Little Giant, Big Personality

It was a shoe store in a former life, and now it bears some resemblance to a shoebox.

Little Giant was, in a former life, a shoe store, and it bears some resemblance to a shoebox.

A lovely, tastefully appointed shoebox, once Tasha Garcia Gibson and Julie Taras Wallach got their hands on the space four years ago—and somehow it’s surprisingly spacious too.

Like fine shoes, it’s all about craftsmanship and details: every inch carries their personal stamp—which, as the name of the restaurant suggests, is a study in contrasts. With the help of Taras Wallach’s architect brother, Jeffrey Taras, they
stripped layers of pressed tin and acoustical tiling and found the original brick ceilings of the speakeasy that operated here at the turn of the last century. Taras also built the very this-century concrete bar and plywood furniture, including the shelving, which holds the women’s vintage kitchenware (once for sale, now just to covet), and the 35 seats, packed every night with neighborhood locals and uptowners alike, all as simultaneously stylish and lowkey as the place itself.

The two women met while working at an Upper West Side teahouse, but the idea for Little Giant came later, when both found themselves at career crossroads. Taras Wallach had just broken her elbow and was leaving her job at Blue Hill, while Garcia Gibson was about to take off from Judson Grill for a four-month trip abroad. Over brunch they talked about their futures. One mimosa led to another, and a restaurant was conceived. Though both women initially thought the idea would fade, it took hold: early in her trip, when Garcia Gibson was in Reykjavík, she found modern Danish wooden trays she decided would be perfect for their still imaginary restaurant and proceeded to carry all 40 trays across Europe for the rest of her voyage and then back to the States. It’s undoubtedly this obsession with detail—and an obsessiveness in general—that makes the union work. They consequently chose this particular corner of the Lower East Side for its old-new vibe and an aesthetic that dovetailed with their own: a blowing-up downtown frontier rooted in an historic neighborhood of tenement buildings, pickle vendors and the shmatte trade.

In the beginning they did everything themselves—even reservations. But while the restaurant stayed the same size, its popularity grew—so much so that, finally, around Little Giant’s third birthday, the leading ladies brought in a sous-chef, Molly Del Monte, who’d worked the stoves at Tabla, Savoy and Lupa. They recently took on that restaurant right of passage, a reservationist, too. But the matriarchs are still very much present at the restaurant and on the menus, which reflect the women’s personal tastes as much as the interior does.

Taras Wallach’s food is at once throwback (deviled eggs) and trendy (maple-roasted Brussels sprouts), but always comfortingly familiar. Drawing inspiration from local farmers, she creates homeaway- from-home cuisine, what she calls “belly-filling goodness.” The deviled eggs and chicken liver mousse are mainstays, as is the thankfully not-too-sweet pickle plate, and the self-proclaimed “world famous” buttermilk-chive biscuit, but everything else is subject to season and to Taras Wallach’s idiosyncratic rules: she’ll always include a fin fish, a shellfish, fresh pasta from Raffetto’s, and a “swine of the week,” but never, ever, she insists, will there be chicken. Taras Wallach motors to the Greenmarket each week on her baby blue Vespa, a gift from a friend when the restaurant opened, to pick up greens and other produce. The occasional featured cheese, such as Jasper Hill’s Constant Bliss, comes via Saxelby Cheesemongers, just a few blocks away. And, downstairs, adjacent to the warren of dry storage (mostly Garcia Gibson’s wine selections), in the walk-in which barely fits two, lie trays of pancetta and sausage, both made in-house.

To wash it down, Garcia Gibson has assembled a collection of lesser-known grape varieties and regions. Her seasonal cocktails feature unusual and premium spirits and fresh fruit, even house-made grenadine. But perhaps the best elixir is on the dessert menu, a spiked egg cream that marries local legacy to modern hedonism.

Touches like these, personal and homegrown, unexpected but often pitch-perfect, are what bring people in every night. Like a pair of magic shoes, Little Giant is paradoxically both gorgeous and comfortable, and improves with age.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Winnie Yang is the managing editor of The Art of Eating. She gets her thrills from curing meat in her apartment during Brooklyn’s balmy summers.