Duck breast is either red and raw in the middle, as in the French bistro version, or steamed and then roasted into total doneness, as in the Chinese siu mei tradition. Well, there is a middle ground: Co-chef Conor Hanlon at Little Maven dry-ages the breast before searing, making the texture reminiscent of prime steak cooked medium rare, while retaining the dark lacustrine flavor of the duck. Every bite is exciting, even more so considering the crunchy skin. He serves two tenderloins almost naked on the plate ($47), with a scatter of turnips and pears tourned into little ovals.
Chelsea’s Little Maven, at 30 W. 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, is a hanger-size space with a front room featuring abstract murals in bright Fauvist colors. Opposite the bar, there’s a wealth of bar tables and banquettes, followed by tables in a low-ceilinged enclave that feels like it wants to be a celebrity hideout. Down a passageway and past a kitchen lies another dining room that feels like a church basement, the walls covered with black-and-white murals channeling Keith Haring without the crawling babies.
The restaurant is a project of the VCR Group — which includes the high-profile Gary Vaynerchuk — whose aspirations and accomplishments include restaurants in New York and Vegas, such as a hotel hamburger stand. For several years, the group has turned heads by raising $14 million in Bitcoin via NFTs for one-percenter memberships in its private Lower East Side Flyfish Club, which isn’t open yet (and is awfully quiet whenever we’ve walked by).
Little Maven, debuting last November, serves as a sort of harbinger. The website describes the place as a “modern American neighborhood restaurant,” while co-owner and co-chef Josh Capon, who is apparently busy braising beef in Pepsi, says, “This is our restaurant for everyone.”
Not sure everyone is the target audience for what is basically a glorified bistro where a fairly modest meal for two can run nearly $300 with tax and tip. On the other hand, the food is sometimes great, so if you can afford it without wincing, go for it.
In an attempt, perhaps, to be plebeian, one of the 10 appetizers that constitute over half the menu is a whipped tahini ($18) virtually indistinguishable from hummus. The quantity is adequate, and on top is a pretty great pickled relish of chiles and olives, with crudite and toasts marshaled on the side. But the dish is more health-food luncheon than luxurious appetizer. A pair of tiny lobster rolls was better ($26); but, at two bites each, maybe this is exactly the quantity of lobster roll you want.
The broiled oysters, on the other hand, were smallish specimens surmounted by a mantel of browned cheese and breadcrumbs that proved way too salty and firm. My dining companion’s remedy: Remove the topping and eat it like a cracker.
You may wonder why I’m praising this place at all? Well, both the whipped tahini and tiny lobster rolls struck me as quite good, whatever their inherent monetary value, but from this point, our meal really took off.
The choice of three pastas ($27 to $42) was a difficult one. We picked the oxtail trofie, little Ligurian twists in a sauce of ground meat and fried rosemary needles. We didn’t question the serving’s size — really, we couldn’t have eaten much more, given the richness. Next came that duck, an easily shareable course that absolutely delighted us. But the menu’s emphasis on appetizers suggests a place intended more for drinking than dining, and indeed the tables around us were knocking back the cocktails.
I’m glad to report that the by-the-glass wine list is exemplary, with a larger-than-usual selection of 16 quirky wines. We particularly enjoyed a straw-colored Basque getariako txakolina from Bodegas Hiruzta, though at $17 a glass it is only slightly less than the $20 retail price of an entire bottle. The cocktails with playful names tend to be complicated, though, in the case of The Fix Is In ($20, made with tequila, Spanish bitters, lemon, honey, pineapple, tarragon), it’s better for it, served over crushed ice with an Amarena Fabbri cherry poised on top.
Those cherries reappeared in the banana split ($19), with three kinds of ice cream, a thin cookie, glazed banana, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and crunchy dehydrated berries like the kind they sell at Trader Joe’s. It was a nice finish to a meal at a restaurant where we vowed next time to skip the appetizers and head straight for the pastas and main courses.