The halftrée

Pub date August 8, 2006

Somewhere in the enchanted realm of West Marin stands the Olema Inn, and in its rustic-chic dining room, at the end of a warm weekend afternoon, a few of us gathered recently for an early dinner. Under the aging sun, the garden glowed a brilliant green, and the dining room, with its many windows, fresh white walls, and wood-plank floors stained a rich coffee color, seemed invitingly cool and uncomplicated. Heat stimulates some of us but enervates others, and as a descendant of peoples from bleak and snowy lands, I generally tumble into the latter bin.
Heat, among other things, can be an appetite killer for the enervated, and while this can never be altogether a bad thing in our land of overplenty, it might be seen as an issue in a fabulous restaurant. (The Olema Inn, we were assured by our local guide, was “the Chez Panisse of west Marin.”) Fortunately, the menu was a tripartite arrangement, with the middle section given over to an array of sub-entrée-size plates that turned out to be more than sufficient for the several members of our overheated party, especially when preceded by a soup or salad and accompanied by a well-chilled pinot gris.
It was agreed by acclamation that restaurant portions are often much too big — especially in the matter of starches — and the cause of a not-inconsiderable amount of after-hours distress. A happy antidote to this syndrome has been, in recent years, the tapas or small-plate phenomenon. Many trendy people have wearied of small plates and even carped about them in print, but this does not change one of small plates’ basic virtues: the providing of worthy food in modest but not tiny amounts whose overall effect is to convince the body that it’s taken in more than it really has.
We do not have to have small plates everywhere, because alternative solutions are already in place. Many restaurants offer half pours from their by-the-glass wine lists, while many others offer to split plates for sharers, for a nominal or no charge. How about, then, offering half-size main courses — a split dish for one? I hate and do not understand the Anglophone abuse of the word entrée, which means “entry” or “starter” in French, but I would accept the term halftrée if it meant the option of less massive main dishes. You couldn’t do this with every dish, of course, but you could probably pull it off with a surprisingly large number — half, at least.