LAZY OX CANTEEN: "I'VE SO HAD IT WITH SMALL PLATE DINING"
The last of our plates had just been cleared from our slightly cramped table. It was towards the rear of the Lazy Ox Canteen, one of the newest and hippest restaurants in the continuing redevelopment of Downtown L.A. Our dining companion, Angel, sat back in her chair and sighed “I’ve so had it with small plates”. Both Sybil and I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant.
We had just been presented with a bill that, with tip, came little shy of $150 between us for a meal that, while it showed off the obvious skills in the kitchen, also showed off what a confused and often grim experience is to be endured when faced with the seemingly unstoppable virus that is small plates dining.
The concept seems harmless enough at first. Food offered in smaller portions, at smaller prices so that they can be shared. Easy peasy, you would be forgiven for thinking. A good way for the kitchen to prove what it can do and a good way for you and your dining companions to sample a wide range of what the chef has to offer. Unfortunately, as our meal at the Lazy Ox Canteen proved, things are never quite that simple.
First of all, while the restaurant may shrink the portions, they rarely shrink the prices per plate by the commensurate amount often presenting you with a bill many notches above what you were expecting and certainly above that of a more standard three course meal.
Then there is the problem knowing how much to order. The menu is little help, usually leaving you, as they did at the Lazy Ox, to play a little game of guess the portion size from the price. This can end with you and your friends clattering forks as you duel over a single tiny plate or staring down more food than you could ever imagine eating in one sitting. Asking the staff is usually of little help. They, of course, have been trained to sell as many dishes as possible (those at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant being the worst I have encountered) and will snort with derision if you order anything less than half the menu.
Finally, and most annoyingly of all, there is the seemingly random order in which the dishes appear on your table. The notion of meals served in courses may be a western construct, but there is a logic to it and, call me old fashioned, I actually like to have some vague idea of what order my food is going to arrive. The restaurants often explain this with reference to the more casual Spanish style of dining. Nowadays, just about any old rubbish can be offered up on small plates with the claim that it is being served ‘tapas” style. A claim that would make most Spaniards laugh until their nipples fell off and a claim that is made by chefs who have probably never been closer to Spain than having impure thoughts during a Penelope Cruz movie.
None of this is to say that the food served this way is always dreadful. In fact, at the Lazy Ox Canteen, some of it was terrific and, if it had been presented in a less frenetic and confused way, it might have made for a very enjoyable meal indeed.
The restaurant is loud, that’s L.A loud, which seems to be several decibels above anywhere else in the world and we had to shout to make ourselves heard by the charming server. There were two menus (well, of course there were) a printed one and another scrawled on a blackboard and between us we constructed a menu not knowing whether we would be faced with enough food to feed a platoon or little enough to leave us desperate to order more.
With the food also came the confusion. One dish arrived that we were pretty sure we had not ordered, but ate anyway, because we were not sure either way. Another was only delivered when every other plate had been finished and we had almost forgotten that we had ordered of it. Between those, plates arrived in no particular order and in random clusters. This meant that, at one point in the meal, I was to be found neatly dissecting to share two tiny anchovies on the only plate on the table and, at another staring down five dishes wondering which to concentrate on and which to leave to congeal nicely. Dishes that were priced as main courses arrived before dishes that we assumed were starters and seemed only marginally bigger and not enough to justify the disparity in pricing.
All of this was as shame, because it was apparent from the arrival of our first dish, a plate of razor clams, cooked “a la plancha” that the kitchen knew what it was doing. They were meaty and cooked perfectly, only slightly spoiled by too liberal a hand with the dressing.
Other highlights were to be found in the deep fried dishes, including excellent Octopus Frito and Pig’s Ear Chicharron, both served with a suitably spicy aioli. Attempts at two types of sausage proved slightly less successful, with morcilla offering up an odd grainy texture and a slick of unnecessary gravy, while a Merguez lacked the spice of its home-town Moroccan equivalent. A small slider sized hamburger combined excellent meat with some of the best fries I have eaten in a long while and a pork tenderloin, so often dry and tasteless, was splendidly moist. Steamed mussels were served in a spicy sauce so delicious it had us all scooping the last drops from bowl with empty shells.
The quality of the food could have made the Lazy Ox Canteen a serious contender and I can certainly understand why every seat was taken from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. However, the confused style of serving left us turning down dessert, as much through bewilderment as satiation and asking for our bill. That, of course, turned out to be more than we expected and had Angel adding to her initial comment “I feel full but not satisfied”
Once again, I nodded in agreement. She was spot on and I have to say now for the record, I have so had it with small plates dining.