Many years ago, before marriage and children, I had a social life that included visiting bars in Downtown Syracuse. It was not a regular venture, but once or twice a month I would venture to The Blue Tusk, The Limerick Pub (my favorite), or P.J. Dorsey’s to poison myself with alcohol. This is what you are supposed to do in your 20s, allegedly, so I did my duty.
The latter entity, P.J. Dorsey’s, was a staple of Armory Square bargoers for years until its 2013 closing. What opened in its stead was a Small Plates Detroit, a tapas-style restaurant owned by two Syracusans that were having success with the concept in the Motor City. Communal dining is one of the biggest dining rages of the past 5 to 10 years. Traditional tapas bars and shared-plate gastro pubs have cropped up around the country, borrowing the Andalusian spirit of small bites and small drinks among friends. This is a style of dining that The Wife and I enjoy, as it allows us to try a lot of different things without the restriction of one entree.
I have spoken long and lovingly about Laci’s Tapas Bar in Syracuse. My feelings about its food, ambience and owners are well known, so it’s tough to compare an unknown entity to one that I hold with such regard. Yet, as they exist in the same culinary and geographic spaces, it’s also very hard not to compare them.
Valentine’s Day for The Wife and I came together very late and very quickly. Our childcare situation was not resolved until almost the week before, which meant that many of our first choice restaurants were booked. We wanted to try ALFA Dining Room, however the prospective crowd of 35,000+ people at the Carrier Dome and a nasty snowstorm scuttled those plans. OpenTable showed a seating available at Small Plates Detroit for the evening, so we ventured in.
The crowd was moderate in the restaurant when we entered just before the 6 p.m. tipoff for the Duke-Syracuse basketball game. Our hostess seated us at one of a series of tables along the long lateral wall of the restaurant. The new owners of the restaurant removed the large wooden booths that once lined the wall, replacing it with a Motor City Denim Company-lined booth and a series of 10 steel tables and accompanying chairs.
We investigated the menu ahead of time online, and The Wife was excited by the list of house cocktails. After being seated and greeted by our waiter, we were left with only a beer and wine listing. There was no word as to whether the cocktail list applied to the Syracuse location — the website is shared by both the Motor and Salt City locations — and the volume of the house speakers prevented our waiter from hearing our request for the list.
Our denim-aproned waiter — who had terrible breath — reviewed the menu with us and suggested that we each order two plates apiece to share. Typically, The Wife and I end up ordering a fifth plate because I have no impulse control.
There’s no real organization to the menu beyond salads, small plates and the Detroit-style pizzas. Choices include 27 different plates, plus four salads and four pizzas, with prices between $6 and $14. We ordered drinks and dinner, and within a few minutes, the first dish arrived.
The Wife chose the Wagyu beef sliders, which were topped with cheddar, chipotle aioli, pickles and served on a pretzel bun. Two burgers were presented with large food pick holding things together. The beef had that grass-fed, high fat content richness to it, but the burgers were medium-well and the outside had way too much char. The rolls were fluffy and had that telltale soft pretzel flavor, and combined with the beef, overpowered the rest of the flavors involved with the slider.
Chicken and waffles were my choice and this dish did not disappoint. While I would have preferred to control my own maple syrup, what was served was just right. A fried chicken cutlet was sandwiched between two fluffy waffles. Neither were too crisp or too soggy. This was the only dish of the evening where the flavors complemented and worked in harmony.
The hoisin pork belly was slightly disappointing for a $9 plate. Three small cubes of pork belly were presented on a bed of apple slices and frisee. The dish was perfectly fine, with good flavors and balance between the smoky, sweet hoisin and the salty, fatty pig, but felt empty compared to its cost.
Detroit-style pizza is supposed be a sauce-on-top pie prepared on a twice-baked crust. The chorizo and caramelized onion pizza was flawed from start to finish. The sausage was far too hot and lacked the smoky chile pepper flavor you find in chorizo, instead tasting more like hot Italian sausage. The sauce was less tangy than it was ordinary, and the crust was a chewy, doughy mess that screamed “pre-fab.” It was the same dough that the last dish was presented upon. The beef bruschetta was listed in the menu as “tenderloin, mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, white cheddar, balsamic reduction, atop country bread.” What we actually received was an open-face Philly steak sandwich on the Detroit-style pizza dough.
Our waiter was attentive, bringing his bad breath by periodically to refill beverages and clear plates. Unlike other restaurants of its ilk, Small Plates consistently replaced dirty plates to prevent the splashy sauces and dressings from compromising the flavors of the next dish.
But, that was that. Within 1 hour, we had paid the check and were headed to the door. The idea behind a tapas restaurant, at least from the business aspect, is to keep people at their tables. Keep them talking, drinking, and ordering more food. The kitchen should pace the food coming out, not necessarily to keep room between dishes but to keep the customer wanting for more. Instead, our table kept us at a bird’s eye view for the kitchen’s expediter, who was doing his best to push dishes out as quickly as possible.
We skipped dessert, opting to take ourselves elsewhere for a nightcap.
The Wife was concerned that the restaurant was only half full when we arrived. She wondered if it was really the weather or if it was a reflection of the regard in which people hold the food and experience of eating at Small Plates Detroit.
Small Plates Detroit is located at 116 Walton St. in Syracuse’s Armory Square. Reservations can be made online or by phone. Dinner for two with drinks was $86 before tip.