Little Park Review: Where to Get Your Freekeh On
Beets and goat cheese go together like a yawn and an afternoon nap. They’re a gorgeous little snooze. If, like me, you’d forgotten why the duo earned their it-couple status in the first place, so many decades ago, you might want to consider the risotto at Andrew Carmellini’s latest restaurant in Tribeca, Little Park.
The dish is stained neon purple with beets, and it’s creamy with a fresh, tangy goat cheese ($16). The grains are cooked so they’re quite loose and tender, but still somewhat self-possessed, ever-so-slightly chewy. All this makes you want to take it in slowly, like a fine scoop of ice cream, so its mellow flavors can expand softly in your mouth. Scattered with poppy seeds and petals of raw beet, the dish makes a pretty airtight case for why beets and goat cheese really do belong together, forever. Order it.
Chef de cuisine Min Kong was previously at Carbone, the Italian-American fantasy land. Though the food at Little Park involves less drama, it’s quietly playful and, more important, well-executed. You’ll find some of its loveliest compositions involve a lot of grains and vegetables, so I suppose you could call this kind of menu “vegetable-forward.” (Just as you could call this winter snow-forward and my waiter handsome-forward.)
One of my favorites of these vegetable dishes is the celery root pastrami ($13), a clever sort of riff on the brined, smoked, steamed meat sliced to order in good delis. Though it looks nothing like black-edged hot pink beef stuffed between two slices of bread, it refers to the meat eloquently. The celery root is in a mass of ribbons, aggressively smoked, and ruffled over rye crumbs so it’s thick enough to cut through with a knife. Like a mustard-smeared pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, it’s really pushing it with the acid, the salt, and the sweetness, and it leaves you both satisfied and a little bit thirsty.
The beetroot tartare ($15), with a heap of powdery, crisp crumbs and cool smoked trout eggs, in a moat of horseradish-spiked sour cream, is an excellent alternative to a salad before moving on to, say, the crisp-skinned duck with syrupy sour grapes.
The vegetable section is the largest on the menu, but yes, there are plenty of meat-forward dishes, too. These should not be overlooked, as they’re cooked consistently well, seasoned properly and generously, and presented without pretense. Even if you never want to see another roasted chicken, you may be impressed by the one at Little Park, with its perfectly crisp skin and salty meat, laid over freekeh (roasted green wheat). The mid-rare steak in careful slices with a bright green herb-y sauce sounds like nothing special; again, the technique applied is careful and exact, and the dish is delicious.
One of the best things I had to eat at Little Park was even simpler: a wide bowl of clams and mussels with smoky beans and bits of bacon ($15). It was like a cheap thrill on a horribly cold night, loaded up with many kinds of fresh herbs and served piping hot. If it doesn’t come alongside, ask for some bread and butter.
Carmellini is a midwesterner who built a restaurant empire in New York. He has places of varying degrees of fanciness in the city, including a sausage stand in Madison Square Garden. (And with the academic and writer Gwen Hyman, his wife, he co-wrote an excellent book on Italian food called Urban Italian.)
These restaurants are smart, tightly themed crowd pleasers: the French One with the Excellent Bakery (my favorite), the Italian One that Specializes in pasta, the Blockbuster Hit with the Fried Chicken. Little Park is not as easy to categorize. The tiny, raw Peconic Bay scallops, served in the shell with grated radish, tasted almost traditionally Japanese, while that risotto was like a warm, fuzzy love letter to California in the 1980s, and the glorious cinnamon toast ice cream hearkened to the glories of a sweet, industrially-produced cereal. The appropriate label here is that oft-meaningless catchall, Modern American, which feels insufficient.
Dinner reservations are tough to achieve at the moment, but lunch is an excellent time to go, when the dining room is airy and quiet enough to take a meeting. A lunchtime-only sandwich made with a thick slice of fried celery root is almost as clever as that pastrami—the vegetable is crispy, meaty and satisfying, meant to mimic schnitzel. But it’s so hard and crunchy that it makes eating the sandwich messy. It needs some tinkering. (The biggest sandwich-building rule is this: Everything should give at roughly the same rate, so things aren’t squishing out from all ends.) The smoked egg-and-avocado sandwich is a better bet.
Little Park is in The Smyth, a 100-room hotel in Tribeca. It has its own street entrance, and the 85-seat dining room is bare and stylish, with plenty of blonde wood and hanging plants. But something about the low-hanging, hourglass-shaped lampshades gives the dining room a real breakfast-included sort of air, so you can’t forget you’re in a hotel.
Not that anyone cares; the restaurant is packed with good-looking groups of men and women dressed in brogues and heels despite the snow, here to drink cocktails and share orders of ravioli stuffed with black kale. One evening at the bar, a thirtysomething woman with red lips and a miniature leather backpack over her white boucle coat leaned over me to order “two glasses of Rittenhouse rye on the rocks, with three cherries in each.”
Dessert can be fantastic. Don’t miss the exquisite caramel-covered pile of slightly sour beer ice cream and apple sorbet with slices of apple. (On the menu, this is called the "Winter Sundae.”) It’s bracing and delicious and covered with clusters of barely sweet, crunchy bits of puffed bulgur wheat for texture, as easy to love as caramel corn. Have you ever enjoyed bulgur wheat before? You will.
Go, eat it now, before the weather turns sunshine-forward, and the menu changes over to spring things.
Little Park is in The Smyth, 85 West Broadway (Tribeca); +1 212 220-4110 or littlepark.com.
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Beet risotto ($16); Celery root pastrami ($13); Spiced shellfish ragu ($15); Spatchcock chicken ($18); Grass-fed hanger steak ($22); Smoked egg sandwich (lunch only; $17)
Who’s Next to You: Platoons of twentysomething girls, dressed to kill; after-work suits at the bar; a Tribeca family celebrating the matriarch’s birthday; a woman in a silk dress, Instagramming her beautiful scallops. (OK, that was me.)
Need to Know: In addition to the bar up front in the restaurant, there’s Evening Bar on the other side of the lobby, which is ideal for lounging by the fireplace and sipping cocktails.