It took a long time for the small-plates craze to catch on in Boston. Years ago, chefs would excitedly talk about serving smaller, tapas-sized portions, while acknowledging that their customers generally ignored the slimmed-down offerings and concentrated on a big main course. But now the small-plate wave has hit here -- as well as other cities such as San Francisco and New York -- as diners, especially the young, turn meals into exercises in nibbling and sharing many different tastes. The funny thing is that as more menus trumpet small plates, the more I discover that they've been around all along -- in ethnic restaurants. Spanish tapas are, of course, the model most Americans think of: Dali in Somerville, Tapeo on Newbury Street, Taberna de Haro in Brookline, and others offer a culinary way into the Spanish style of eating.
When I think of Portuguese food, I think of seafood, and maybe hearty stews. But visits to Atasca, a popular four-year-old restaurant on Hampshire Street, changed my mind. Of all the dishes on Atasca's long menu, the small plates are the most appealing.
On a summer evening, the patio area in front of the restaurant is just about the perfect place to sample those dishes. Grape vines climb a trellis, and flowers sway slightly in the evening breeze. Inside, Atasca is cozy with dark wood, beautiful blue-and-white plates along the wall, and earthenware pitchers above the windows on the other side. The restaurant is known for the all-Portuguese wine list, with affordable prices and good explanations from the staff.
One evening we settle in at a patio table, slightly out of the bustle of Cambridge traffic. A waiter brings glasses of vinho verde, the light, crisp white wine of northwest Portugal. Wedges of firm white cheese are served with a little pot of chourico pate, the red-tinted sausage mashed into a soft consistency to spread on grilled corn bread. It's a simple but inspired combination, the slightly salty mild cheese contrasting with the spicy pate in color and flavor.
Another plate features chunks of bacalhau (dry salt cod) over crisp greens; another is squid sauteed quickly and tenderly in white wine and lemon juice and topped with cubes of fried polenta. We taste a little of each and pass them around, marveling at the pretty plates and the way the flavors complement each other.
Later, in a phone interview, Joseph Cerqueira, the owner (along with his wife, Maria) of not only Atasca on Hampshire but the smaller Atasca on Broadway and O Cantinho, all in Cambridge, says that eating small portions is "practically a way of life" in Portugal. Portuguese small plates are a little bigger than Spanish tapas, he says, so a diner would order only two or three. The big meal is at lunch, so Portuguese go out in the evenings to gather in restaurants and share small plates along with drinks as a way of socializing.
Cerqueira and his chef, Helder Teixeira, offer a small, shallow casserole dish of shrimp and nuggets of goat cheese in a spicy and chunky tomato sauce. It's delicious eaten on morsels of country-style white bread. A plate of grilled linguica flanked by a few slices of grilled pineapple, explained on the menu as traditional in the Azores Islands, looks almost too simple to make an impact, but it turns out to be a memorable combination of spicy and just barely sweet.
One of the bartenders recommended the fava beans stewed in wine with onion and garlic; the sauce is fine and garlicky, but the muddy color and rather tough texture of the beans makes the dish less successful than others. However, the stars of the small plate parade are three perfectly grilled whole sardines stacked artfully over a bed of soft, roasted green peppers. The sardines convey the taste of the sea with its salt and brine, and they're just big enough for a few quick bites each. Since sardines are high in Omega3 oils, I can even feel virtuous about liking them so much.
Of course, Atasca offers much more than the small plates. In fact, beyond them are veritable mountains of food, each plate overfilled so that only the most ravenous of trenchermen could finish them off. Baked salt cod looks like it may have been a whole large cod dried and then reconstituted before being baked, with caramelized onions and roasted pepper, and fried potatoes around the edges. It's good but overwhelming.
A 14-ounce veal chop manages to be both tender and uninteresting after it's bathed in a mushroom and Madeira sauce. St. Jorge cheese and cubes of linguica give a zestiness to boneless chicken breasts sauteed in wine, though the accompanying rice mixed with chopped broccoli rabe is slushy and bland.
And in a dish of pork loin medallions with clams everything seems a little overcooked, the pork chewy, the clams dry. A stew of shellfish in a tomato sauce has lots of lobster shells with little in them along with shrimp, clams, and mussels.
However, cataplana, that Portuguese classic of clams, mussels, and shrimp steamed in a copper pot with linguica and prosciutto, captures the spirit of the small plates -- simple, straightforward, with each ingredient excellent in itself and blending into a flavorful whole. The other irresistible elements in many of these dishes are fried potatoes, dry on the outside, completely ungreasy, and soft and mealy on the inside. It takes a master to do potatoes this well and this consistently.
Desserts, sweet and traditional, are really not the reason to find Atasca. A custard tart, called paseis de nata, is the best, its flaky pastry holding just the right amount of firm custard scented with cinnamon. A lemon and port wine custard with a caramel sauce arrives at the table so chilly that it's hard to even detect the lemon. And a rice pudding is also cold and too firm; both must have spent some time in the walk-in refrigerator.
Making a meal of Atasca's small plates -- especially if some of the fried potatoes could be thrown in -- seems just about ideal. Only now and then would anyone need more than those sardines, a little salad greenery and linguica, and a glass of crisp wine to make a summer feast.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
Maxwell's 148 148 East Central St., Natick. 508-907-6262. Italian and Asian cuisines coexist on the menu in an upscale spot. Sometimes the dishes soar; sometimes they fall. Soliticious and friendly service, however, is consistent. (7/15/04)
Piattini 226 Newbury St., Boston. 617-536-2020. Little plates are the way to go in this cozy spot on Newbury Street. Nibble sauteed shrimp and tomatoes on bruschetta, or maybe a salad, and watch the fashionable world go by. (7/8/04)
Cygnet 24 West St., Beverly Farms. 978-922-9221. Combining the feeling of a neighborhood spot with sophistication in the food and wine, Cygnet manages to appeal to a wide swath of eaters. (7/1/04)
Sophia's 1/2 1270 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-7001. Chef Jeffrey Fournier creates magic with small plates in a funky dance club. Each is intelligently composed as well as delicious. (6/17/04)
Atria 137 Main St, Edgartown. 508-627-5850. Bleu 7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee. 508-539-7907. Two resort restaurants appeal to year-round residents also. Atria's attention to detail and dedication to locally grown shows on the plate. (6/10/04)