I meet Gabe Stulman at Montmartre in Chelsea, the sixth restaurant in his Little Wisco group, on the day after its opening. It’s the second restaurant Stulman’s debuted in the last three months and the second time he’s built two restaurants simultaneously—two construction sites, two liquor licenses, two brand-new teams. Like Noah’s Ark, if Noah needed permits from the City of New York. If Stulman is tired, it doesn’t show; he’s focused and talkative over a bottle of San Pellegrino in the empty dining room. At 32, his vintage Rolex may be older than he is. I ask how the opening went.
“The kitchen did a great job,” he says. “Do we have a laundry list of things we want to improve upon? It’s ten pages long. That’s part of opening up.”
Montmartre debuted to the kind of standing-room-only crowd that’s de rigueur at Stulman’s restaurants. If these were cookie-cutter franchises, their opening timelines would still seem insane. The restaurants share a brand of peppy, accommodating service, but that is almost all they share. Joseph Leonard is thoroughly American: strip steak, oysters, grits and bacon and a tight, bi-level space dominated by a central bar. Perla serves embellished, excessive and artful Italian food. Jeffrey’s Grocery is an ambitious raw bar; Fedora is a bar with an ambitious menu. Chez Sardine offers what Stulman refers to as “sushi and dirty izakaya” food. Montmartre is French. Four years ago, none of this existed.
Seven years ago, Gabriel Stulman showed up in New York with degrees in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin. “I almost dropped out,” he admits. “My mother begged me to stay, so I did, and I bartended four or five nights a week. I was having a lot more fun behind the bar.” In New York, he joined forces with the chef Joey Campanaro, and together they opened The Little Owl in the West Village, a postage stamp of a dining room, which, seven years in, is still the kind of place with openings exclusively at 5 and 10 p.m. The duo had another smash hit, Market Table, before the partnership went south, at which point Stulman took a year off, traveled, met the woman who is now his wife and planned his next restaurant.
The name Joseph Leonard is a hybrid of the first names of his maternal and paternal grandfathers, respectively. Contained in that mash-up is part of the formula for Stulman’s success: Build restaurants from some combination of people whom you know and love. His wife, Gina, works with him. Brian Bartels, who’s in charge of Little Wisco’s stellar cocktail program, has known him for 15 years. The general manager coping with the constant crush at Chez Sardine is Stulman’s sister, Danielle.
Joseph Leonard had been open for less than a year when Stulman was approached by the owners of Fedora, a bar three blocks away that had been in business since 1952. The owners wanted out. Stulman had just started construction on what would be Jeffrey’s Grocery, but his investors backed him in a third spot anyway. Then it happened again, and again—landlords offering him prime real estate after seeing something in his restaurants that they liked. And while the spaces are mostly happy accidents, there is nothing accidental about what he does with them. Stulman is a details guy. At Montmartre—which shares a name with the Wisconsin bistro where Stulman tended bar—there’s a classic French-style beer tap and old-world newspapers on sticks. But the slate tables were copied from a restaurant in Seattle, and the walls are painted with a high-gloss black. “You can see your reflection in the fucking paint,” Stulman says, beaming with pride. “That’s not Parisian.” The other thing Stulman puts together is the team, and here’s another element of his tried-and-true formula: Find a sous-chef or a chef de cuisine who’s ready for his first big job, reel him in and then set him free.
I first heard of Michael Toscano in 2010, when he was the sous-chef at Mario Batali’s Babbo. Back then you went to Babbo on Friday and Saturday nights, when Toscano was running the kitchen. Then Batali opened Manzo, the flagship restaurant at his 50,000-square-foot Eataly complex, and promoted Toscano to executive chef there. I went to Manzo and ate the best Italian meal I had that year in that glorified version of a Whole Foods food court. Toscano was 24 and already the kind of chef you follow blindly around the city. The next thing I heard was that he had left Manzo to open a place called Perla with someone named Gabe.
Stulman had been following Toscano just as closely and approached him long before he had a space. “Perla,” he explains, “is where Mike has no boss.” Which means Toscano is free to fold bone marrow into his beef tartare, served with potato chips all’amatriciana, and to grate foie gras over his impeccable housemade pasta.
Stulman makes the most of his top talent; Toscana also writes the Jeffrey’s Grocery menu. Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly is the chef at both Fedora and Chez Sardine, which feels like no other restaurant in New York. Stulman discovered him at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal and remembers not only what he ate one night six years ago—“The first course was pig’s-head croquettes; second course was tripe pizza; third course was venison tongue”—but also all the dishes he saw at the pass and didn’t order. At Chez Sardine, Brunet-Benkritly is doing whatever he wants. The standout is a salmon head cleaved in half, marinated in miso and maple syrup and then roasted. It hit the bar in front of me with a slice of radish over the upturned eyeball and a scallion salad, acknowledging and softening a gruesome presentation, which you pick at with your fingers. The fatty cheeks under the crisp miso-maple shellacking redeem every dry salmon fillet you’ve ever had.
Much has been made of the service at the Little Wisco restaurant group. In the beginning, Stulman drew heavily on his Wisconsin connections, creating possibly the highest concentration of Midwesterners in Manhattan, and inspiring the Little Wisco moniker. Midwestern affability gets a lot of credit, but there’s also a gameness to the service that feels very East Coast. In February, I was halfway through a massive, encyclopedic seafood tower at Jeffrey’s Grocery when a steak went by and turned my head. It was a beautiful ten-ounce strip loin, thickly sliced, sinking into a bed of wilted kale and oyster mushrooms that glistened with butter and juice from the meat—the kind of dish that speaks directly to your most primal carnivorous instincts in a language they understand. We had already over-ordered, so I asked our waitress if my date and I could get a half portion. The waitress politely told me no. Minutes later she circled back to say that a table nearby had just made the same request. Did we want to split it? Yes, we did. We were, as the waitress pointed out, at very different points in our meals. This would not be easy.
“Let me talk to the kitchen,” she said, nodding, strategizing, chewing on her pen.
When she came back, she was smiling. As we waited for our steak, I watched for an acceleration of our neighbors’ meal or a deceleration of ours, but whatever happened was too seamless to observe. The split steak hit our tables at exactly the right moment, freshly sliced, still steaming. It’s worth mentioning that this took place on Valentine’s Day; every seat was occupied at every seating, and the crowd was three and four deep at the bar. And yet the staff at Jeffrey’s managed to bend over backward at the worst possible moment and make it look routine. I’ve never seen that in Wisconsin. Maybe everyone is too polite to ask. But that’s exactly what it takes to make it—on a grand scale and an unthinkable timetable—in New York.
How to Dine with Little Wisco
To make a reservation, go to littlewisco.com, select your restaurant and choose from the available times. Or just drop in. Chez Sardine, 183 W. Tenth St.; 646-360-3705. Fedora, 239 W. Fourth St., 646-449-9336. Joseph Leonard, 170 Waverly Pl.; 646-429-8383. Jeffrey’s Grocery, 172 Waverly Pl.; 646-717-2455. Montmartre, 158 Eighth Ave.; 646-596-8838. Perla, 24 Minetta Ln.; 212-933-1824.