Little Park is Carmellini’s fifth local culinary undertaking, and Wells dubs it his “most contemporary restaurant.” That’s because, as the critic explains, the chef had been a bit caged in by the concepts of his previous four eateries: Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette, and Bar Primi (which Wells awarded two stars back in September last year). At Little Park, however, Wells found that “the best dishes there seem more fresh, natural and intuitive than what’s on his other menus.”
The critic’s account of one such dish opens his review, and loyal readers of Wells’ column were likely pleased (at least, this one was) to read some of his signature vivid food descriptions, especially since last week’s review of Eleven Madison Park glaringly lacked this kind of detail. Of the tri-colored fried cauliflower dish on Little Park’s menu, Wells details how, “Wrapping each floret is a pale-gold skin of batter. It’s almost invisible, but you feel it as you bite, its soft snap reinforced by the full-on crunch of chopped pistachios. Poached before it is fried, the cauliflower is nicely salted all the way down to its tender core, but it is still cauliflower, so it needs a little support. This is supplied by a lush green tomatillo, pistachio and fresh herb sauce that gets in a quick, peppery jab before it signs off… The fried cauliflower seems to be one of those dishes that happen when a chef’s imagination is allowed to roam.” Sure, his readers look to Wells for guidance on where to eat in New York, but many also muse over his weekly column to satisfy their cravings for something much more primal: literary food porn.
Wells clearly holds chef Carmellini in high esteem, but he also gives high praise to Little Park’s chef du cuisine Min Kong (former executive sous chef at Carbone). He notes that “There are no second-class ingredients and almost no side dishes. The vegetables are as intriguing as the animals on plates,” before gushing about Kong’s ability and giving his readers more descriptive food porn, writing, “It’s a lucky carrot that ends up in Ms. Kong’s kitchen; rarely is the vegetable lavished with so much attention. Some are roasted to a smoky sweetness, some are juiced and whipped into an airy orange custard, and still more are slivered into ribbons. All are flattered by the molasses notes in sticky black garlic and by a patch of cocoa nibs and toasted crumbs.” The critic also subtly highlights the collaboration between the two chefs, and applauds the results of their imaginative work, such as a lunchtime sandwich he was served: “Mr. Carmellini and Ms. Kong send a stunning little sandwich down the runway, a celery root schnitzel with creamy, incisive mustard and apple-Brussels sprout slaw on a sesame-seed bun. The celery root is not the most flavorful I’ve had, but it is soft in all the right ways, augmented by generous bookends of golden breading. I ate one and wanted another.”
So what was it about Little Bird that kept the third star out of reach? In Wells’ words, “inattentiveness, like the oily mop of oversauced whole-wheat spaghetti with cabbage and red wattle pork… servers also push the popular contemporary con that small plates are meant for sharing. As one of my dinner guests remarked, ‘That’s like saying: “This is a studio apartment. It’s perfect for a family.’’” On the other hand, the writer was impressed by the atmosphere, which boasts a little more sophistication than Carmellini’s previous ventures. As Wells explains, “When you think of Mr. Carmellini’s restaurants, quiet and civility are not the first qualities that come to mind. Little Park has them…. Anyone who has faced down the unwelcoming committee at the door of Locanda Verde, or showed up on time at Lafayette only to be sent to the bar, or waited on the Bowery to get into Bar Primi, will appreciate the more hospitable greeting at Little Park.” And there’s little doubt that Pete Wells’ readers appreciate the inclusion of his lauded descriptive writing in this week’s review of the food he was served.