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Three Women and a Tasty Tidbit 

by TAMARA McGREGOR, ANNE McGREGOR, ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & VIN ROUGE & r & 3029 E. 29th Ave. * 535-8800The phenomenon of "small plates" is catching on in the region, and it can be a great comfort for those who like variety or who often can't finish a large entr & eacute;e. Since opening 18 months ago, Vin Rouge has staked out the small-plate market, regularly offering a dozen or more choices of smaller-sized morsels. On a weekday evening, we set our sights on Vin Rouge for a girls' night out, sans children, aging parents, spouses and other dependencies. The food was hot, tasty and comforting, and we even had room to sample the peanut butter mocha torte and Kona coffee hot fudge sundae for dessert -- for nothing says comfort like chocolate. (AC)

Beef Brochettes ($6) - Ann

Let no one try to convince you otherwise: Ladies like beef. Well, at least this lady does. The last time I ordered the brochettes, my tiny elderly mother scarfed 'em all down before I could grab more than a mouthful. This time, lucky for me, Anne and Tamara preferred our other choices, so the brochettes were mine, (nearly) all mine. Chunks of tender beef were grilled then piled atop a thin slice of butternut squash and topped with a rich brown sauce reminiscent of demi glace. We dutifully shared the plates around, so I limited myself to one chunk initially, but after everyone had sampled I discreetly -- and then blatantly -- cleaned up every last scrap. I did, however, refrain from licking the plate.

Scallops ($10) - Anne

There are some ingredients I find hard to resist on a menu. One is arugula and another is scallops. Imagine my delight and intrigue when I found both incorporated into one small plate at Vin Rouge. Served in a rectangular shallow dish, the scallops were perfectly cooked and presented in a brothy sauce with a delightful hint of chipotle adding just a touch of heat. The arugula was a little chewy, but with its peppery flavor mellowed in the hot broth, the rich earthiness was reminiscent of a classic surf and turf. The flavors were exuberant but happily paired, and not too heavy.

Gnocchi ($6) - Tamara

One of the hazards of sampling small plates is transitioning from dish to dish. After swooning over a pair of perfectly seared smoky scallops, my first bite of Vin Rouge's gnocchi was a bit underwhelming. The texture was just right -- the potato dumplings were light and creamy and seemed to dissolve in my mouth -- but it wasn't love at first bite. Prepared with a simple pomodoro sauce with fresh basil, tomatoes and garlic, the flavors were much more delicate than the bold predecessors on our table. However, as the night went on, I found my fork returning again and again to the gnocchi. Its subtle flavors and warm, filling bites won me over. It turned out to be the comfort food I was seeking.

1228 TAPAS

1228 S. Grand Blvd. * 456-0500

It's only been open a couple of months, but Jerry Schrader's newest venture is gaining favor with its focus on tapas (the Spanish progenitor to small plates) and 'tinis. Plus, it's one of the few places around where you can get some pleasant conversation, a glass of wine and a hot soothing dish at 9 o'clock on a rainy Tuesday night after a long hard day. That's enough to earn 1228 Tapas lots of comfort points, and the warm hues and intimate feel of the d & eacute;cor help, too. For our girls' night out, we chose five different plates from the two dozen offerings -- and it was a tough choice, because most everything sounded deliciously tempting. (AC)

Grilled Scallops ($12) - Ann

Even though it's not quite the peak of scallop season, I couldn't resist ordering this plate starring big sea scallops, grilled and served atop a slaw of julienne zucchini, yellow squash and carrots in a lightly creamy tarragon dressing. The scallops were moist and buttery-tender inside, lightly browned on the outside, and full of the mildly briny taste of the sea. The slaw was colorful and light, and its tangy dressing complemented the delicate scallops, but I found the julienne strips a little bit awkward to eat -- too long to eat in one bite, too thick to bend easily. This dish was more reminiscent of summer than fall, but the scallops were a succulent comfort, regardless of the season.

Lamb Chops ($11) - Anne

I opted for the lamb chops with horseradish mashed potatoes. Two little chops were perched on a healthy dollop of mashed potatoes and accompanied by a dipping dish of mint "pesto." The chops were magnificent -- seared on the outside, medium rare inside and piping hot when they reached the table. I also liked the mashed potatoes: The horseradish taste was not overpowering and was a nice complement to the rub on the chops. The mint "pesto" was sweet and minty and, like mint jelly, went well with the lamb, but it seemed to clash with the horseradish in the potatoes. Still, the lamb and potatoes lent enough comfort to satisfy.

Chile Relleno and Crab ($10) - Tamara

When I first discovered Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, I decided it was quite possibly the world's most perfect food. Packed with chocolate-covered peanut butter-stuffed pretzels, it's salty, sweet, crunchy and creamy all at once. What more could you ask for in one bowl? Well, the Chile Relleno and Crab at 1228 Tapas is the small plate equivalent. The tempura-like batter coating the chile offers a slight sweetness and crunch. Inside, the decadent crab filling is the perfect complement, with its creamy, salty richness. A subtle, slow heat from the chile completes the blend of flavors and textures. The smoky-sweet roasted corn salsa is a fabulous foil to this little slice of perfection on a plate.

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