When the doors of Little Owl flew open in 2006, it changed the shape of the restaurant industry in New York City. Replacing old-guard Parisian bistro Chez Michallet, it helped reconfigure the menu of the typical neighborhood bistro away from exclusively French to concentrate more on seafood and salads, sometimes with Asian and Italian flourishes. It also marked the debut of Gabriel Stulman, who went on to found the Happy Cooking empire; and was located in the building that contained the Friends apartment, which imbued the place with pop-culture luster. And it introduced a dish called simply “the pork chop” that caused a sensation.
I decided to revisit the restaurant, if only to taste that famous pork chop again. I arrived on a frigid evening early in the week to find the place jammed. Where once there had been a quaint, 30-seat dining room (the eponymous plastic owl visible in the eaves of an adjacent building as a pigeon deterrent), now there radiated multiple outdoor sidewalk tables and dining structures outfitted with heat lamps, creating what looked like a glowing small city in Alaska.
The pork chop ($36), bone protruding and cross-hatched with black stripes from the grill, sailed in on a bed of greens under which lay a pebbled beach of butter beans. The chop was cooked to a perfect pink in the middle, and the flesh was soft and slightly chewy. It managed to impersonate the texture of a well-marbled steak. The flavor contained the merest suggestions of cumin and curry, but this only served to boost the consummate porkiness of the chop. The taste was as good as I remembered it, but the price was exactly $10 more.
Is it unusual for one dish to singlehandedly tentpole a menu in virtually unchanged form for 16 years? I’d say yes, except that other aspects of the menu have also remained consistent, perhaps because the original chef, Joey Campanaro, still presides (although he and Stulman did have a fallout). While the original bill of fare featured a plank of seared hamachi, Japanese style, the current one offers tuna ponzu ($19) — dark red curls of fish in a citrus-soy solution. Also among the seafood appetizers was grilled octopus, but even with the heaters blasting in the cold weather, my two companions and I opted for lobster bisque ($16). It was brilliantly orange and dotted with green chives, although stingy on the quantity of crustacean.
We also went for the mushroom risotto ($22), which came with a raw egg yolk wiggling on top, lots of wild mushrooms, and a faint odor of truffle oil. It easily could have been an entree. For vegetarians and those who simply love vegetables, there’s a nine-item section — not on the original menu — called Seasonal Vegetable, which contains a very agreeable dish of skin-on delicata squash tossed with nuggets of apple and toasted pumpkinseeds ($15). Of course, you can feel virtuous in eating seasonal veggies without being particularly healthy by simply ordering another dish in the section: french fries ($9). They are crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle, and full of flavor.
The menu encourages diners to graze the smaller dishes and sides of vegetables, and share entrees, which tend to be large. Besides the ultra-shareable pork chop (really, who could eat that much meat in one sitting?), we picked a skate sandwich, a fish that is often the aquatic centerpiece of the traditional French bistro menu. It came on a modest-sized roll with two layers of breaded and fried ray and a haystack of slaw on the top. Also, french fries came on the side, which meant a double order of fries this meal and some serious carb loading for our table.
This is one place to not skip desserts. The sweet side of the menu remains decidedly pan-European. From a choice that also included gelato, beignets, cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, and a cherry Kahlúa brownie sundae (in earlier days it was a praline brownie sundae), we picked carrot cake and apple strudel. The former was topped with a lighter-than-usual cream cheese frosting, which was welcome. The latter came in a rolled form dusted with confectioner’s sugar and served with vanilla ice cream. The pair made an irresistible end to the meal.
We left shivering (the temperature had plunged, and the wind had picked up), but talking about how the food at Little Owl was every bit as good as we remembered it, and maybe a tad better than it had been over a decade earlier. How many New York restaurants can you say that about?