When Gabe Stulman and Joey Campanaro opened The Little Owl in 2006, they surely never imagined the multitude of restaurants such an unassuming little place would beget.
Anywhere in the Village, you’re never more than about five minutes away from one or another of their properties, all somewhat resembling each other in their commitment to straightforward, rustic, gut-busting cuisine, served in casual, comfortable dining rooms that appeal to a neighborhood crowd.
They’re actually not partners anymore. The pair split up in 2008, with Stulman starting up his “Little Wisco” empire, Campanaro retaining The Little Owl and their second restaurant together, Market Table. But you’d hardly know they ever disagreed, given the similarity of the restaurants they now operate separately.
Stulman is up to six restaurants. Campanaro has been slower to expand, opening The Clam, his third, earlier this year with his Market Table partner, chef Mikey Price. You’ll get no prizes for guessing the concept: it’s a seafooder, with the menu relying heavily on a certain bivalve mollusc.
They’ve got a terrific location, a spacious corner lot with broad, picture windows and the de rigeur exposed brick that no downtown restaurant can do without. Yet, there are white tablecloths, previously thought to be the kiss of death at a neighborhood spot, and—shock!—no one seems to mind. The restaurant has been solidly booked at prime times. It took me almost eleven months to get a reservation.
No matter what, you’re probably going to be eating seafood here. A couple of the entrées are sops to landlubbers (a half Bell & Evans chicken; a braised shortrib), but to choose these is to miss the entire point of the restaurant. Whatever you order, you’ll start with one of the terrific warm parkerhouse rolls (above right).
The menu is in five confusing sections: “iced delicacies” (what most people call a raw bar), appetizers ($13–19), entrées ($25–31), side dishes (“eight dollars each”), and then the perplexing part: “house specialties” ($13–24), not clearly delineated as starters or mains, linked only by the fact that they’re all made with clams.
We decided to go almost all-clam, starting with a salad and then sharing three of the clam dishes. This might not have been the best strategy, as by the end of the meal we were clammed out.
Full credit to the kitchen for splitting the shared dishes. What you see here are my half of a Squash Salad ($12; above left) and my half of that old standard, Spaghetti & Clams ($22; above right), which had a strong, spicy kick.
Heat (the spicy kind) was a feature of the other dishes we tried, perhaps to a fault. I liked the White Clam Pizza ($17; above left), but did it need hot cherry peppers? My wife felt they over-powered the dish.
We heartily recommend the Stuffed Clams, or “Stuffies” (above right), a winning combination of clams, pancetta, lemon, and breadcrumbs. They normally come three to the order ($13), which is of course hopelessly unsuited to sharing, but they must be used to that, as the server recommended adding another clam ($4), which they must do a lot.
The wine list runs deeper than most neighborhood spots, with twenty-one choices by the glass, over a hundred by the bottle. It runs broad, rather than deep, with most of the world’s principal wine regions represented. But for a place this casual, there aren’t enough choices below $60 a bottle. We settled on a California Pinot Noir, the 2012 Higgs Boson, which I must admit I chose for the geeky name. It was just fine, but at $64, a bit more than I preferred to spend at a place like this.
Ultimately, none of the three specialty clam dishes we tried was quite special enough to make this restaurant a destination—and it could be the reason why most of the professional critics did not review it. And yet, The Clam is a lovely, romantic spot, of the kind the city needs more of. Campanaro and Price deserve credit for opening with tablecloths, which could easily have been a turnoff to many diners—but clearly has not been. I’d like to go back someday and try more of the menu.
The Clam (420 Hudson Street at Leroy Street, West Village)
Food: Seafood with a heavy dose of clams
Service: More polished than you’d expect
Ambiance: A white tablecloth, candle-lit spot, but still casua