13 Small plate-focused Madison restaurants

At these spots, tapas steal the show

Tapas. Apps. Starters. Shareables. These small plates are representative of an ongoing (and on-growing) food phenomenon here in Madison and beyond. Small plates have become a platform for cutting-edge chefs to pack full-sized culinary artistry into a modest space. (Surely you recall the adage about big things coming in small packages?) For the consumer, small plates mean you get the chance to try multiple menu items rather than betting all your chips on just one. To get the party started, we’ve compiled a not-so-small list of the local restaurants that take the concept of small plates to a logical–and delicious–extreme. And if you choose not to share yours? We can get our own.

Alchemy Cafe
The small-plate menu is lean, mean and bar-food based but definitely worth the trip to Alchemy, where you’re stone-cold crazy if you’re not ordering the crispy, twice-fried sweet potato fries with jalapeño-blackberry jam for sweet dippin’. The spicy buffalo wings are also a must-try, topped with Carr Valley Gorgonzola to tamp down the heat from the bourbon and cocoa-based buffalo sauce. 1980 Atwood Ave., 204-7644 $

A Pig in a Fur Coat
The best of the Pig’s small plates are pasta-focused, like thick tagliatelle in an even thicker Bolognese sauce or ravioli featuring duck egg, ricotta and bacon items. If you’re in a meatier mood, consider the lamb carpaccio: The paper-thin slices of raw lamb and the corn-shoot garnish make the plate look like the world’s most delicious spiderweb, with the golden egg yolk as its center. 940 Williamson St., 316-3300 $$

Dobhan Restaurant
Dobhan’s Himalayan-Nepalese approach to its main menu is reflected in its small-plate options, where you can find skewers of beef, lamb or chicken chaula, spiced with a mix of ginger, garlic and cilantro, or go full Pan-Asian with a small plate of hariyo, a hut of steamed Asian greens generously doused in tamari sauce and topped with Indian spices. 2110 Atwood Ave., 242-4448 $ BOM

Eno Vino Wine Bar & Bistro
Having an “OMG, it’s right in my face” view of the Capitol dome may be an awesome distraction from the downtown Eno Vino’s dizzying and wide-ranging array of small-plate options. It’s never a bad call to opt for the finger-food goodness of the sweet chile calamari fries (also a fave at Eno’s west-side location). And that dipping sauce is killer. But if you’re looking to blaze new trails, the roasted airline chicken, a recent addition to the menu, flies high on a bed of butternut squash hash. 601 Junction Road, 664-9565 (west); 1 N. Webster St., 455-0663 (downtown) $$ BOM13 Small plate-focused Madison restaurants

Tory Miller embraces the Spanish/tapas side of his culinary muse at his newest restaurant. At Estrellón, even the large plates are presented with sharing in mind, but you’d be remiss if you skipped the baked goat cheese with spicy marinara sauce or the hand-pulled Farmer John’s mozzarella that’s actually pulled to order–so you know it’s fresh. Regulars gush over the tortilla Española, where the simplest of ingredients–egg, potato and onion elevated by paprika and aioli–are given a magazine-quality presentation. 313 W. Johnson St., 251-2111 $ BOM13 Small plate-focused Madison restaurants

Food Fight’s champion in the small-plates arena checks all the boxes you might expect from a small-plate purveyor–vegetables, seafood and beef tartare and buttermilk-fried chicken–but also adds one you don’t: a category affectionately called “Things on Toast.” Turns out, smoked whitefish with a gribiche sauce goes down surprisingly smooth. Meanwhile, mixing crushed avocado and cured salmon with the kick of chiles and red onion adds some fire to an otherwise toasty crunch. 2701 Monroe St., 416-5242 $$13 Small plate-focused Madison restaurants

Veggies dominate the small plates high above State Street, with at least one dramatic and delicious exception: executive chef Giovanni Novella’s Vietnamese spring rolls, a finger food that combines seared salmon, napa cabbage and a trio of herbs (cilantro, mint and parsley) that pair perfectly with a sweet and spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce. Elsewhere, pan-fried, roasted and charred vegetables are expertly paired with sauces and spices that really make them sing. 227 State St., 663-7374 $$

Fuegos – Steak–Tapas–Vegan
Fuegos chef Oscar Villarreal is of Spanish and Mexican heritage, and his food incorporates influences from many different regions, including Venezuela, Mexico and Spain. Among Fuegos’ tapas para picar (which translates to “finger food”) that regulars rave about is the chorizo de lagarto (that’s alligator chorizo sausage). But we’re swayed by the cangrejo, a tender but meaty crab cake drizzled with a fire-roasted chile sauce, and the cincos de venera, a set of tastily seared scallops, each presented on an individual tortilla chip bed with a guacamole cushion. 904 Williamson St., 229-692 $

Where several of the restaurants on this list look to the Iberian Peninsula for small-plate inspiration, Graft keeps the focus firmly on the Midwest. That results in some truly amazing options, from a bowl of lightly charred Brussels sprouts with pumpkin seeds and balsamic glaze to black-shelled mussels in a coconut milk red curry with fingerling potatoes. The menu varies seasonally, particularly with Graft’s seafood offerings, so be sure to bring an open and adventurous spirit. 18 N. Carroll St., 229-8800 $$ BOM13 Small plate-focused Madison restaurants

You’d expect Tory Miller, whose name and restaurants appear several times on this list, to be a wizard of small-plate artistry, and you’d be absolutely correct. The real question is whether you’re going to opt for the punch-n-crunch of the vodka-battered cheese curds or the smoother vibe of the hoisin-spiced pork belly sliders. We’re not even going to suggest you share the signature plate of Hook’s 10-year cheddar mac n’ cheese. What kind of fools do you take us for? 1 S. Pinckney St., 251-2700 $ BOM

Heritage Tavern
Sometimes, going with the timeless original is best, and that’s definitely the case at Heritage, where chef Dan Fox, our 2013 Chef of the Year, still fronts his signature crispy pork belly and blackfin tuna, an artfully staged confection that mixes the cooked and the raw atop a sweet pineapple-mango compote. If you’re feeling especially Wisconsin-y, you owe it to yourself to dive into a plate of the tempura bacon-wrapped cheese curds. You may never want regular curds again. 131 E. Mifflin St., 283-9500 $$

The Icon
The Icon divides its tapas by temperature–hot and cold–but you don’t have to feel constrained by artificial categorizations. In other words, you can feel perfectly free to dive into a plate of the cold braised octopus (in a mango puree, preserved lemon and smoked paprika aioli, no less) and then pivot to a warm one lined with bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese and drizzled with a maple balsamic reduction. The latter looks like a cooked-meat version of an artistic sushi roll. 206 State St., 256-3000 $

The Wise Restaurant & Bar
The Wise at HotelRED organizes its menu by “chapters,” but feel free to read ahead–there are seriously delicious small plate/shareable options in almost every section. Most folks start with the chorizo-stuffed dates, wrapped in locally sourced Jones Dairy Farm bacon. Now that winter’s upon us, the flatbread is a great choice, too, topped with crème fraîche, caramelized onions and cheese. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, dive into the charred cauliflower. The pepper and lemon zest give a nice kick. 1501 Monroe St., 819-8230 $ BOM

Aaron R. Conklin is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.