Who Who Who Made Little Owl So Over-Rated?
I have been desperately seeking reservations for dinner at Little Owl for months. Though, the restaurant’s small size and hyped reputation make it virtually impossible to nab a table. In an effort to game the system, my fellow foodie friend Laura and I skipped dinner entirely and stopped by for the no-reservations brunch.
I’m going to be frank here. Could someone please explain what all the fuss is about? Little Owl seems to mirror in quality and ‘cuteness’ every other West Village haute casual dining establishment. Small, cozy, a little bit precious, relaxed, and very shabby chic, Joey Campanaro’s neighborhood joint serves up precise and intricate little dishes drawing on his mentor’s (Danny Abrams of The Harrison and Red Cat) gourmet American bistro style. It’s good; it’s comfy; it’s tasty; but is it revelatory? a stand-out? No. It can be lumped concept and execution wise with Hundred Acres, Salt, The New French, Little Giant, Cafe Condesa, Perilla, Red Cat, and 10 Downing.
On a picturesque West Village street corner with a perky blue awning and red storefront, the restaurant is one small and cramped square room with bright floor-to-ceiling windows and a limited number of tightly squeezed together tables. There is also a small bar with 4 seats that doubles as a ‘chef’s table.’ Simple and charming with exposed pots and crockery, mis-matched photos and art prints, and soft yellow light from tealight candles and hanging kitschy pendant lamps, Little Owl encapsulates cozy and reminds one of a worn-in country home. The service is warm and friendly, befitting of the general vibe, and still very professional.
The menus are limited. For brunch, there are 8 options, 4 ‘breakfast’ and 4 ‘lunch,’ as well as couple of side dishes. Clearly ‘American,’ with riffs on surf & turf and sliders, a bacon cheeseburger, and pancakes, the menu is classic yet still surprising and inventive. My whole wheat pancakes were reasonably portioned (not gargantuan IHOP plates), pleasingly thin, textural, and served with light and fresh maple syrup. While not mind-blowing or earth-shattering, they filled my belly with satisfying goodness. My friend Laura opted for the white omelette, which is simply egg whites, spinach and mushrooms. As she put it, it was all just a bit plain. I mean, really? I know we ought to be healthy, but this was just boring! The best ‘dish’ of the whole morning was the brussel sprouts home fries – big bursts of crispy crunchy salty and spiced potatoes with marinated brussel sprouts. Perhaps it says something that these little bites were by far the most flavorful things we had that morning.
Little Owl is simply cute. The food epitomizes the hot trend of ‘haute barnyard’ in its simple yet elegant and inventive spin on fresh American cuisine. While very good and impressively thoughtful, the grub just seemed to be missing something. It walks the line between excellence and slipping into the average abyss – I wish there was more oomph to it, more passion. If you’re patient, Little Owl makes good on the wait and delivers something tasty; if not, don’t worry about it. Downtown New York is packed to the gills with similar specimens.