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Venue Review: Smalls

Smalls aims big in Elizabeth
By "Helen Schwab"
The Charlotte Observer

Smalls is the sort of idiosyncratic little place you want to stumble upon by surprise.

A beer menu insistent on only N.C. brews. A food lineup that includes both bacon-and-cheese sliders and sea scallops atop root vegetable puree. Servers who are enthusiastic and solicitous in appropriate proportion.

Plus fried pickles.

And if it’s the sort of place that still seems to be finding its footing in terms of execution, it gets kudos for striving for a neighborhood vibe.

That vibe is not a delicate one – how could it be, next door to the Visulite? Bright artwork (we’re talking Lite-Brite colors) breaks up black walls, with red taking over behind the bar and popping up in a curtain here, booths there. Lighting ranges from track to one huge flowery-formed pendant, and bulbs bore into your eyes if you glance up at the black ceiling. Dance music’s been pumping more than once in our visits, which can fit with the energy.

The dishes have ranged from perfectly prepared to heavy-handed. Zack’s confit wings fall into the first category. Chef Zack Gadberry’s take on the bar-food classic is spiked with Korean-style barbecue sauce and nicely textured. A crabcake slider was the worst of the second: a filler-heavy cake on a hardened jalapeno/Old Bay biscuit.

But most fall into the middle: Some bold flavors, done with an interesting twist.

A mulled pear salad, for example, proffers a whole pear, sweet but not cloying, filled with a bit of butternut crème fraiche, beside lots of arugula, with well-toasted walnuts and a light citrus vinaigrette. It’s a lovely dish.

Servers recommend the crispy chicken with thyme waffles, noting it’s the place’s bestseller. This sports a salted caramel butter that’s significantly more caramel than butter – sticky, gooey fun, as long as you expect that level of sweetness. Our waffle was fresh and tender.

A pimento cheeseburger with fried pickles fared well, too.

Less successful were the scallops, seared significantly too far on one side, and just four, on the small side for $21, on a dull-flavored puree. A side of roasted Brussels sprouts was superb and simple. Beef short rib didn’t have the succulence that dish needs, with parts quite overcooked and more fat than even that cut should have – though its accompanying crock of bourbon-creamed corn had a nice little Parmesan crust on top. The garlic in whipped Yukon Gold potatoes dominated them, obliterating the promised “chili-infused” flavor.

The menu hasn’t changed much since the place opened, but owner Joseph DiLeo has a lot going on: He plans to open Elizabeth Fish & Oyster by the end of April in the adjoining space, once NoFo on Liz.

That will seat 180, he says, and focus on oysters (shucked in the dining room) and fish flown in daily. He and Gadberry have also begun a rooftop garden (with 8,000 square feet of flat roof overhead), DiLeo says, and will grow heirloom tomatoes, melons, greens and root vegetables. The first 60 tomato plants are in, he says.

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4/5/2012 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab

A fairly short but diverse lineup in a small place: fun.

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