Little Giant is a happy comfort-food place. It was an instant sensation when it opened four years ago on the Lower East Side, and it has more-or-less stayed that way. I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time, but whenever I called for a reservation it always seemed to be full. Frank Bruni awarded one star in early 2005, in a mostly favorable review that was as much about the owners’ iPod playlist as it was about the food. One star would be a compliment, if Bruni hadn’t awarded two stars to so many uninspiring places.
The restaurant has a corner lot in an early 1900s tenemant building. The owners, Julie Taras Wallach and Tasha Garcia Gibson, did the renovation themselves. It has an understated homespun charm. There are 35 seats in the dining room, 5 at the bar. Space is always at a premium in these small spaces not originally designed as restaurants. But Little Giant seems less self-consciously crowded than other restaurants of its ilk, like the Little Owl and Prune. It wears the space well.
The owners accurately describe their cuisine as “refined comfort food,” using the usual modern buzzwords: “Seasonal American” and “creatively celebrates local farmers and small, artisanal producers.” Oh, and “We bicycle to greenmarkets.” It may sound a little hackneyed, but they do live up to it.
The menu features half-a-dozen appetizers ($7–14) and an equal number of entrées ($17–27). Side dishes are $4–8. I was tempted by the “world-famous” buttermilk-chive biscuit with honey butter ($4), but the free bread service, with soft, rich butter on the side, offered all the carbs I needed.
I loved a simple salid of warm figs, nuts and prosciutto ($15; above left). Chicken liver mousse ($13; above right) was soft and creamy, the liver taste balanced by other ingredients—probably about a half-pound of butter.
“Swine of the Week” ($25; above left) is a recurring menu item: always pork, but the preparation varies. The offering when we visited was braised pork butt off the bone with barbecue sauce, baked beans and cole slaw. I found this dish successful (though it is hard for braised pork to fail), but my girlfriend found it a bit dry. We agreed that the cole slaw was too bitter. A terrific side dish of mac & cheese ($7; above right) was enormous. It could have been dinner all by itself. It was the best mac & cheese I’ve tasted in a long time, with a crisp crust and gooey cheddar filling.
Frank Bruni’s review complained about long waits for food, but that didn’t happen to us. However, our reservation was at 6:30 p.m., which is a very early hour in this neighborhood. Most of the tables were empty when we arrived, but most were full (as was the bar) by the time we left, at around 8:00.
The owners announced recently that they’ve signed a lease in Chelsea at Ninth Avenue and 19th Street, for a space that is double the size. The new restaurant, planned for an early 2009 opening, will be called the Tipsy Parson and will feature southern-style comfort food. They’ll have a twofold challenge. The first is to ensure that their charming concept maintains its allure when it plays on a bigger stage. And the second is to ensure that Little Giant doesn’t lose its edge once it is no longer the owners’ only property.
Little Giant (85 Orchard Street at Broome Street, Lower East Side)