A cynic might complain that Little Island is a calculated part of a tourist runway extending from the Whitney Museum to Hudson Yards via the High Line, intended to strew dollars all along the route and ramp up the value of real estate on either side. But the view of the new 2.4-acre pier-based park was impressive as I approached by a bridge under a massive arch, through which could be seen winding paths and meandering stairways interspersed with colorful flower beds and trees. The pathways wend their way upward, providing dramatic views along the way. Little Island rises to a height of 64 feet on mushroom-shaped pylons at 14th Street, making for one of the more unique sights along the river. As a giant sculpture, it’s a complete success. But what about as a culinary destination?
I entered the park for the first time last week, a 3-year-old in tow, and due to its small size and narrow walkways, we found ourselves crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors as we zigzagged our way up the tiny mountain, pausing for a quick look at New Jersey and then descending down the other side. Despite lawns here and there where visitors could linger, the park seemed designed more for the rapid movement of people than for relaxing. There were few benches along its walkways, and we felt a constant pressure of pedestrians behind us, like water in a firehose.
There was a nice amphitheater on one side of the hill with a view of the Hudson, and I guess we could have hung out there, but when we saw the Playground signpost, we immediately turned our steps in that direction. Alas, it turned out not to be a playground at all; the park has virtually no amenities for kids. Instead, it was a food court ensconced in three tiny, brightly painted trailers. Small, rickety metal tables and chairs were strewn in front.
Of course, these days you can’t have an amenity like Little Island without a food court, especially since its captive audience was probably unwilling to walk two blocks to Chelsea Market, where the food is often fantastic. And while the food available at Little Island turned out to be mediocre, there was a superb collection of local canned wines and beers, suggesting that the real purpose of this “playground” may be to encourage alcohol consumption. In fact, I liked Rose All Day’s canned bubbly rosé (made in Hyde Park, New York) so much that I later looked for it in liquor stores.
On three visits to the park, I managed to sample much of the menu, rather coyly titled Bites & Sips. It is attributed to caterer Savory Hospitality. The Little Island website promises “food from scratch,” which worried me a little, since the three trailers were tiny, each holding three or four clearly undertrained employees struggling to turn out the menu with ridiculously small-capacity equipment.
There’s a breakfast menu of yogurt, pastries, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches, including the now-ubiquitous avocado toast. A lunch and dinner menu offers 16 items, some simple and predictable, others audaciously ambitious, as if dreamed up by a menu writer to attract people who consider themselves “foodies.” In this category was the “Impossible pambazo” ($12).
This relatively obscure Mexican street sandwich is hard enough to find in Jackson Heights, so seeing it on this menu, made with Impossible meat rather than skinless chorizo, was astonishing. While the sandwich should be made on a special elongated roll with both halves drenched in chile gravy, here a flavorless red fluid was provided on the side. The round roll was chalky, and the vegan Impossible meat did a convincing imitation of a sausage — just not chorizo. And the sandwich, even with the chile gravy dumped on it, was dry as a desert wind. As I chewed my first bite, I found a piece of plastic in the filling.
A grilled cheese had been run through the oven, and was a complete mess once the foil was opened. A little grease on both slices of bread would have helped. A Reuben ($12) — referencing “Swiss barrel-cured kraut” — survived the cooking process more successfully, though the quantity of corned beef was meager. Still, at least the grease-soaked sandwich tasted good, and the marble rye (could it possibly be a Seinfeld reference?) was a nice touch. Score one for Savory.
The menu offers a fried chicken sandwich of the fast-food variety, with the same orange sauce seen on several dishes, described here as spicy mayo. For $12, it seemed generic but was good enough nonetheless, with its freshly fried chicken breast cutlet. The worst thing I tasted was also the most healthy seeming: a finely minced salad of mango, tomato, and cucumber with a gravel of what tasted like burnt sesame seed paste on top. It was rather grandly dubbed Vera Cruz ($10), but apropos of what?
Two hot dogs were offered, one called the Island G-Dog ($7), supposedly topped with “giardiniera, Calabrian mayo, celery leaves,” which had resolved itself into an orange mush that tasted like not much of anything. Again, the relish seemed like a menu writer’s fantasy. Better to settle for the plain hot dog ($5), which can be dressed with the usual condiments, available in those annoying plastic sleeves that prevent you from extracting more than half of what’s inside.
So grab three or four mustards, and get the plain frankfurter. I wish there’d been at least one seafood selection on the menu — a lobster roll, perhaps, or maybe just a fried fish sandwich, given Little Island’s maritime location. But no.
We’ve finally come to the most important part of the Little Island tourist menu — the french fries ($7). They’re the kind of fries that have been coated in starch for quick browning and an enhanced crispness, though the inside resembles mashed potatoes. I don’t like this particular species of fries, but maybe you do. Much better, and really the best thing I tasted next to the Reuben, was Buffalo-style cauliflower ($8), presumably referring to the city and not the animal.
Cauliflower florets were coated in a thick breading accented with Aleppo pepper. Inside, the vegetable nuggets were juicy, and despite a lack of flavor in the breading, the mayo-bearing Calabrian chile dip offered a nice further lubrication. The two pretentious geographic references in one dish should send customers scurrying for their atlases.
So, my friends, by all means visit Little Island and climb its well-populated hills. But if you tarry for a snack or meal, stick with the plain hot dog, Buffalo cauliflower, or Reuben sandwich — and wash it down with a nice can of sparkling rosé.