Eating Small in New York

Ditte Isager

Across Manhattan, matchbox-size restaurants are reshaping the city’s culinary landscape without pomp or theater. Roving epicure Alan Richman finds that small is the next big delicious thing.

Personally I have nothing against the Buddakans, Del Postos, and Craft steakhouses, restaurants that have replaced department stores as the most grandiose establishments in New York. I just happen to believe that a restaurant without an elevator is almost always superior to a place with one.

I am a small-restaurant guy, and I fear that in Manhattan they’ll soon be gone, like horse stables and Checker cabs. Small restaurants are becoming victims of rising rents, Las Vegas tastes, and the aspirations of chefs who rightfully think the larger their venue the more likely they’ll be tapped by Food Network. Not for a moment do I believe small restaurants can’t be irritating, but it’s usually for the same reason—the difficulty of getting a table at the best of them. Proof of that is Momofuku Ko, the most idiosyncratic of David Chang’s three small East Village restaurants, where meals of stunning inventiveness are offered to exactly 12 people at a time, 24 guests per night. Momofuku Ko has become the leading cause of mental instability among foodies.

Ko has an online reservation system—I’m going to simplify here—that requires you to register, provide a credit card number, and type as fast as your fingers will fly at 10 a.m. sharp, 10:00.01 being too late. Says one friend of mine who wishes nothing more of life than to someday dine at Ko: “The reservations system has the power to fill me with rage a microsecond after 10 a.m. I begin my day full of hope, sure that this is my day because I’ve learned all the tricks. The Ko Web site is up, my computer is ready, and I’ve removed all that might hinder me, such as job responsibilities. Still I fail.”

Ko is a fine restaurant with a menu I would label as modern American, in contrast to the nearly indefinable Asian-fusion food at Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Ko is not among my favorite places because the effort required to obtain a table is too great, and none of the small restaurants best loved by me require a struggle to get in. I have never believed dining out should be difficult, which I realize sets me apart from other New Yorkers.

I’m more than thrilled by Ssäm Bar, which seats five times as many guests and launched what I consider to be the most influential cuisine of the 21st century, not that anybody has figured out how to duplicate it. And Ssäm Bar has the extraordinary dish Chang calls Santa Barbara Uni—a combination of orange eggs from a prickly sea creature, pure-white whipped tofu, and gummy lychee-flavored tapioca balls. Unexpected, unlikely, unbelievable.

It also offers scallops with pickled cherries and lemon curd, sweet and sour in renegade form. There’s a surprisingly extensive selection of country hams (okay, it’s not totally Asian) as well as a smart wine list. Ssäm Bar does precisely what a small restaurant should: express the taste and vision of its chef, no matter how esoteric. “When you go to a big restaurant,” says Chang, “you’re there for the scene, not the food.” That can mean a showplace as dramatic as a nightclub, all lights and glitter, or it can mean haute formality—flowers, captains, back waiters, staff uniforms, polished silverware. Small usually means everything is transparent, including disagreements. Chang recalls having an argument with his manager in front of a counter of guests. He kept pointing in their direction and one of them walked out angrily after deciding he was complaining about her. “You can’t even fight in peace when you have a small open kitchen,” he says.

Small, in the case of restaurants, is more a state of mind than a compilation of square feet. These restaurants tend to feature a chef on premises, maybe even behind the stove. They can be intimate, informal, and casual without abandoning substance. They offer hope that the customer who returns frequently might be recognized, because what a small restaurant can do better than a large one is provide a sense of familiarity. Small restaurants, not large ones, are where you are more likely to find comfort food, even when the ingredients are unfamiliar, as they are at so many of my favorite places. Every one of them fills me with a sense of tranquillity, no matter how noisy they might be. (Did I mention that the music at small restaurants is always unpredictable and inevitably loud?)

Here I have an assemblage of my favorite small restaurants in Manhattan. Most of them are downtown and few of them are on major avenues, clearly attributable to the higher cost of rent in prime areas. (Rent, of course, is a major factor in the desirability of small restaurants. Says Marco Canora, co-owner of Terroir, “A small footprint costs less.”) A disproportionate share of these places are Asian, simply because those are the restaurants that Asian cultures (excluding Chinese) do particularly well.

None of my restaurants are French, which happens to be my favorite cuisine. While the French cannot be blamed for all the jumbo restaurants that have opened in recent years, they were the first people to believe that dining experiences are enhanced when you cross a meal with a coronation.

On the city’s Lower East Side, Kuma Inn occupies the second floor of one of those old tenement buildings that are now as chic (and almost as expensive) as beachfront cottages in the Hamptons. The name is stenciled on the façade in red ink, making the place look like a tattoo parlor. To reach it you climb a not particularly reassuring staircase and peek around a clump of bamboo reeds.

Once inside, Kuma Inn feels much like a normal restaurant that just happens to be small. It has other virtues. Since anyone leading a conventional Lower East Side lifestyle tends to dine when most of us are sleeping, you should have little difficulty obtaining a 7 p.m. reservation. And you can bring your own wine for the exceptionally reasonable corkage fee of $5. (Regulars grumble that corkage used to be free.)

The menu offers about three dozen exceedingly creative yet remarkably unintimidating items, and the cooks in the open kitchen work at a frenzied pace, probably because the dishes are small and every table seems to desire at least a dozen of them. You’ll understand Kuma Inn best if you’ve ever dined in Singapore, where stalls turn out tiny, flamboyant Asian-fusion dishes much like upscale street food. The menu calls the food tapas, but that isn’t quite right since it’s not Spanish. It’s mostly Asian with Philippine accents.

I always order the Chinese sausage with caramelized onions because the sausage is deep and rich, like pork confit. The shumai are soft and lush, as though they were made with shrimp paste instead of shrimp—another example of a Kuma Inn dish that’s just a touch unfamiliar. The papaya salad is served cold but filled with warm grilled shrimp, a superlative contrast. Kuma Inn might seem daunting from the outside, but the pleasures within are entirely civilized.

Another virtue of the small restaurant is the possibility of your becoming acquainted with the owner—James Beard once said his favorite restaurant was the one where they knew him. That means you should meet Mani Dawes, co-owner of Tía Pol, which differs from Kuma Inn in a number of ways. First, and most significantly, it actually is a tapas bar. Second, it makes Kuma Inn appear posh. Tía Pol, located in Chelsea, is long, narrow, and cramped, with ductwork overhead. I like to think of it as earthy, but that’s because I’m kind.

I was slightly worried the last time I visited because the chef had just left, and she was the genius who invented chorizo with bittersweet chocolate on a baguette. Should you be wondering what chocolate does for fiery sausage, I will tell you: It calms it, exactly what chocolate does for you and me.

My favorite dish at any tapas restaurant is the tortilla, the fat potato-and-egg omelet that looks more like a cake. In Spain it usually sits around getting cold, which Spaniards don’t seem to mind. I do. When I was last at Tía Pol, I told Dawes I would like my tortilla just out of the oven, and she looked at me scornfully and said, “That is not very practical in a small restaurant.” I did not get it my way. Perhaps I should confess that as much as I adore Dawes, she sometimes finds me annoying. I asked her if she had any other complaints about running a small restaurant, besides customers like me, and she replied, “There’s the emergencies, somebody locked in the bathroom at 1 a.m. and sometimes there’s nobody to take care of it but me.”

Generally, my problem with authentic Spanish tapas is the excess of small smelly fish, but Tía Pol’s menu transcends that. I love the chickpeas fried whole and sprinkled with paprika and salt, sort of a Spanish bridge mix; the oyster mushrooms sliced thin and topped with fried garlic and bits of tomato and cheese, one of the better vegetarian dishes in New York; and the salty lamb skewers that come inserted into toasted chunks of baguette—the bread, which soaks up the lamb juices, might be the best part.

Nobody has ever referred to Terroir as a tapas bar, mainly because it’s Italian. Still, it’s a lot like one, the offerings tiny and prepared with finesse. Terroir is in the East Village, a few doors down from Hearth, which is a fancier place overseen by the same owners. (On the way to Terroir, you might want to stop at Hearth’s bar for a plate of gnocchi, the best in New York.) As with Kuma Inn and Tía Pol, Terroir’s ambiance does little to enhance the dining experience; its design appears to have been influenced by studio apartments, dorm rooms, and Ikea.

The wines are selected by Paul Grieco, who has been afflicted with divine madness—he will not allow patrons to drink anything but what he wants them to drink. You can look at this as big-city bullying or as a wine education provided free of cost. “Terroir” is a French word commonly used in the wine world to express a sense of place, and this quality can most often be found in wines made by committed local winemakers disdainful of what is called the international style (e.g., heavy, oaky Chardonnay). Here, most often it means minerality and acidity: Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley, Rieslings from the Moselle, and Barolos from Piedmont.

The menu is the work of the very well-regarded Marco Canora. “A big light bulb went off after I opened Terroir,” he says. “I realized how easy it is to fill a place with twenty-four seats. The restaurant generates a self-perpetuating buzz, because everybody who walks by sees that it’s full and hip-looking and wants to be there. People want to be where they think it’s hard to be.”

The food is extremely appealing, particularly the bruschetta of celery-laced tonnato (tuna) or garlicky baccalà (reconstituted dried cod). Veal-and-ricotta meatballs are stellar, and the fried beet risotto balls flavored with Gorgonzola are a study in nonbeefy savoriness. Another virtue of this restaurant is the clientele, which tends to be lovely young women sitting with glasses of wine and chatting for hours. An Italian friend, unlike me, was appalled by this, saying “If you really like a place, it’s nice to help it not go out of business by ordering something.”

Few restaurants are more revered by New York chefs than the Spotted Pig, up there with any of the Chang Momofukus as the center of alternative dining. If you’re fortunate, you’ll be seated at a banquette, but mostly you’ll sit on stools much like those fancied by milkmaids. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a chef, now you know: They’re never happy unless they are uncomfortable.

The Spotted Pig is a local adaptation of the British gastro-pub, which came into existence as an alternative to the wine bars that were luring British youth from their birthright and getting them hooked on Chardonnay and French cheese. The cuisine here is gutsy, filled with pan drippings and accented with lemon, sort of a cross between English and Italian food. The chef is April Bloomfield, who loves crunchy things, fatty things, weird things, and lovely things. Her burger is famous, though slightly misguided, slathered in Roquefort cheese. It’s great meat, but to me it’s like going to the best pizzeria in town and finding that anchovies are mandatory. Whenever one of my friends orders it and grimaces, I get to be the hero by scraping off the Roquefort and replacing it with ketchup.

Bloomfield’s fish, for which she gets little credit, is what I order as a main course after I stuff myself on the appetizers—breathtakingly savory chicken livers on toast and the famous gnudi— possibly the most acclaimed Italian dish in Manhattan. Gnudi are constructed by rolling soft sheep’s-milk cheese in flour, then blanching and sautéing. A few years ago, when Bloomfield and her gnudi became famous, they were prepared with sage and butter. This summer, she switched to pesto and achieved perfection.

Not nearly as acclaimed but a worthy competitor for the best pasta dish in the city is spaghetti with lemon sauce at Sandro’s. You will nearly weep with joy when you eat this. Its delicate balance of sweet and tart will startle you, particularly if all you’ve eaten in your life is American-style pasta, which tends to get its flavor from massive quantities of ingredients.

Sandro’s is located on the Upper East Side, the neighborhood where everybody wanted to eat before they decided they wanted to eat downtown. The restaurant is cramped and loud. The walls are white, which one of my friends seemed to think made it resemble a Roman trattoria. Another thought it looked like a rent-controlled apartment. Regardless, the principal design feature of Sandro’s is the chef, Sandro Fioriti (everybody knows him by his first name). He is a legend not just for his cooking but also for his unpredictability. He has been the chef of at least four establishments named after him, and he comes and goes with the capriciousness of Mary Poppins.

Sandro is a monster of a man, at least six feet four inches, bulky and passionate, and he paces his dining room with Munsteresque charm. The legendary Italian food authority Marcella Hazan once called him her favorite Italian chef working outside Italy. If you go, eat his breadsticks but not his bread. Order the branzino arrosto, a fish I know you’ve eaten everywhere, but never has it been as compelling as it is here. Arrosto means “roasted” in Italian. The menu translates it as “broiled.” It tastes baked. Who knows what Sandro does? Certainly not his waiters, so don’t ask. The dish, prepared with white wine and lemon, is as sweet and savory as fish gets. I once ordered his fried artichoke and waited nearly an hour for it to appear. It arrived cold. Why do I then recommend Sandro’s? Because all of us who are not geniuses must forgive the minor shortcomings of those who are.

Time for another challenge: Korean food. Maybe you’re thinking what I always think when a Korean restaurant is suggested: Please, I beg you, no.

Korean restaurants intimidate me. There’s the kimchi, which cannot be avoided, and I can’t pretend a place named Persimmon Kimchi House has none. Kimchi is way-too-spicy fermented vegetables brought to the table before (and during) meals, which means your palate is likely to be vulcanized before you even get to the appetizers. The second reason I avoid Korean restaurants is the manner of serving, which consists of dumping everything in the kitchen onto your table at once. At least it feels that way.

But the flavors are fantastic, if you give them a chance. Kalbi, Korean short ribs, are so astonishingly familiar you’ll wonder if you had a long-lost grandmother who emigrated from Seoul, but the style of eating is so exhausting I pretty much gave up until I went to Persimmon, in the East Village. The dining room features one long communal table that seats 20 and a few stools facing the open kitchen, which itself takes up about half the room. That’s a lot of kitchen, but a lot of cooking goes on. Each diner gets a backless stool, a placemat, a soup spoon, and chopsticks.

Persimmon calls itself neo-Korean, and that’s wonderful because the food is served in small rational courses. I don’t think I have ever experienced another cuisine where presentation makes such a difference. All the combinations I’ve tended not to appreciate were superbly arranged here, and among those I liked were tiny logs of eggplant stacked and dressed with milky soy, fluke sashimi emboldened with red pepper sauce, and soft-shell crabs with cucumber-and-cabbage kimchi.

I’m going to suggest another activity fraught with the unfamiliar: eating Japanese food. If you ever patronize sushi restaurants—it’s practically un-American not to—you probably walk in, take a seat, pick up the menu, puzzle over it, and then order sushi. Two yellowtail, two live scallops, and so on. Pretty standard, but that’s not the way to dine at Soto, located in Greenwich Village. When friends who have eaten everything come to New York and sigh with weariness at the tedium (“Not Le Bernardin again!”), I always take them to Soto and they are elated. Warning: It’s not cheap.

On this most appealing of sushi-bar menus you will see composed Japanese dishes under two categories: cold (labeled “From Sushi Bar”) and hot (“From Kitchen”). At Soto these dishes are as imaginative and appealing as any food you can eat in New York.

A couple of things: You have to like uni, which is sea urchin, because it’s in many of the dishes. There’s no reason to not like sea urchin, one of the few dining luxuries that remain affordable. The creaminess of fresh uni is unmatched in the undersea world, and the flavor has a purity unrivaled even by caviar. Another thing: You should like fried food because the frying here is the best you’ll ever find, even if you are from the South and are prepared to argue the point.

Some dishes are fancy, such as sea urchin wrapped in squid and topped with a raw quail egg. The yolk, when broken, coats the sea urchin, transforming silkiness into sumptuousness. Some are simple, such as deep-fried flounder with a side of ponzu. The flounder looks gorgeous, like a ceramic fish caught midflap. The skin is light, crisp; the meat is succulent, soft. Tempura also is particularly interesting because it comes with three dressings, a traditional dipping sauce, grated daikon, and a lemon-salt one-two punch—squeeze, then sprinkle. Either way, the fried food here is unsurpassed.

I’m sure you want pizza because you always eat pizza, but there is a better reason: New York is almost certainly the best pizza city in America. There are all kinds here: the standard, stolid, heavy-duty fifties-style pie; the elegant coal-oven pies; and the artisanal pies with illogical credentials: water from the fjords of Naples, flour from the fields of Valhalla, stuff like that. I have a nice pizza spot you’ll like a lot, particularly if you enjoy wine. It’s called La Pizza Fresca Ristorante. The pizza is artisanal without being absurd, and you can get in without standing in line for an hour. My motto: Eating pizza shouldn’t be difficult.

Of course, La Pizza Fresca does have a drawback. The Italian waiters, who are dressed in black, would much rather talk to one another than to you, but I always rationalize that shortcoming by pretending I’m in Italy, where that style of service cannot be escaped. The best way to deal with such service is to drink a lot of wine, easily done here. La Pizza Fresca’s list is filled with pricey bottles that nobody in their right mind would drink with pizza, but it also has Dolcettos and Barberas, which are superb accompaniments to cheese and tomato sauce. Anyway, I credit those incredible Barolos and Barbarescos for compelling management to purchase swell wineglasses that are not withheld from those of us who prefer bottles that go for $40.

La Pizza Fresca’s pies are never less than excellent. The variety is superb—19 kinds, including what I think is the signature item, the prosciutto pizza. The crust is lovely and chewy, and the ovens are woodburning, so the pies often pick up a hint of smoke.

For your other favorite food, sushi, I recommend 15 East, where sushi chef Masato Shimizu keeps prices reasonable. A daily lunch special of miso soup, seven pieces of sushi, plus one cut roll of the chef’s choice goes for $28, which is kind of a come-on because after you complete that very small and very lovely meal you might still be hungry and you will want to keep testing his mastery. I am invariably mesmerized by all that this man can do with raw (and sometimes cooked) fish.

I recommend sitting at the sushi bar, which has only nine—surprisingly comfortable—seats. Shimizu, usually on premises, is a genial fellow who must be prodded into conversation, but once engaged he’ll willingly take on all questions. Most of his sushi is Edo-style—the rice warm, the fish brushed with a sauce. Shimizu slices grooves in much of his fish, the better for sauce to sink in.

I appreciate his willing acceptance of Western idiosyncrasies. I tend to eat my sushi in two bites, not the obligatory one. I asked Shimizu if he minded and he replied, “Well, one bite is better,” and then explained that he tolerated that peculiarity in women because their mouths are smaller. He wasn’t insulting my manliness, was he? If so, he wouldn’t be the first.

Bigness. It’s everywhere in Manhattan. Recently The New York Times wrote about “the kind of mass-market retailer that is gradually slipping into the fancy Fifth Avenue retailing club.” I’ve even noticed that mass-market restaurants, the chains, are materializing. They’re succeeding even though they add nothing to the city’s culinary culture but fat and salt.

Except for the Chrysler Building, bigness hasn’t contributed much to the appeal of New York. It certainly hasn’t made the place more livable. The city has become a desirable place to reside and visit not because it is large but because so much of it is small. The best exists at ground level, awaiting passersby.

Mani Dawes tells me that the greatest part of running a small restaurant is the people she meets, impossible in a larger establishment. Bear in mind that she also says the worst part about running a small restaurant is the people she meets when dealing with those 1 a.m. bathroom emergencies. David Chang says pretty much the same, adding that only in a small restaurant is plumbing a problem that has to be handled by the chef.

It’s common knowledge that Las Vegas hotels are after Chang, and it’s generally believed—he won’t deny it—that one of these days he will be out there running a place that resembles an opera hall. “Those places make money,” he concedes. Until then, he says, he’ll continue to stick to small restaurants, in part because he has no idea how to run the big places but mostly because it’s the small ones that he loves.

Address Book

15 East

Dinner, $160. 15 E. 15th St.; 212-647-0015; 15eastrestaurant.com

Kuma Inn

Dinner, $50. 113 Ludlow St.; 212-353-8866; kumainn.com

La Pizza Fresca Ristorante

Dinner, $70. 31 E. 20th St.; 212-598-0141; lapizzafrescaristorante.com

Momofuku Ko

Dinner, $200. 163 First Ave.; 212-254-3500; momofuku.com

Momofuku Ssam Bar

Dinner, $100. 207 Second Ave.; 212-254-3500; momofuku.com

Persimmon Kimchi House

Dinner, $95. 277 E. Tenth St.; 212-260-9080; persimmoncuisine.com

Sandro’s

Dinner, $125. 306 E. 81st St.; 212-288-7374

Soto

Dinner, $180. 357 Sixth Ave.; 212-414-3088

The Spotted Pig

Dinner, $130. 314 W. 11th St.; 212-620-0393; thespottedpig.com

Terroir

Dinner, $90. 413 E. 12th St.; 646-602-1300; wineisterroir.com

Tía Pol

Dinner, $50. 205 Tenth Ave.; 212-675-8805; tiapol.com

The Inn Crowd

It’s Sodom and Gomorrah behind closed doors, isn’t it?” gasped a friend. “It’s stars dancing on tabletops.” The legend of the Waverly Inn—arguably New York’s most intriguing restaurant—continues to swell. The place has been around forever and since the twenties existed without hysteria. Here’s a review, in its entirety, written by the gourmet Duncan Hines in 1960: “American food.” In that regard, little has changed. Two years ago this modest Greenwich Village spot came under new ownership, one of the partners being Graydon Carter, editor in chief of Vanity Fair. Diners are not all named Gwyneth and Harvey, but you get the idea. If there’s a number to call for reservations, people like you and me don’t have it. The front room, the place to sit, has a large mural by illustrator Edward Sorel, red-vinyl booths, and sconces with Edison bulbs. The food, by chef John DeLucie, is mostly homestyle and good. During a recent visit my halibut was superb. Steven Spielberg, one table over, seemed to be enjoying his meal. The best dessert is bananas Foster, panko-crusted fritters with vanilla gelato. The wine list is insanely overpriced. FYI: Actually, it’s easy to get a reservation. Stop by any afternoon. If you end up being seated in the back room, pretend you don’t care. Dinner, $100. At 16 Bank St.