” he adds. “You can talk about the experience and you have something to reminisce about.”

      The sense of conviviality is exactly what the team behind Belgard Kitchen was aiming for. Chef Reuben Major’s dinner menu is all share plates, like Ruby Red beet dip, mushroom-and-bacon pâté, and a grilled-sausage board.

      “One of our main goals was to create a really social dining atmosphere,” Major says on the line from the Railtown restaurant, brewery, and winery. “Whenever you’re sharing food, the social aspect goes up dramatically. I find that in so many circumstances there are so many distractions: there are 20 TVs on in a restaurant and everyone’s on their phone. We really wanted to eliminate that and get people back together and get people communicating.

      “We deliver food as it comes up, as it’s ready, so a group of people will get one dish at a time, maybe two, even though they’ve ordered eight or 10,” he adds. “It gives people the opportunity to experience that particular dish, to savour each dish and talk about it, versus cramming down your appetizers because you know your entrée is just around the corner, and then all of a sudden your eating experience is done. We wanted to create that dinner-party atmosphere. When I have people over at my house, I like them to eat for two or three hours.”

      People can still order their own starter, main course, and dessert at Juniper, which specializes in Cascadian cuisine, but executive chef Sarah Stewart encourages ordering a bunch of dishes and having everyone dig in.

      “I suggest sharing; it’s just such a fun way to eat,” Stewart says on the phone. “It creates dialogue: it opens up conversation around the ingredients, around cooking, around the seasons… It opens up storytelling.

      “It also helps you really be mindful when you’re eating,” she adds. “When everyone around the table experiences it together, that makes it more memorable.”

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.