Small Wonders

Small Wonders

Julie Toy
Julie Toy
Mega-restaurants may have become the norm, but now a breed of tiny chef-run dining spots is giving new meaning to getting intimate

It's nine o'clock on a Friday night and you've waited three weeks for the hottest table in Dallas. You're sitting in a sleek room with cool white walls that make you think: Miami. But here, there is no headset-clad hostess in a skintight sheath working a touch screen. There's no VIP lounge--there's no need for one--there are only 12 tables. The food is so fresh it sparkles. When was the last time you saw three varieties of shell peas on the same plate?The chef comes to your table with a broad smile, as though she knows you. But her excitement is about the peas: Purple Hulls, Crowders, Sweet English. "This is the first week of East Texas pea season," she announces. "What do you think?"

Around the country, maverick young chefs are opening intimate spaces that reflect their personalities and tastes. They are following in the footsteps of chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton, who opened her 35-seat Prune in New York's East Village in 1999. Its charm comes as much from the subdued, homey comforts of marrow with toast and butter-and-sugar sandwiches as it does from the fact that you can watch her cooking from any seat in the house. And judging by the reservation books, diners are eating it up.

Why do we like small restaurants?We crave connection when we travel, and these places make us feel like part of the neighborhood. Call us old-fashioned, but we feel coddled when the chef is in the house. And there's also the peculiar joy that comes from occupying the most exclusive seats in town. Here, six of our favorites from coast to coast that prove good things do come in small packages.

Dallas: York Street

Sharon Hage was in charge of the kitchen at the Hotel St. Germain in Dallas, dreaming of opening her own restaurant—"a chef-y place, dinner only, thirty chairs"—when a meat vendor told her about a tiny French bistro for sale in East Dallas. She bought it and transformed the lace-curtained, brass-lamped space into a cool, airy room that seems far more spacious than it is. "I changed everything except the floor and the busboy," she says. Hage describes her cooking as simple and ingredient-driven, then wonders aloud, "Is that a clichŽ?" Not if it means winning combinations such as rustic duck-egg frittata studded with serrano ham, fingerling potatoes, and garrotxa (a Catalonian goat's-milk cheese), or orzo with favas, Chianti, and slender coins of poached veal marrow. Order tea: eight custom blends are brought to the table before you decide which to steep. 6047 Lewis St.; 214/826-0968; dinner for two $90.

Philadelphia: Django

A flea-market spirit reigns at Django: in the dime-store flatware, in the clay flowerpots used to bake and serve the bread, and in the antique chairs that once sat on a ferryboat's deck. But it's the vintage enamel stove in the front window that hints of serious food being eaten in this sunny room in the South Street shopping district. Bryan Sikora's cooking is inventive--there's nothing recycled about his aromatic herb soup, a beguiling electric-green bouillon of eight herbs, including apple mint and baby garlic, whipped up with a rich white-bean broth. Or perfectly seared scallops with a yellow curry that gets fruity depth from puréed apple and parsnip. Sikora and his wife, Aimee Olexy, have been working in restaurants since their teens, but Sikora's training as a painter and illustrator often comes in handy. "Sometimes I won't understand Bryan's vision for a new dish, so I'll ask him for a sketch," Olexy says. "Once he starts drawing, I get it." Greens freaks should reserve on Tuesdays, when a forager delivers wild lettuces like pepper cress, lamb's-quarters, and poke salet. 526 S. Fourth St.; 215/922-7151; dinner for two $68.

Chicago: West Town Tavern

The neighborhood residents cheered as seasoned Chicago restaurateurs Drew and Susan Goss (their other restaurant, Zinfandel, has been a downtown institution for nearly a decade) opened this glowing, one-room tavern in the up-and-coming West Town. As the ceiling fans spin, a diverse crowd is regaled with comfort foods like beer cheese (a beer-and-cheese spread), bowls of mussels, pastas fragrant with woodsy mushrooms, and flatbread topped with butter-soft leeks, thyme, red pepper, fresh mozzarella, and truffle oil. Susan altered the sage-green curtains to fit the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows and left the rest of the spare, brick-walled space alone. Drew buzzes around fixing the basement refrigerators and fine-tuning the simple but clever wine list--this fall, it favors refreshing flavors like the apple-quince highlights of a white Vouvray from the Loire Valley and a relaxed Alderbrook Zinfandel from Sonoma that has the spritz and blackberry-soda suggestions of your Italian uncle's best garage wine. The Tavern's pecan pie is the perfect finish to a meal, with the kind of crisp, tender lid that would make any Southern boy's heart go faint. 1329 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/666-6175; dinner for two $60.

Los Angeles: G. Garvin's

By itself, the private dining room at Reign, where Gerry Garvin was executive chef until last November, seats the same number as G. Garvin's, his new restaurant in West Hollywood. "I wanted a restaurant that would be like my living room," Garvin says, and there's definitely a festive, house-party vibe here. The sound track trips from De La Soul to K. D. Lang to Marvin Gaye, and the crowd ranges from music-industry execs in suits to Hollywood starlets-in-the-making. Anchoring the room are monumental orchids, candle sconces that cast a flickery light, and Garvin's expertly prepared California cuisine, such as seared rare ahi tuna with fresh mint, cracked pepper, and ponzu sauce. Our favorite dishes show off Garvin's Southern roots: crab cakes, charred baby back ribs, and a banana mousse cake that, never mind the moniker, is simply the best banana cream pie we've ever tasted. When the restaurant gets busy, Garvin often emerges from the kitchen to bus a table or uncork a bottle for a couple who have brought their own wine. Mostly, it's because he doesn't want to miss out on the party. 8420 W. Third St.; 323/655-3888; dinner for two $95.

Napa Valley: Roux Restaurant

Of all the destination restaurants in tiny St. Helena, Roux is the one where locals spend their evenings. Perhaps that's because owners Vincent and Tyla Nattress tend to indulge them--like the customer who thought hanging a grid of white dinner plates would brighten up the burgundy walls (they now do). Tyla's in charge of the wine list, which showcases tiny California wineries like Kazmer & Blaise and Libélula. Vincent executes to perfection the short, carefully composed menu of clean flavors such as halibut cheeks and asparagus with a carrot reduction, or sweet-pea ravioli with pea tendrils. There's an emphasis on the super-local--those peas were grown in the sous-chef's garden, a couple of miles from Roux--but Vincent isn't afraid to explore far-flung places when the occasion calls for it: Valrhona Manjari chocolate, made from Madagascar-grown beans, gives fruity, nutty richness to a semifreddo. There's a quiet sophistication to this place. But mostly, it feels like you've come home to family. 1234 Main St., St. Helena, Calif.; 707/963-5330; dinner for two $90.

Brooklyn: Locanda Vini & Olii

Locanda occupies a circa-1900 pharmacy, and its mahogany chemist's cabinets and apothecary drawers have been meticulously restored. The look of the place is distinctly old-world, which makes host and owner Franois Louy, in his black suede suit, neon-green Converse All-Stars, and spiky hair, look somewhat out of place. Louy and his wife and co-owner, Catherine de Zagon Louy, grew up in Milan and Florence, respectively, and their combined culinary résumé (Cipriani, Celestino, Mezzogiorno) covers both coasts. For Locanda, the Louys imported two young chefs, one from Venice, one from Tuscany, to prepare glammed-up Italian peasant food such as veal tongue cured in salt and thyme, sliced thinly and served with an herby salsa verde, and "soppressata" of pressed octopus studded with Sicilian pistachios and pink peppercorns. If all those Italian-by-numbers restaurants have given you red-sauce fatigue, the chestnut-flour lasagnette with sausage and chickpeas is just the right prescription. 129 Gates Ave.; 718/622-9202; dinner for two $50.

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