Entries in Joey Campanaro (7)


The Clam


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.

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Not About the Food?

I’d like to deconstruct and debunk a sentence from Sam Sifton’s blog post about this week’s restaurant review, Kenmare. It’s a small point, but that’s why we’re here, so be forewarned.

Here is what Sifton said, with the offending sentence in bold.

I don’t like it much as a restaurant, but that may hardly matter. Places like Kenmare aren’t really about the food. They’re about who’s there and whether they know you. It’s a big city. That works for some people.

“Not about the food” is a lazy meme often trotted out by foodies, food writers, and food-boardists. The restaurants tagged with that epithet are usually those: A) Where the food isn’t very good; and B) That attract a “scene” (models, celebrities, nightclubbers), consisting of people that are somehow determined not to care what they’re eating.

I’d like to challenge that.

In the first place, I think there are very few places that actually set out to serve “inconsequential” food (Sifton’s word). Joey Campanaro, the named chef at Kenmare, has seven New York Times stars to his credit, including a couple of deuces at places where he is still on duty, the justly acclaimed Little Owl and Market Table. I doubt that they would have hired him if they didn’t want a bit of his pixie dust, and I doubt that he would have signed on if knew the food was doomed to be panned—as it has been.

If Kenmare is serving bad food, it’s not by design. Cooking, like books, plays, albums, paintings, and every other kind of creative endeavour, fails sometimes. But rarely is it because the creators never actually cared whether they succeeded.

A commenter to Sifton’s blog post put Pulino’s in the same category, i.e., “not about the food.” But the same owner’s Minetta Tavern has three Times stars and a Michelin star. It throbs with celebrities and pretty young things. Did Keith McNally intend for Pulino’s to be bad (assuming that’s true)? Of course not!

Now, you might argue that regardless of the owner’s intentions, restaurants can be characterized by what their customers intend. But how, exactly, do you put all of Kenmare’s customers into the same bucket? Surely it has (or had) patrons like me, who had enjoyed Joey Campanaro’s work at other restaurants, and wanted to see if he could perform the same magic in another setting.

Visit Sifton’s review, and at the top of it you’ll find a photo of six young, attractive women sitting at a table with drinks, and no food. The caption says, “Kenmare’s owners say it is not a nightclub, but not everyone is going there to eat.”

The women, no doubt, have less experience than Sifton—in the food department, I mean. But who’s to say that, because they are young and attractive, they do not care if they’re served terrible food. (I am assuming the photographer caught them before the food arrived, not that they didn’t order any.) The Times has no idea whether these women ever returned to Kenmare. It just assumes that because of what they look like, they couldn’t possibly tell a good restaurant from a terrible one.

Am I the only one offended by the suggestion?

A couple of Sifton’s other examples—Carmine’s, which has just closed after 107 years at the South Street Seaport; and Nello’s, which received a New York Times goose egg several months ago—seem to me entirely different kinds of places than Kenmare. These are old established restaurants that, for good or ill, have a clientele built up over years or decades that likes what they’re doing, and doesn’t see any need for change.

But Kenmare, a brand spanking new place with a well known chef, has no regulars to fall back on, and the so-called “scene”—those who visit places simply because someone told them to—have a predictable habit of moving on after a few months, or a year at the most. No sensible operator would open such a place intending to serve bad food. That it happens is simply because restaurants fail sometimes.


Review Recap: Kenmare

Today, Sam Sifton lays a goose-egg (“FAIR”) on Kenmare, the restaurant chef Joey Campanaro probably wishes he could forget:

Joey Campanaro, the man behind a vest-pocket Greenwich Village gem called the Little Owl, and a partner in that neighborhood’s well-received Market Table as well, wrote Kenmare’s menu. He is acclaimed in press reports as Kenmare’s chef. Here’s hoping he is well paid for that. Mr. Campanaro is a serious and excellent cook. Kenmare is unlikely to enhance his reputation…

Entrees continued the trend of mediocrity, time after time. A Milanese-style veal cutlet, essentially a breaded and fried laptop case, was served with lemon, arugula, ricotta salata and a garish, oily salsa verde. (Credit where it’s due: It came this way twice, a month apart.)

Campanaro already had two deservedly successful places, The Little Owl and Market Table. He didn’t need Kenmare. Soon, he will probably be rid of it.

One thing this piece demonstrates is that pans are much easier to write: you just tee up the jokes and hit ’em out of the park. Perhaps this is why Kenmare is one of Sifton’s most entertaining and well-written reviews, despite the relative unimportance of the restaurant.

The fact that our own review arrived at the identical rating (“FAIR”) has nothing to do with it. Promise.



Note: Consulting chef Joey Campanaro left the restaurant in February 2011. As of April 2011, his replacement was Gilbert Delgado, a Del Posto/Breslin/Spotted Pig alum. Kenmare closed in October. As of 2013, the space is a Japanese small-plates restaurant called MaisonO.


The aughts have been awfully kind to Joey Campanaro, with big hits first at The Harrison (two stars from William Grimes), then at The Little Owl and Market Table (two stars each from Frank Bruni), with a failure at the short-lived Pace as the only blemish on his resume.

Much as we liked Little Owl and Market Table, we thought that Bruni overrated them. The Little Owl owed its reputation to just a few basic dishes (the sliders, the pork chop, the burger). Everything there was nicely done, but it wasn’t destination dining and shouldn’t have been portrayed as such. Our opinion of Market Table was much the same.

With Kenmare, which opened recently in the failed Civetta space, there are signs that Campanaro’s imagination is finally running close to exhaustion. The restaurant is larger than the Little Owl and Market Table combined, and lacks both the intimacy and polish of its predecessors. The menu is dreary, the kitchen’s work slapdash.

A Risotto du Jour ($14; above left) was a sign of sad things to come: it was served in an unwarmed bowl and was already slightly cool when it reached us. We liked the gooey egg yolk on top, but there was no sign of the promised black truffles, except for some itsy bitsy black specks that made no flavor impression.

The Chicken ($19; above right) is clearly supposed to remind you of the Little Owl’s signature dish, The Pork Chop, though it is a poor substitute. The chicken itself is beautifully prepared, but it wasn’t helped by dull and lazily-plated escarole and butter beans.

Veal Cutlet ($25; above left) was a disaster. A diner would be embarrassed to serve it. The runny salsa verde tasted like barbecue sauce out of a bottle, and the veal was tough. We gave up after a few bites.

Cauliflower and broccoli with toasted breadcrumbs ($6; above right) was a fine, if uninspired, side dish.

Rhubarb Crisp is in season. Kenmare’s version ($9; right) is very good, although we haven’t found a bad one. If you visit Kenmare, perhaps you should skip the savory courses and go straight to dessert. 

Aside from that, nothing at Kenmare impressed us. The décor is lively and bright, but you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Tables are tightly spaced. The serving plates look like they were bought second-hand. The place has been open for only a month, and already some of them are chipped.

The rather abbreviated wine list is fairly priced, but uninteresting.

Kenmare has been packed in the early days, thanks in large part to the reputations of Little Owl and Market Table. If those places were slightly overrated, at least they were charming, and fulfilled their modest ambitions admirably. Kenmare can’t even do that. It’s just a big box, and not a very good one.

Kenmare (98 Kenmare Street between Mulberry Street & Cleveland Place, NoLIta)

Food: Fair
Service: Decent
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: Fair


Update: The Little Owl

Something you’ll never see: The Little Owl with no customers. [Kalina via Eater]

Much of The Little Owl’s reputation seems to rest on two knockout dishes: The Pork Chop, which I had the last time I visited; and the meatball sliders.

I was in the mood for a snack the other day, so I dropped in for an order of those balleyhooed sliders. All of the bar seats were available at 6:15 p.m., but within fifteen minutes they were all taken.

[Amateur Gourmet]
In a town awash with sliders, I thought these were par for the course. These are made with beef, pork and veal, and slathered with gravy. The server asked what I thought, and I said, “They’re fun.”

“They’re perfect!” she replied, almost looking offended, as if merely “fun” wasn’t good enough. At $10, they certainly make a fine snack.

The space remains unbelievably popular, and unbelievably cramped. They must have added a couple of tables since Kalina’s photo (above) was shot: it almost looks roomy, which The Little Owl, with its 28 seats, is not. They now manage to fit five at the bar, and believe me, it’s a squeeze.

I continue to believe, as I did before, that The Little Owl is slightly overrated, but it’s a wonderful neighborhood restaurant. I wish I had something as good where I live.

The Little Owl (90 Bedford Street at Grove Street, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: Cramped
Overall: *


Market Table

Update: Since this review was written, Market Table has dropped the “Market” part of the concept. The front room is no longer a market, and the restaurant now has 60 seats, 20 more than before.

In November 2008, Frank Bruni awarded two stars in the Times. We believe—as we did at the Little Owl—that this was one star more than it deserved, bearing in mind that one star is supposed to be a compliment. Thanks to the Bruni review, it’s probably no longer true that “Market Table is a Little Owl you can get into.”


markettable_logo.jpgTwo years ago, Joey Campanaro and Gabriel Stulman electrified the West Village with their hugely successful Little Owl, which won a remarkable two stars from Frank Bruni in the Times. Five months ago, they returned with a sequel, Market Table, just five blocks south. Early on, the demand for tables was intense: Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton waited 90 minutes to get in.

Critical reception hasn’t reached the levels of rapture accorded The Little Owl. Market Table made Adam Platt’s Best of ’07 List, but Platt doesn’t seem to have reviewed it. In the Village Voice, Sietsema was unimpressed. For the Sun, Paul Adams mostly liked it. Randall Lane awarded four of six in TONY, and Restaurant Girl awarded 2½ out of 4 in the Daily News. But Frank Bruni surprisingly gave it a pass, letting Julia Moskin deliver a mixed verdict in Dining Briefs.

At Market Table, the central conceit is that it’s a market with tables. The front room sells coffee, sandwiches, and some of the same food ingredients used in the restaurant. The serving area is in the back room. It’s roomier and comfier than The Little Owl. Still, the shared DNA is apparent: exposed brick, bare table-tops, and a bar that’s set up for walk-in diners. Their menus and wine lists are similar, too.

Market Table is a Little Owl you can get into. At 6:15 p.m. on a Saturday evening, The Little Owl couldn’t accommodate our party of three. Five minutes later, we walked into Market Table and were seated at the bar immediately.

The menu is laden with comfort-food favorites. It had certainly captured our server’s affections. We asked him for recommendations, and by the time he was finished he had gushed over practically every dish. Mikey Price, formerly of The Mermaid Inn, is in charge of the kitchen,. He was off on the evening we were there, but Campanaro (who humbly called himself the “chef’s assistant”) was on hand.

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Beet and goat cheese salad (left); Fried calamari (right)

A salad with heirloom beets and breaded balls of fried goat cheese ($11) was lovely. Humble fried calamari ($9) were crisp and not at all greasy.

markettable02a.jpg markettable02b.jpg
Crab cake (left); Lamb shank (right)

A crab cake ($21) was impressive, with only the slightest cloak of breading and tender chunks of crab. But a braised lamb shank ($20) was dull and tough. Silky potatoes au gratin with gouda cheese offered some redemption.

markettable03.jpgAt a restaurant where most entrées are below $25, it’s nice to see that they don’t try to make it up on wine. A Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc was $44, and these days I feel the need to cheer when there is anything decent for under $50.

There is also a selection of half-bottles—another estimable trait shared with The Little Owl.

Is Market Table as good as The Little Owl? It’s not lacking for business, but the foodocracy still seems to prefer the older sibling. The space at Market Table is considerably more pleasant, but the menu doesn’t seem to have that “killer dish”—at The Little Owl, it’s the famous pork chop—as a draw.

But I’ll probably come back to Market Table, because it’s fun, friendly, and inexpensive. And readers, please note that the rating below—one star (the same as I gave The Little Owl)—is not an insult. One star means “good”.

Market Table (54 Carmine Street near Bedford Street, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *½
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


The Little Owl

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to The Little Owl.


The food press and the blogosphere have been raving about The Little Owl since it opened in the the West Village in late May. We gave it a try last night, and while we had a thoroughly enjoyable casual meal, we were a tad less enraptured than others who’ve written about it.

I started with an Ahi Tuna appetizer ($10). A seared two-inch square of tuna was served atop a mixed green salad. One cannot complain about the price, but I found the tuna a bit too dry. The dish was missing something. My friend found French Onion Soup ($9) competently prepared.

We both ordered The Pork Chop ($20) that everyone has cheered about. It must be an inch and a half thick before cooking and is served with permesan butter beans and wild dandelion. We were impressed with the powerful seasoning (“cayenne, curry, coriander and cumin” in Frank Bruni’s description), the tenderness, and the impressive swagger of that massive pork chop—probably a custom cut for The Little Owl, as I don’t recall seeing anything like it elsewhere.

News of The Pork Chop (capitalized thus on the menu) has spread far and wide, and I saw plenty of them coming out of the kitchen during our visit. Gravy meatball sliders ($9) are a popular appetizer, but as I knew a heavy pork chop was coming, I didn’t have the appetite to try them.

There are many things to love about The Little Owl. The servers do a terrific job of navigating the small space. Most entrées are under $25, most appetizers under $14. The wine list has plenty of fine bottles under $50 (always my litmus test at this kind of restaurant), as well as a good selection of half-bottles. Despite the constant rush for tables, there were no sign of hints for us to leave, even though it was clear we were done ordering and just wanted to linger over the wine. The check was delivered only after we asked for it.

But the space is awfully cramped. The restaurant allegedly accommodates 28 diners at tables and 5 at the bar, but we saw only 2 at the bar (sitting rather cosily), and couldn’t conceive of where 3 more could go. Our table was more like a cocktail table, and we needed every square inch of it. The bread service was a dull French bread probably made the night before and a dish of olive oil. The décor is fairly plain. Though no reservations were available, a few tables are always available for walk-ins. The receptionist advised that we would probably be seated right away if we arrived at 6:00 p.m.—and we were. Had we arrived a short while later, we probably would not have been.

Frank Bruni awarded two stars to The Little Owl. I suppose one cannot come down too hard on Bruni, as Adam Platt did the same in New York (albeit on a five-star scale). But it still seems to me, as I noted in my Dressler review, that ratings entirely lose their meaning if the same two stars are awarded to The Little Owl and Café Gray. Although I award one star to both Dressler and The Little Owl, we actually liked Dressler a little better.

The Little Owl (90 Bedford Street at Grove Street, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: Satisfactory
Overall: *