First Look: Smallman Galley
The Strip District dining location combines the variety of a food hall with the innovation of a technology incubator.
photo by Hal B. Klein
Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica saw the possibility to explore an intersection between the innovation of technology incubators such as Alpha Lab and the lively food halls and hawker markets they visited while on deployment with the U.S. Navy (they both served as officers). The two also recognized that Pittsburgh is a burgeoning culinary hub with a ton of room for growth. Last month, they brought those ideas together with the launch of a new concept: a restaurant incubator called Smallman Galley. Here, four new restaurants will grow together in the same Strip District location. Over the next year-and-a-half the chefs will experiment, refine and find deeper inspiration for their cuisines. And we get to eat with them the whole time.
Think of it as an of-the-moment version of a food court with significantly better food than what you’ll find at the mall. “The food halls we visited in other cities while we were in the Navy were packed. They were hubs, places in the city that people gathered,” says Mantica.
Rafael Vencio, formerly of Grit & Grace and Legume, runs Aubergine Bistro. Vencio’s initial concept was to focus on American bistro cuisine, but in the short time since opening it’s clear he’s pushing himself more toward incorporating multicultural rainbow of flavors into his dishes. When I spoke with him recently he told me he was starting a persimmon kimchi fermentation and planning on making a corned beef that has a traditional spice base but also enhanced with “a few secrets [I have] up my sleeve.” I really enjoyed the jicama and pomelo salad I had the other day; the crisp jicama, bittersweet pomelo, herbaceous cilantro pesto and spicy chorizo made for a deliciously balanced plate.
Jacqueline Wardle, who previously was the executive chef at Isabella’s on Grandview, runs Josephine’s Toast. This was the concept I initially was most skeptical about because the toast trend (hopefully) seems to have hit its apex. I was really happy to find that Wardle's menu delves much deeper than “let’s put things on toasted bread and call it a day.” You can do that here (and a nice piece of toast with salted butter and cardamom peach jam isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your lunch, right?), but you can also dive into something more substantive. I had a terrific chicken toast; the slightly charred bread is there to soak up what’s left of flavorful confit chicken, bitter escarole and perfectly cooked potatoes.
Jessica Lewis, who most recently was sous chef at The Commoner, runs Carota Café. Her mission is vegetable-forward cuisine, and she’s working with several Pittsburgh-area farmers — most notably Root and Heart farm in Gibsonia — to do that. I’m pretty thrilled with what she’s doing thus far, and I love the idea of moving vegetables to the center of the plate. I recommend the smoked red cabbage plate, a blend of cabbage, charred Kistaco Farm apples and peppery arugula that smelled of campfire cookouts. It was a hearty, satisfying dish. Also outstanding is the braised octopus served with crispy potatoes and balanced with olives. Both dishes felt like exactly the thing I should be eating as winter finally sets in.
Finally, there’s Stephen K. Eldridge's Provision PGH. The chef, who was the executive chef of the historic Pink Pony restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, before he moved to Pittsburgh to join Smallman Galley, is operating a meat-forward restaurant. I found the chicken tostadas (slow-braised green chile chicken, kimchi, crispy tortilla) to be a perfect foil for the chill in the air, evocative of New Mexico. I also enjoyed his take on a bahn mi; his is stuffed with crispy chicken skin, chicken liver mousse, the rich meat bits cut through with pickles, mint, cilantro and jalapenos. I’ve yet to try one of his burgers, but they appear to be quite popular. I'm planning on eating one very soon.
The business also has a full liquor license. The beer and cocktails, under the direction of beverage director Will Groves, are off to a good start. Groves is a beer aficionado, and the beer menu — there are 20 taps, all pouring regional brews — is reflective of that. He’s also curated a cocktail list designed to pair with the chefs’ menus. Groves has a strong track record of crafting delicious cocktails; he was the bar manager at Butterjoint and also recently developed the drinks menu for Marty’s Market.
Back to the innovation part, because that’s pretty interesting, too. The Smallman Galley is closed on Mondays (they’re open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Fridays, brunch and dinner on Saturdays and brunch on Sundays) so that the chefs will have the opportunity to work with mentors who will help them to develop their restaurants.
“It’s essentially a semester-based program,” says Benson. The chefs, who have all made 18-month commitments, participate in a series of educational programs including marketing/branding, restaurant operations (staff management, POS systems), business planning and financing/legal training. In the final “semester” chefs will prep for a restaurant launch; they will meet potential investors via a “Shark Tank” style pitch.
“The goal is that six months after they leave they will have opened their own restaurant,” Benson says.
PHOTO BY RAfael Vencio
As with any new opening, there a few kinks that need to be worked out. Although many chefs work in similarly small kitchens, none of them are expected to make small talk with customers in the same way that the chefs at Smallman Galley likely will be. While I was waiting to order at one of the restaurants, a customer spent a good five minutes peppering the chef with questions about her life story. It’s a nice way to get to know a chef — and a good way for a chef to build rapport with customers — but a terrible way to move the line along.
The ordering system is a bit fuzzy too. After you talk to the chef about their life and finally place your order, you give your cellphone number and go find a seat. You then get a text message when your food is ready, and return to the counter to pick up your food. Because the pickup location is near to the same spot where you order/chat about life, there can be a bit of a kerfuffle in movement logistics. A patron on her way to pick up her meal elbowed my friend and I out of the way while exclaiming, “my order is ready and I need to get to it.”
More of a challenge than the occasional ravenous-elbowed customer is that food from each restaurant will be ready at different times than the food at other ones. So if you and a friend order from two places, you might be waiting while she is eating.
Despite these early shortcomings, I like what’s happening so far at Smallman Galley. I’m looking forward to tasting each of the chefs’ menus as they progress over the course of their tenure there. They’re an impressive bunch, and if things go as planned this could bode well for the future of dining in Pittsburgh.