Tray Kitchen is the Frelard project from Heong Soon Park, the Korean-born owner and chef of the lovely Chan in Pike Place Market. His aim at Tray was to effect a similar conceptual collision—East-West fusion plus small plates plus delivery by dim sum cart—that has vaulted San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions into the gastronomosphere.
Has he achieved this? You can find out in my review of Tray Kitchen, right here in our March issue.
But Tray Kitchen raises an even more interesting question than how dim sum delivery translates to non–dim sum food: How satisfying are small plate dinners in the first place?
Over the decades small plates have had periods of ascendency in restaurants, from the grazing of the '80s to the appropriation of tapas in the '90s to the soaring popularity of happy hour in the new millennium. Tray Kitchen, with its roving carts of globe-trotting nibbles—Moroccan lamb, fried rice with duck confit, grilled octopus with ancho chili aioli—presents the latest face of this.
The advantage? Variety and novelty, absolutely. Sometimes, what a diner wants most for dinner are a bunch of new experiences.
The problem is, it can be tough to achieve consistency with so many individual conceptions. Practically speaking, they can be tricky to split among diners. And from a culinary standpoint, a parade of small plates can make for an incoherent dining experience. You eat the meat, then you eat the rice, now here comes the vegetable—when it would be so much more satisfying to eat them together. And if plates do arrive together, happenstance pairings can clash. “Dishes don’t always bring out the best in other dishes,” I wrote in my Tray Kitchen review. “Diners are pairing flavors, after all, that would be best done by the wiser palates in the kitchen.”
Small plate dining almost never fully showcases the skill of the chef, in other words. That said, there are places in Seattle that offer small plate options either as the whole menu, a part of the menu, or the essence of the cuisine on offer.