Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley
The first crop of chefs in the Strip District restaurant incubator are four real.
photos by laura petrilla
Blend one part food hall with one part business incubator, shake it over a well-curated cocktail and beer program, and you have Smallman Galley, the Strip District eating hub with four restaurants under one roof.
Smallman Galley is owned by Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica, two former U.S. Navy officers. As the duo traveled the world on active duty, they feasted in food halls. These institutions, long part of international — particularly Asian — food cultures, now are beginning to gain popularity in the United States as well.
For inspiration, Benson and Mantica also looked to technology incubators — in which investors provide seed money, space and support in return for a small ownership stake in the company.
Four chef/owners — Stephen K. Eldridge, Jessica Lewis, Rafael Vencio and Jacqueline Wardle — each have committed to an 18-month stint at the space (they’re signed up through June 2017). They receive free rent, business-development classes and logistical support in exchange for a stake in both the short- and long-term profits of their restaurants.
It’s easy to lump the four restaurants together into a singular entity called “Smallman Galley.” Indeed, one of the great joys provided by the space is the flexibility to assemble a meal by combining dishes from multiple chefs. Each restaurant stands on its own, though: the chefs source individually, create their own menus and cook with their own voices. All four chefs largely are successful in building their concepts, although all four also are working through weaknesses.
Eldridge runs Provision PGH. He moved to Pittsburgh from Phoenix, specifically to open a restaurant in Smallman Galley. Eldridge was branded as the “meat guy,” and he certainly shines in that department: Provision PGH’s Umami burger, though a tad heavy-handed with mushroom umami, easily belongs in Pittsburgh’s top tier. Most of Eldridge’s dishes tilt toward the heavy end of the spectrum, but he also is capable of a light, nuanced touch with vegetables. I’d like to see more dishes such as “Peas and Radishes,” a nicely composed springtime dish with perfectly sweet peas and a bracing preserved-lemon spread.
Carota Cafe, run by Lewis, is a vegetable-forward restaurant with a focus on sustainably raised products. Her partnership with local farmers, particularly Root and Heart Farm in Gibsonia, is evident in the freshness and flavor of the produce. For example, on one visit, I had grilled bok choy that was richly charred but still juicy — a nice mix of sweet, crunchy and bitter. Charred and briney octopus is a menu fixture and a worthwhile choice, as were some of the other seafood specials that I’ve tried over the last few months.
Wardle’s Josephine’s Toast is just as it sounds: A restaurant that serves food on toasted bread. “Chicken Toast,” rustic bread topped with pulled barbecue chicken, tender beans, pickles, bitter greens, sweet carrots and vinegared onions, makes for a bite that reminded me of a down-home yet refined campfire meal. Wardle cooks with playful spirit — it feels as if she’s having a lot of fun doing what she’s doing — and nearly all of her dishes are satisfying. I just wish she’d use better bread; the “toast” part was a letdown in all of my dishes when, at least according to the name, it should be a highlight.
Vencio’s Aubergine Bistro is the most promising of the four, but it also is the least consistent. When Vencio is on his game, Aubergine is my favorite Smallman Galley restaurant. “That’s gorgeous,” a friend exclaimed as he tore through a pork-belly omelet stuffed with crispy, fatty meat balanced by the fermented heat of kimchi. Other times, Vencio’s dishes fall short of the mark. Aubergine is the least concept-driven of the four restaurants, which in a sense means Vencio is genuinely embracing the experimental nature of the Smallman Galley structure, but it also is the prime driver for sometimes stumbling menu items.
Smallman Galley has some flaws. Because each restaurant operates individually, you’ll likely get your food at a different time than do your dining companions. This is fine if you’re all sharing, but it can be awkward if you’re with the sort who don’t share. Speaking of awkward, on all of my visits over the course of several months there were two very long tables without any breaks in the main dining room, which made it near-impossible to get in and out without elbowing someone in the back or forcing a procession of strangers to temporarily leave their meals so that you can get on with your day.
Despite a couple of kinks in the system and an occasional off dish from one of the chefs, Smallman Galley is a real step forward for Pittsburgh dining. I’ve noticed growth in all four of the chefs since the eateries opened in December 2015, and I’m excited to see how the restaurants grow as they progress both at Smallman Galley and after their tenure there. I hope the second crop of chefs matches or exceeds the talent and ambition of this crew.
54 21st St., Strip District; 412/904-2444, smallmangalley.org
We asked each chef to define their style of cooking and how they envision their restaurants as they move forward.
Stephen K. Eldridge | Provision PGH
My style for years has been to take the best that I can get from as close as possible and fuss with it as little as I can. You won’t see 36 components in my dishes. Then I look at United States history — hundreds of years of open borders — and the huge influence that this variety of cultures has added to our cuisine here. I’ve traveled all over the country, and my food reflects those influences.
We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing. I have a solid staff now and can start doing things that I did in my other restaurants. I’m space-restricted here, but in the future I expect you’ll see more work with primal cuts of meat like a whole pork saddle, more salumi and more seafood. I’m going to keep challenging myself and my staff.
Jessica Lewis | Carota Café
I’m focusing on flavor and on keeping it simple by highlighting what I’m getting from the farms. My training is classic French, but I also used to work with a Brazilian chef and am inspired by a lot of flavors you find in Middle Eastern cooking. When you’re cooking seasonally, there is always also the anticipation of what’s coming next.
It is important to me to educate about the economic and environmental impact we have by eating responsibly. There’s going to be an even deeper focus on what I’m getting from the farms. If I can educate myself on becoming a better chef/owner — this is the first time I’ve run my own restaurant — I can start to develop long-term relationships with purveyors. I’m always striving to push outside of my comfort zone.
Rafael Vencio | Aubergine Bistro
At the moment I’d say my style is becoming more adaptive to modern American cuisine. My background is classic French, and I’ve always stuck to that kind of style. But I’ve been pulling a lot more from influences that are closer to me and experimenting with different ingredients. For example, I’m using spices like green coriander, which is unfamiliar to a lot of people, but it’s amazing.
I want to explore how to define what it means to be Pittsburgh food. I’ll maintain the familiarity that you’ll be able to feel comfortable with what you see in front of you, but there will be some ingredients and flavor profiles that you won’t expect.
Jacqueline Wardle | Josephine’s Toast
My style is smart, classic and elegant. I think that’s reflected in the food that we’re putting out and by the service that we have here. We try our best — even down to the garnishes and the little decorations in our small space — to reflect that. We want people to feel really comfortable.
I really want this to turn into a breakfast/lunch place. I want 100 seats, maybe even more. We’d serve breakfast and lunch until 5 [p.m.] and then have wholesome dinner options available for people to pick up and take home with them.