A quick bite to eat can be as satisfying and complex as any entree
With so many great places to eat in the Fox Valley, foraging foodies could visit a different restaurant each night for one of those delicious, lingering meals where we enjoy the food and the company we keep. But with the many obligations we have during the summer months, the ability to enjoy anything but a quick sub sandwich or drive-thru grease bomb before running to the next activity is limited.
Enter the small plate and appetizer menu: they’re the perfect small meal to catch with a friend or loved one when time just doesn’t permit a full three-course dining excursion. Here’s a selection of some of the Valley’s most popular and creative small plates and appetizers – bon appetite!
Draft Gastropub: Tuna Tartare
Shirley Bullock-Vazquez, owner of Draft Gastropub in Grand Chute, says they look for a variety of things when planning their small plate menu. It could be the protein that is used, whether it’s fried or grilled, and whether it’s something that will set a trend in the market.
One of Draft’s most popular small plates is the tuna tartare. Made with fresh tuna cut in-house, shallots, avocado, sesame seed, cucumber, truffle oil, ponzu and quail egg, it’s brought to the table under the dome the fish was smoked in.
“There’s nothing like mystery in a dish,” Bullock-Vazquez says. “So, when we hand-smoke the tuna tartare and it’s served under a dome, there’s smoke filling the dome so you can’t see what’s in it until the dome comes off. Then your sense of smell takes over because that fresh-smoked hickory chip smell comes out and it just smells fantastic.”
The tuna tartare is a result of Bullock-Vasquez’s effort, along with her husband, to bring fresh items to their menu.
“Because we smoke that in-house and the way we serve that dish, it is definitely a crowd-pleaser,” she adds. “People come in here and they bring people here for that dish.”
Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza: Armadillo Eggs
At Parker John’s locations in northeastern Wisconsin, including Menasha, the starters menu was developed with items that owners Aaron and Jennifer Sloma and their family would be excited to choose from.
“We try to be unique in our offerings and tend to shy away from what ‘mainstream’ appetizers have become,” Aaron Sloma explains.
On the menu at Parker John’s are the armadillo eggs, which Sloma says can be traced to menus at some BBQ restaurants in the great state of Texas.
“We all know armadillos do not lay eggs, however, they are a great play on the popular jalapeño poppers that rose in popularity a few decades ago on menus virtually everywhere,” he says.
The culinary team at Parker John’s brings in whole jalapeños, halves and deseeds them, and then smokes them for 45 minutes. After the smoking they are cooled and then stuffed with their house mixture of house-smoked brisket, sautéed onions, cream cheese and garlic. They are hand-breaded to order.
Though the prep work for the armadillo eggs can be taxing on the kitchen, Sloma says their emphasis is on making food for their guests that they crave and want to come back for more.
“We feel we have done that with the armadillo eggs,” he says.
Rye Restaurant: Goat Cheese Curds
At Rye Restaurant in downtown Appleton, one of their small plate menu staples has been the goat cheese curds – an elevated version of the Wisconsin tradition, explains head chef Nick Morse.
“To do this we found a local farm, LeClare Farms in Malone, Wisconsin, where we purchase hundreds of pounds of goat cheese curds every month,” he says. “We hand-dredge and deep fry the curds and serve them with a house-made jalapeño jam. Jalapeño jam was chosen to accompany the cheese curds to resemble the taste of a jalapeño popper.”
The menu at Rye changes seasonally. Morse and his team make a concentrated effort to not only incorporate locally-sourced products, but also offer a wide range of dishes that appeal to guests who are vegetarians, lactose intolerant, gluten free, etc. when deciding their small plate menu.
“Just about everything we serve is made from scratch in house with raw ingredients,” Morse says. “That means that we know where just about all of our food comes from. In a time when everyone wants to know where the food they are eating comes from, we have the answers.”
Wildflower Bar & Kitchen: Baba Ganoush
For its small plate menu, Wildflower Bar & Kitchen in Grand Chute offers familiar options, but with an elevated twist. Owner Rusty Leary says their baba ganoush has been a crowd-pleaser since day one. As they researched fire-cooked cuisine from around the world that might be compatible to their oven at Wildflower, they decided to throw eggplant to the fire.
“The extreme heat and natural convection that occurs in a live fire oven is such a unique cooking environment, it produces results that you simply cannot replicate by any other cooking method,” Leary explains. “Baba ganoush is essentially hummus made from roasted eggplant, and traditionally the eggplants are fire-roasted. So, we threw some eggplant into the oven and then made a puree from those.”
From there, Leary says the dish, which also consists of white bean puree, pistachio, pomegranate and fresh herbs served on house-made garlic naan, was a collaboration of ideas from the staff and international influences.
“Our guests instantly loved it,” he adds. “We can never take it off the menu.”
Xe54: Chocolate, Cheese, Meatballs & Wine
Pamela Barnes, proprietor of Neenah’s newest wine bar, Xe54, says her overall goal with her menu was to offer tasty, small bites that paired well with a variety of wines.
“Small plates are a wonderful way to taste a variety of flavors and are meant to be sharable with the group,” she explains. “However, many small plates are not designed to be easily shared. With offering our entire menu in bite-size portions, you don’t have the awkwardness of trying to split something and have it slide off the plate or totally mangle what was once a beautifully presented appetizer.”
The savory and sweet pairings at Xe54 include cheese, meatballs and chocolate. Any three make great small plate options on their own – or together. And for the ultimate small plate that is as unique as it is delectable? Xe54 offers locally made Wilmar chocolates.
“…Many times after dinner, I was searching for just a small portion of chocolate or something sweet to cap my night off with,” she adds. “We reached out to a local chocolatier, Wilmar Chocolates, and they offer just the right size sweet bite to pair with an after-dinner drink. No worries, we won’t judge if you order delicious chocolate anytime of the day!”