Face it. First courses have become confusing. Originally meant to whet the appetite and prepare the tastebuds for the full meal deal, they now often spoil your supper instead of building anticipation for it. And frankly, chefs seem to flaunt their creativity on these small plates rather than the mains.
Snacking before—or as—a meal is an ancient tradition. Read the menu of Trimalchio’s infamous food orgy in Fellini’s Satyricon—it’s course after course after course. Tha’’s the way many of us eat now, dining on two or three appetizers instead of an entree. The ancient Romans and Greeks are depicted lounging on their triclinia with trays of fresh fruit, wine, olives and cheese. The Middle Eastern style of eating is also a kind of elevated snacking: The table is set with an array of small dishes, meant to be shared.
Spanish tapas might have the same origin during the long Moorish occupation, although there are lots of stories about poor King Alfonso and his delicate stomach.
At any rate, the problem now is a first course that doesn’t know if it’s a tapa, an appetizer, an hors doeuvre, a pinxto, or an amuse-gueule (or bouche). Often the whatever-it-is overwhelms the palate and is too bulky or bready or protein heavy for the diner to eat the main course.
One trend that solves the problem of over-hearty openers, probably originating in the farm-to-table movement whatever you want to call it: vegetables. Yes. A first course of vegetables. More and more chefs are offering creatively seasoned veg as a first course. Yes, this helps the bottom line (protein is more expensive than plant food) but it also helps the diner enjoy a comfortable meal.
Here are some of my faves:
- Finca, 327 W 200 South, SLC, 801-487-0699, fincaslc.com Setas means mushrooms in Spanish and this plate of slow-cooked mushrooms is seasoned with garlic, sherry vinegar, chile de arbol, parsley and crushed potatoes to round it out.
- Tin Angel, 365 W. 400 South,SLC, 801-328-4155, thetinangel.com Grilled Brussels sprouts are sautéed with red cabbage and served with seasoned orange goat cheese, sherry vinaigrette and crunchy slices of baguette.
- Cafe Trio Downtown, 680 S. 900 East, SLC, 801-533–8746, triodining.com Roasted cauliflower gets the flavor kick it always needs from Fresno chili and cumin, some texture from pine nuts and cilantro yogurt sauce to marry everything and lend some mouthfeel
- Firewood on Main, 306 Main St., Park City, 435-252-9900, firewoodonmain.com The darling of vegans and vegetarians, jackfruit is making its way onto menus for omnivores as well. Its substantial texture (like meat! According to vegans.) is given a flavor boost with garlic, lemon and dill, gentled with an almond yogurt sauce
- Eva, 317 S. Main, SLC, 801-359-8447, evaslc.com This might be my number one fave: cooked carrots seasoned with tahini, mint and black sesame dukkha, an Egyptian spice blend usually made with the sesame, coriander, cumin, turmeric and pepper, although I don’t really know what Eva’s secret is.
Oh, and one more: The Bread that Breaks the Veggie Rule…
Stoneground Italian Kitchen, 249 E. 400 South, SLC, 801-364-1368, stonegrounditalian.com Focaccino arrives at the table like a big bread bubble. When your server cuts into it, it deflates into a super-light flatbread. Sprinkled with Adriatic Sea salt and served with three sauces: labneh, tomato, and oil and vinegar.
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