Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Little Owl

For years I've been a haunted woman. Not by ghosts in white sheets or boogiemen in closets, but by the very things that are supposed to bring you praise and gratitude - restaurant recommendations.

Somehow, after recommending a seemingly tried and true place to friends, they would report back with stories of either rude service or bad food or - (horror) - both. The last time it happened was in Minneapolis. A friend had asked me for a place to take family visiting from the UK - nothing too fancy - just good food and nice atmosphere.

I had just the right place (or so I thought.) A little bistro in an old firehouse that Kris and I had eaten at a half a dozen times. We'd tried the whole menu, eaten there with friends, and never been let down.

So imagine my reaction when the friend reported back to me the following Monday. "How was it?" I asked, preening myself for glory and praise, maybe even a bottle of wine as repayment for my genius.

"It was horrible," he said bluntly. "The mixed our order all up and my brother in law's pasta was inedible."

Inedible pasta? I'd never even heard of such a thing. I profusely apologized and slinked back to my desk, deciding my friend was secretly a food snob and that it had been a bad idea to give a recommendation at all. He didn't want 'low key' - he wanted freaking Babbo! Besides, surely the dinner couldn't have been that bad...

About a week or so later, a couple of girlfriends and I had our weekly 'girlie' dinner at the same restaurant. I sat down, looking forward to easing my mind with a nice meal. Then the appetizer came (my favorite - a lovely earthy but sweet Mushroom pate.) I dipped an apple into the bowl, piled some of the glorious mixture on top, and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like a spoonful of table salt. I tried again, thinking I'd dipped into a spot that had randomly been over salted before being carried out the kithen. Nope - more salt. In fact, I couldn't make out a single flavor but salt. It was - Lord help me - inedible.

Then came dinner - a turkey pizza I'd had at least three times there that was always a sure bet. The waiter set it down and immediately I could tell something was wrong. The dough was pale and flacid, not at all crisp and golden, and was strewn with little turkey carcasses, as though someone had taken the dark meat from last year's Thanksgiving turkey and unleashed holy hell on it with a spiked heel.

Just looking at it, I had no doubt that if it only could've mustered the energy, that poor pizza would've crawled to the nearest trash can to do away with itself. Suddenly a wave of paranoia struck me and I took a quick glance back at the kitchen, sure that the waitstaff was spying on us, taking bets on who was drunk enough to actually eat their entree.

Indeed, the one bite I took was only memorable to me because it managed miraculously to be both dry and greasy at the same time. At that moment, I had no doubt that my friend was telling the truth about his nightmare dinner. Then and there I vowed to never reccommend another restaurant to anyone again.

I am now, nervously, breaking that vow (throwing salt over my shoulder as I write this.) But because this restaurant has had more than favorable reviews by The New York Times, NY Magazine, Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine, I know I'm not crazy this time - this place is truly wonderful.

It's called The Little Owl, and while it's located dead smack in the middle of the trendy West Village in NY, it's a world away from trendy or a 'scene'. For one thing, there isn't room for one - there's only about 8 tables in the whole place.

The Little Owl isn't about dazzling you with the latest, craziest way to serve something familiar, such as olive oil sherbert. It's about making you feel at home. It's about the food. And occasionally, it's about turning up Snoop on the stereo, as we experienced one night eating there (they played the entire Doggie Style album to the delight of our table.)

The menu is filled with the kind of food that's good from the inside out - such as bowls of fat Heirloom tomatoes bursting with so much flavor and goodness they don't need much more than a splash of balsamic vinegar and a dusting of glittery sea salt. My favorite entree is the pork chop over dandelion greens, vinegary fennel, and butter beans. It's a cut of meat so buttery - one bite and you'll forget all about those brick-like pork chops you ate as a kid (I should know - I've ordered it about five times!)

The Little Owl serves the kind of food you crave when you want something healing, something not to fussy - something like your mom would make you (if your mom had access to freshly plucked vegetables and a backyard farm fraught with tasty residents.) And just when you start thinking it's all warm and fuzzy and laid back and aw-shucks, the Olsen twins walk past the window outside or Martha Stewart pops in for her monthly fix to remind you that you are, indeed, sitting in the most exciting spot in the most exciting city in the world.

The Little Owl is the kind of place that thinks of itself as a small town cafe rather than a fancy NY bistro - the kind of place that you want to go to because once you've eaten there - you realize you can't think of another place like it.

They've kept it small so they can get everything right everytime, from the food to the service to the feeling you have when you walk out the door.

In short, it's the kind of place that reminds us why we go out to eat in the first place.

FYI - Since the Bon Appetit spread came out, this place is getting a fairly New York-sized waiting list, so call ahead and be flexible. (Brunch is a perfect opportunity to pop in if you don't want to do the list thing.) Also, they keep a table or two for walk ins, so if you're in the area early enough in the evening, you can try to snag one of these or even sit at the bar, which may even be the most charming spot in the joint.

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