630 Old Country Rd., Garden City
SERVICE: Apron-clad, warm and informed, but occasionally distracted
AMBIENCE: A burnished urban farmhouse, with an open kitchen, pretty bar and soothing hues
ESSENTIALS: Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Parking lot and valet parking; wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted.
It’s Friday night inside Small Batch, the hour when noise levels spike precipitously. Just as our dinner plates are being cleared, a party of four reaches a nearby table and crane their necks toward the open kitchen to catch a glimpse of a familiar face they know from television.
They didn't see him, and neither did I over multiple visits. This is chef Tom Colicchio’s second Long Island restaurant, open only since December, but Colicchio runs a clutch of other restaurants around the country. Though he was in residence the first few weeks, he travels often, and chef de cuisine Tommy Chang (a Long Island resident) holds the day-to-day reins..
Colicchio is as close to a household name as chefs get, partly because he serves as head judge on Bravo’s "Top Chef." For Small Batch, he plays it heavily local — Colicchio has a house on the North Fork, and East End purveyors figure largely on Small Batch’s menu. Except for cheeky shots of chili-driven heat, the food takes few liberties, aiming for glossy comfort over thrills.
The dining room soothes, as well, with barnlike rafters, Shaker chairs, apron-clad servers and abstract paintings of cows. The place evokes an urban farmhouse, though one attached to a mall (Roosevelt Field). A buzz, but a mellow one, clings to the centerpiece bar, and the open kitchen stays almost zenlike even as it reaches the peak of service.
Once you are seated, a basket of mini French loaves (served warm, though stale on one visit) and butter will soon land from servers who are savvy and warm, though can disappear for long stretches. Cocktails are quirky (one combines Mount Gay rum with pine liqueur, for instance) but polished, and the wine list is intrepid: Most bottles (several local ones among them) are priced less than $100, which can ease the sting of an otherwise pricey meal, and the by-the-glass selections are impressive and eclectic (if you like sparkling, go for the Bedell Cellars blanc de blancs).
Local seafood looms large, too, and includes raw Peeko oysters from the Peconic Bay, muted in flavor compared to other local choices. A pretty black sea bass “carpaccio” is dotted with chilies and kumquat, racy and light but slightly chewy. Ditto for the grilled squid salad, overcooked until sinewy. A ribbon of Spanish octopus, on the other hand, was perfectly tender and smoky, presiding over a riot of chorizo and charred peppers. Octopus may be rote on many menus these days, and this version can almost make you thankful for that.
Two sleepers lurk among the starters: one, a luscious pork terrine that throbs with warming spices, and the other, fried goat cheese that, when smeared on toast, is restorative. These dishes shut down the stressed-out parts of your brain, as do a creamy salad of shaved Brussels sprouts that has the presence of a great Caesar, and pancetta-laced frisee topped with a soft-boiled egg whose yolk becomes a custardy lava flow when broken. (A pear, endive and radicchio salad was disjointed by comparison.)
The pastas at Small Batch are not intended as main courses but still are quite petite, so that you might not know where to fit them into a meal. The most electric was an al-dente bucatini in a faintly seething pork ragu; a bean-filled “raviolini” with clam meat bobbing in a vegetal sauce never quite came together.
Small Batch is neighbor to the formidable Capital Grille, but the meats rolling off its wood-fired grill are instant rivals, including an outstanding strip steak carrying ample dry-aged funk and a roasted half chicken whose coppery skin I wanted to peel away and eat whole, like a Neanderthal. The breast was succulent and soaked with juices, the dark meat nearly falling apart. Speaking of chicken thighs, the great unsung meat, you can score some burrowed into a garlicky (as in whole cloves) olive-tomato sauce with bits of soppressata for extra oomph. It all comes in a mini Le Creuset covered crock to reinforce its alpha winter-dish status.
An artful composition of local duck breast and leg confit nestled in a pool of fig syrup was cooked impeccably; a swordfish steak dabbed with gremolata, however, slightly too dry. I'd again dive headlong into the $23 Wagyu burger, with an almost molten texture boosted by a sheath of melted black-truffle pecorino and balsamic onions. There’s so much concentrated flavor you probably won’t need the house ketchup, but you might pile on more of those excellent pickles. Rather than fries, the burger comes with roasted fingerling potatoes, oversalted like some dishes at Small Batch but still addictive.
Desserts are still a work in progress — an olive oil cake was too parched, the pastry of an apple tarte tartin kind of rubbery. Doubling down on savory is advised, for now; it’s February, after all, and this is food that indulges, even as it finds its equilibrium.