2006_06_food_lilowl01.jpgDifferent types of people are drawn to different types of restaurant and in a perfect world everyone has a place that feeds them as they like, in a room in which they are comfortable. The truth is that the price of a dish of food in a restaurant includes all the costs involved in running the restaurant. At the base level there is the electricity, gas, rent, insurance and so on, and at another level there are the publicists, consultants, and decorators. The more a restaurateur puts into a place the more the food on the plate will cost. This makes the most special of finds for foodies a place confidently making high caliber food without the added costs of adornment.

Usually this type of place involves a talented young person or group with history at a respected establishment going out on their own. When their ambition to establish themselves combines with their talent and experience, often very fine food served in a more relaxed, more affordable venue ensues and a dynamic eatery is born: think Po, Hearth, Chickenbone Cafe, and Ureña.

The newest guys to go out on their own are Joey Campanaro and Gabriel Stullman. After decamping from Jimmy Bradley’s group they have landed at the corner of Grove and Bedford in a quaint little space they have named The Little Owl in honor of the owl sculpture sitting on the top corner of the building directly across Grove Street, clearly visible through the windows on the exterior walls.

Much like its name, the interior of The Little Owl seems to involve an understanding of its surroundings. Forty patrons is definitely full for this small room yet while I was inside there were thirty seven patrons, about eight around the bar, two in the doorway waiting to sit, and the rest sitting around small café tables cheerfully eating. Without seeming uncomfortably crowded the room was full and truly buzzing with the noise of a lively restaurant, but not getting loud.

There are huge windows facing out as well as huge windows looking into the kitchen. What isn’t glass is simply whitewashed clapboard that feels as if the boys may have convinced some of their friends it would be fun to pitch in for the restaurant's opening a la Tom Sawyer. All in all the décor is eclectic, tasteful and unobtrusive, with touches like low window boxes full of thyme in lieu of anything that would obscure and crowd a space easily prone to it.

In the interest of disclosure, it is worth mentioning that Little Owl first came to my attention when a life-long friend told me that friends of his would be opening it and that, being someone who likes to know good places, I should pay attention. In all honesty, we have been friends so long I would have been as happy to call him a buffoon with no idea of talent as I would to shake his hand and say “thanks for the heads up.” Happily, I can report that after appetizers I sent a text that read “at little owl, good rec.”

The partnership splits up duties with Gabriel as the Maitre D’/host/front waiter/wine guy, and Joey through the glass running the kitchen. Having only gotten license approval for the wine list late Friday, they were running with a truncated selection of what they could get there for the weekend. There were four whites, four reds, one rosé and one sparkler. Within this very short selection France, Chile, Spain, Portugal, and Australia were all represented with well-selected wines, offering quality relative to a friendly market price. I went with a glass of Maria Gomes, Louis Pato, Beiras, Portugal, ’04, mostly because I had never heard of the Maria Gomes grape. The wine was fruit forward, full of golden apples and pineapples, with light acidity, subtle herbs, and minerals backing it up, definitely suggested for quaffing with the fish on the menu.

As of my first visit, which was during the restaurant’s first week Chef Campanaro had created a tight menu of eight appetizers, six entrees, four sides and three verbal specials. There was something for everyone. Right after whittling down what to order (it all reads well) while we spent about ten minutes waiting outside, we were then seated and were offered the verbal specials, all of which were also attractive, so negotiations started anew. Finally we went with the following:

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From appetizers, gravy meatball sliders beef-pork-veal and pecorino, three airy meatballs about an inch and a half in diameter dressed in simple tomato sauce, topped with pecorino and chopped parsley, sandwiched in perfectly fitting home made garlic rolls. When I asked I was told that it is grandma’s recipe from Italy in the Village by way of Philly, but I like to think Joey’s grandma used to send him home with a container of meatballs and this little gem was created rummaging through the fridge for a midnight snack and got remade and played with till it was this. This has to be about as good as a meatball sandwich is ever going to taste.

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From the verbal specials, we chose “spaghettini with anchovies and breadcrumbs” in an appetizer size. This was properly al dente thin spaghetti with a condiment of white anchovy, breadcrumbs, roasted peppers, and what I assumed to be tomato paste from its slightly metallic zing. The anchovy largely played a supporting role to the breadcrumbs, which had absorbed the peppers, tomato, olive oil, and cheese to the point that they were almost meaty. The sweet spot for a restaurant that wants to succeed with a fairly priced menu in this rather expensive town is definitely in the ability to take a humble dish born of poverty like this one and make it taste as good as this.

When Gabriel cleared our plates from the spaghettini and asked how things were, I commented that the appetizers had done their job well in that although I had walked in not that hungry, I was definitely at this point looking forward to entrees. The next thing he did was either borne of his desire to encourage return customers, the fact that my old friend was a friend of his, or the fact I was photographing all the food, I’m not quite sure which, but he saw fit to send a taste of spanish mackerel tarragon honey mustard, and crunchy slaw. A small fillet of the mackerel was seared skin side down, giving it a nice crunch but preserving a medium rare temp throughout the piece. This was set atop a simple cabbage and carrot slaw that walked the line between sweet and rich very well, with a hint of licorice permeated throughout. On top of all this were some very small onion rings and micro amaranth leaves. Tarragon is a tough mistress, this dish is one of the few I have seen it bring its touch of fresh anise aroma without going all the way to the overly-soapy, herbal side. Whatever the impetus for Gabriel’s decision to share this, it was well made,-- besides photographing well it tasted great; it caused me to send that text, and I will definitely be back for more.

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The first entrée sampled was the pork chop parmesan butter beans and wild dandelion. I really only ordered it because it is called “the pork chop” and for some reason that struck me. What arrived was a decent sized pork chop perfectly grilled with enough fennel seed or caraway in the seasoning to be reminiscent of an Italian sausage, topped with dandelion greens and floating on a glorious pool of gigante beans in a parmesan broth. I would hate to detract from the quality of the chop and its garnish, both were of a good standard, but the beans were near perfect for their simplicity and succulence.

The other entrée was the crispy chicken asparagus home fries, shitakes and lemon mustard, a boned half a chicken sautéed so the skin crisped evenly golden. Nothing earth-shattering here but great technique and confidence will leave those that want chicken happy.

It was a warm summer eve that seemed to steer me towards a frozen dessert so I went with cherry sorbet. Exactly right in that it had the taste of amarini cherries as opposed to artificial cherries and was as smooth as if cream had been involved.

The Little Owl is a little place with good aspirations and obvious talent fit snuggly into it, where a value market is targeted by making the most of affordable quality ingredients and trusting that this is a business model that still works in the town of the 10 million dollar opening. It is definitely worth a visit, whether it is because you want to say you were there back when, or you live close and want a good meal, or the reason I’ll probably be back most often: you like to eat great food in noisy little places.

The Little Owl, 90 Bedford St., at Grove Street, 212-741-4695
Appetizers, $7-$14; Entrees, $17-$25