During a late lunch at Little Park, a healthy-esque hangout slinging $10 kale juice, I listened in horror as my friend made this absurd statement: "They make a great egg white frittata here." My retort was harsh. "What’s wrong with you?," I asked, which is a little hypocritical because a) I was devouring a schnitzel sandwich made with celery root instead of veal, b) I was enjoying that $10 kale juice, c) I was staring down a slice of “spent grain bread,” and d) I couldn’t decide whether I was impressed or outraged that Little Park doesn’t serve avocado toast, the ubiquitous uni of the plant world.
It's all enough to make you wonder whether we've hit peak vegetable. We have not.
Take that fake schnitzel. A fat disk of crispy celery root does its best impression of fried chicken. It eats with a firm snap and tastes like what would happen if Wylie Dufresne took cream of celery soup and magically solidified it into a croquette. And if that sounds a little plain, Little Park throws in some tart green apples, bitter Brussels sprouts slaw, and, to remind everyone that this isn't quite diet food, a Burger King Whopper’s worth of mayonnaise. Now would this dish be entirely more delicious if Little Park used pork shoulder or smoked bone marrow? Perhaps. But we’d forget about it a day later because it would taste like any other sandwich. Translation: If pushing the envelope requires risk on the part of the chef, it also needs a bit of open-mindedness on the part of the diner. By the time the sandwich is finished, you’ll crave another.
By the time the sandwich is finished, you’ll crave another.
Who would’ve guessed that ten years ago, amid the city’s pork belly boom, that heirloom carrots would eventually become the new sausages? Give credit to Luke Ostrom, Josh Pickard, and Andrew Carmellini, the team that brought us Lafayette, Locanda Verde, and other hip joints where the cool kids hang out, for showing a deft ability to adapt to the culinary zeitgeist. Some will applaud the venue, set in a narrow corner of Tribeca's Smyth Hotel, for its handsome beiges, sturdy browns, and comfy booths; others will deem it as corporate as an upscale steakhouse somewhere in Cincinnati. But all will appreciate the restrained noise levels. And like at Bar Primi, Carmellini’s other major opening of the last year, the prices are low, with just two items over $20, a serious relief in an era when $40 and $50 mains are increasingly the norm.
That means $13 gets you roasted sunchokes over sunchoke puree, a declension of sweet earth that couldn’t possibly get any more rich. And then you bite into a black trumpet mushroom; the butters and sugars are so intense you consider asking the kitchen to blend the remains into a milkshake for dessert.
Perhaps there’s something to this whole Michael Pollan Thing ("Eat food, not too much, mostly plants"), an omnivorous style of dining that isn’t so much vegetarian as it is carnivore-light — at least by American standards where there’s always a rib steak for two as a special. Here the meat section of the menu is just three items long, and the only animal protein to be found in either of the lunch sandwiches is egg.
The Carmellini Way is about making dinner more satisfying, more accessible, more fashionable, while gently pushing the envelope.
Little Park isn’t exactly breaking new ground in making vegetables the centerpiece of a non-vegetarian restaurant; plants have long made up the majority of the offerings at tasting menu venues like Stone Barns, Take Root, and more recently, Noma, as well as at a la carte spots like ABC Kitchen. And Carmellini isn't quite the revolutionary his peers or acolytes are. His most famous proteges — David Chang, Rich Torrisi, and Mario Carbone — are all overhauling the way we eat in New York right now. Carmellini’s restaurants aren't so much trendsetters as they are trend editors. The Carmellini Way is about making dinner more satisfying, more accessible, more fashionable, while gently pushing the envelope.
Fans of Eleven Madison Park know that vegetable tartare (aka "tiny, expensive salad") has been done before. But is there a better version around town than Little Park’s dice of beets with rye crumbs and horseradish cream? Call it a borscht belt take on beef tartare, with tons more flavor than most of the one-note riffs on the French staple; standing in for anchovies are little spheres of trout roe, providing a smoky, oily pop. This is the type of vegetables-seasoned-with-meat-or-seafood approach to cuisine long espoused by Manresa's David Kinch, where the plant is the star of the show, and the animal protein plays the supporting role.
Meanwhile Chef Min Kong's mushroom soup pocked with maitakes and chanterelles is intensely heady and oily until you bite into a tiny short rib ravioli; the red wine braise cuts through the richness like a samurai sword. She gives us soft carrots, sprinkled with sweet crumbs and slathered in a sauce of deep funk and flavor. Is it a dry-aged chicken sugo? It is not. The sauce is simply a reduction of carrot juice with black garlic. Oh, and duck fat.
Skip the raw section of the menu, a mess of bland tuna, one-note fluke, and too-cold Peconic Bay scallops. So start with the vegetables, then move onto the pastas for a mid-course; order either the kale tortellini (miles of flavor), or the nourishing, red wattle pork with whole wheat spaghetti.
Every New York restaurant take note: Little Park's approach to "mains" is the new standard bearer. The equation couldn't be simpler: Portions are modest (yet big enough to share), and as a result the prices are lower. Kong keeps lobster simple and affordable; $24 for a few bites of sweet shellfish in tarragon butter. She pairs hanger steak, boasting a beefiness that goes on for forever, with a broccoli-basil-cilantro puree. Cost: just $20. Who needs a whole strip steak for $50? And dry-aged duckAnd it comes with some pretty incredible duck sausage. Do not sleep on this dish. — Kludt
packs enough crispy skin, soft fat, and clean musk to make even a sober diner just a little bit loopy. The flavors are as profound and precise as the $39 version at Dirty French. Here, you pay $18.
The late Charlie Trotter, one of the earlier American proponents of vegetable-focused fare, once wrote that he wanted his guests, after finishing a tasting menu, "to feel stimulated and alert, knowing they will be able to look forward to breakfast in the morning." At Little Park, you leave sated, not stuffed, and maybe with a few extra bucks in your wallet.
Cost: Everything at $24 or under.
Sample dishes: Beet tartare with trout roe, celery root schnitzel sandwich, dry-aged duck and kebab, frozen lemon fluff with honey.
Bonus tip: There’s an actual burger (grass-fed) at the separate hotel bar.