Starters That Don't Stop: Diners are making entire meals out of multiple appetizers

The lady calls every few months to make a reservation at The Crossing in Clayton. She comes in promptly at 6:30 p.m. and always sits at a choice table in the back corner of the restaurant. Once there, she’ll usually stay for three hours or more, and while she might nibble at the beet salad or order the tilapia entrée, she makes it quite clear that she’s come primarily for one reason: to devour six or seven ramekins of the restaurant’s signature appetizer – the blue cheese soufflé.

The woman’s ardor for the dish is understandable. It has inspired similar (if less obsessive) loyalty among most of the restaurant’s regulars – and it is representative of a larger truth. Perhaps it’s a foodie sense of adventure, perhaps it’s the simple joy of grazing, but all over town, restaurants report an increasingly frequent phenomenon of diners loading up on multiple appetizers in lieu of the traditional lineup of appetizer, entrée and dessert. Unlike the woman at The Crossing, most do so to add variety to their dining experience – sampling two or three appetizers on their own or even more in a group.

“People coming in and just ordering two or three appetizers – that’s definitely happening more at my place,” said Andy Ayers of Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar in The Loop. “I’m not surprised if it’s happening everywhere. I’m doing it myself when I go out to eat. It’s a real convenient way to have a lot of flavors on the table.”

Many chefs still judge St. Louis to be a “soup-and-salad” town when it comes to opening courses. But that hasn’t prevented quite a few restaurants from carving out a big niche with their smallest dishes. From the silky corn bisque with lobster fritter at Harvest in Richmond Heights to the crawfish-stuffed mushroom caps at Riddle’s, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that diners use appetizers to go out on a culinary limb, in a way they wouldn’t with a full entrée. “The thing about appetizers is if you get a lot of different tastes, you can be satisfied and sated without being stuffed,” said Mengesha Yohannes, owner of Bar Italia Ristorante and Caffé in the Central West End.

Nine years after opening The Crossing, owner Jim Fiala has come to understand the immutable laws of his restaurant, one of which is, don’t mess with the signature dish. The soufflé – mixing equal parts grated blue cheese, grated Cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and finely diced onions with egg and milk – is slow-cooked into custardy goodness and served with house-made crostini.

It can be dangerously addictive, as Fiala soon discovered. “I’ve tried foie gras on toast points, and smoked salmon,” he said, “and I’ve had people look at me and say, ‘Where is the blue cheese soufflé?!’ And I’d explain that we’re trying something else for a while. And one woman actually said, ‘What’s the point of coming here if you don’t have your blue cheese soufflé?’ I said, ‘Well, I got your point.’”

What is perhaps most remarkable about the dish is that Fiala doesn’t charge for it. The opener – still known as “the freebie” by the restaurant’s staff – was originally conceived by Fiala as the first step in a diner’s experience, something to place at the table when diners sit down, to bridge the gap between their arrival and their first extended encounter with a server.

At Bar Italia, the most striking and memorable appetizer is the cozze in umido, fresh Atlantic mussels served in a complex, finely rendered broth made from white wine, lemon and rosemary. My foodie girlfriend gave it her ultimate dining compliment: “That’s plate-lickin’ good!” Also not to be missed is the asparagi con prosciutto, featuring prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and a creamy aïoli with hints of lemon and black pepper.

The trademark appetizer at Frank Papa’s Ristorante in Brentwood is fried escarole. Papa tried 30 different variations before perfecting the current (secret) recipe, in which an entire head of the escarole is flash-fried, then topped with a touch of lemon, Parmesan and a secret ingredient that Papa won’t even joke about discussing. He would say it’s surprisingly complex – “It’s the hardest dish on the menu to cook” – and one that requires unstinting attention during preparation. It’s best eaten hot to fully appreciate the surprisingly dense, crunchy consistency. Whatever else may be included in Papa’s secret blend, the finished product wonderfully fuses the greens and the Parmesan with the olive oil and lemon juice, making for an unforgettable and unusually filling appetizer. It’s a must-try, and a

Which brings us to the problem that must be discussed. It was Mae West who said too much of a good thing is wonderful, but the danger of too much of even a delectable opening dish is that it can become the dreaded appetite-killing appetizer. (At Harvest, the fried onion rings come in a mountainous conglomeration that can be fatiguing to look at, much less eat.) People want value, of course, but it is not a happy diner who gorges on an appetizer and is then unable to make a serious pass at the entrée. Unless, of course, he planned to spend $70 on leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. And that’s just one reason people are gravitating to tapas-style portions.

“Restaurateurs are putting more emphasis on the front part of the menu,” said Ayers, who noted that Riddle’s has a wider array of appetizers and styles than it did a decade ago. “Unless you’re just into the pounds of food, you can eat better for less. You get better value. On my menu, I know it’s true. The tapas style is a good way to eat, and that style of service doesn’t have to be exclusive to that kind of food.”

In 2002, Fiala began his fall tasting menu at The Crossing as a way to induce people to order more varied foods without gorging on any one dish. “The four-course tasting menu is pretty much like four appetizers,” he said. “I kind of got fed up with people coming in and ordering one dish, and leaving without having fully experienced The Crossing. My thought was, if they come in and order one dish and they like it just fine, maybe they’ll be back, maybe they won’t. If you give me four courses, though, I’m bound to hit with two or three of them that will blow your mind.”

Fiala’s summer menu now features such longtime favorites as the oft-imitated, rarely equaled beet salad and the most succulent, delicious tortellini I’ve ever tasted. At Riddle’s, Ayers also rotates several seasonal items on the Starters and Smaller Portions page of his menu.

When it comes to forgoing entrées to load up on appetizers, there’s still a gender gap. “I find more women are doing that,” Fiala said. “Dudes end up coming in and ordering whatever they want. Most gentlemen are still in the frame of mind of, ‘I came here
to eat.’”

A flight of appetizers can contribute to a more diverse palate and greater dining sophistication. Yohannes remembers when Bar Italia opened as the first espresso bar in the city, and the menu included a several-paragraphs-long explanation of what espresso was. “I think that people are more game than they used to be overall. … The first time we put polenta on the menu, 99 percent of the people wouldn’t eat it. But now they’re more comfortable. We’ve come a long way.”