The divided, now narrow, storefront that was NoFo on Liz has always catered to the neighborhood of Elizabeth. In January, owner Joseph DiLeo opened the 80-seat Smalls: Food and Spirits, an eatery dedicated to an abundance and variety of small plates, primarily sourced locally. Restaurants, as other elements of the hospitality industry, are susceptible to trends, and small has been big for some time.
But in order for an establishment to capture the spirit of the times while being competitive with the alternate trend of gargantuan portions of comfort food, the kitchen must have big flavors on these small plates.
This job falls to Smalls' Executive Chef Zack Gadberry, who made his reputation at nearby Customshop and Roosters. Armed with degrees in psychology and another in criminal justice ("Comes in handy in the kitchen," he notes), Gadberry then graduated from the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. Much of Smalls' menu, including the beer list, is local. In fact, Gadberry is creating a garden on the roof.
The space has an awkward narrow pan-handled entrance that opens into a small room darkly clad and randomly decorated. Without windows and enough light sources, the room appears to be dressed for the late-night crowd, even though Smalls is open as early as lunch.
But the dark mood lifts perceptibly as soon as the locally crafted beer and food begin to arrive. Predictably, a parade of small portioned menu items appears. I began my exploration of Smalls with the excellent Korean spiced chicken wings. This is not a lip-searing heat, but one that delivers a punch mid-mouth. Not to be outdone, the fried pickles, sliced thicker than most and well-sizzled, are a crispy New Age version of this local favorite.
Among the salads is a fresh poached egg nestled into slender spears of spring asparagus flecked with bacon. Undoubtedly, this is a seasonal, yet delicious, offering. Bacon shows up again on the specialty drinks list with a bacon-infused Sazerac. The round of sliders became a point of debate at the table. The trio of tender short rib sliders within the Bavarian pretzel bun slathered with whole grain mustard, while tasty, seemed expensive at 11 bucks. So did the threesome of sliced eggplant with house-made mozzarella and tomatoes enlivened by balsamic for $9, and the house-ground hanger steak burger sliders for $10. Put together, the sliders might be the size of a sandwich, but served without sides. In other words, the sliders are not too small to share, but too small for an individual entrée.
Still these are quibbles. Arguably, the quality of the food can justify that price. The bread is made in-house, much of the produce and meats are local, and Gadberry is inventive with his choices. The flourless chocolate cake with mint granite is exceptional. Plus, the foods here are fun to share. Earthy robust flavors are one of the staples of local fare, and Gadberry is quite at home with them.
Within weeks, changes will occur. On April 17, DiLeo will open the other side of the real estate for the 170-seat Elizabeth Fish and Oyster House. The large storefront windows are being replaced with garage doors, and Chef Gadberry will use the same kitchen for both spaces. Stay tuned.
Smalls: Food and Spirits
1609 Elizabeth Ave. 704-334-8338. Hours: Sunday to Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. DJ or live music Wednesday to Saturday. www.smallscharlotte.com.