A year ago, Grant Williams, then bar manager at the Coral Room in West Highland, decided to buy the restaurant from his boss, who was putting it up for sale after ten years. Williams and longtime friend and now co-owner Raymond Childs had visions of a neighborhood bistro that emphasized local, seasonal and organic fare, so they closed for a few weeks to remodel, revamp the menu and find new purveyors.
Then they made a curious decision: to reopen under the same name. “My feeling was, we were using all of our resources financially and emotionally to do the things that needed to be done,” says Williams, including buying new kitchen equipment, repainting, rebuilding walls and reupholstering. “We couldn’t spread ourselves too thin to rebrand.”
The rebrand came last spring, when the name on the sign out front changed overnight to Small Wonder Food and Wine. But the fledgling restaurant continued to fly under the radar for months, overlooked amid scores of new restaurants opened by bigger names with bigger pocketbooks and bigger firms handling their PR.
So the launch of Small Wonder isn’t the stuff of marketing textbooks, at least not in terms of best practices. “I could probably use some marketing counseling,” Williams admits. But what he doesn’t know about marketing, he makes up for in heart. This is a guy who talks in near-religious terms about food, spouting mottos and aphorisms like cosmic, karmic rays. “A meal should be a minor miracle, a little form of prayer,” he says. “Food can make people happy, or less unhappy, or happier, depending on where they start.” And my favorite: “Humane is the way we try to answer all our questions.”
Williams’s passion for and belief in the power of food propel him to do things other novice restaurateurs might not. For example, he gives his cooks the freedom to source extravagantly, even if it hurts the bottom line. He recalls being asked, “Can I really spend this much on eggs?” by executive chef Gregory Lyons, who joined the Coral Room five years ago and stayed on following the transition. “I was like, ‘Just don’t drop them,’” Williams says, adding that “the difference between a dollar or a quarter [per egg] isn’t much for the level of awesome.” Pastured eggs aren’t the only splurge here. Chickens are pastured, too. Cream and milk are nearly always organic. Beef, while not 100 percent grass-fed, is American wagyu sourced from Colorado-based 7X. Even now, as winter approaches, Lyons estimates that approximately 70 percent of the produce is organic. “That number was much higher in the summer, and more local,” he says.
Last winter, Lyons was tasked with designing a brand-new menu in a matter of weeks for the relaunch, and since then, he has kept the same neighborhood focus. Entrees are comfortable and familiar, similar to what we’ve grown accustomed to from restaurants with a comparable mission. Salmon — billed as organic, though organic aquaculture standards are under review by the USDA — rests on creamy corn polenta. Pan-seared chicken is paired with (what else?) fried Brussels sprouts. Fork-tender spare ribs are glazed with a homestyle blend of ketchup and Worcestershire kicked up with a splash of bourbon. A burger — a six-ounce patty of 7X beef propped on a toothsome potato bun — comes with house-cut fries.
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But if the proteins run a predictable gamut, the vegetables they’re served with do not. That salmon is also pillowed by parsnip purée, with wilted spinach nestled into the polenta and whole roasted carrots on the side. Tomato-ricotta risotto accents the chicken, and mustard greens and corn pudding round out the ribs. “I’m a firm believer that you should eat a well-balanced meal,” says Lyons. “You shouldn’t come out to dinner and get steak and potatoes and a glass of merlot.”
Not coincidentally, vegetables are the real pick on this menu. Mussels and charcuterie can be had anywhere (no offense to the offerings at Small Wonder). But where else can you find roasted delicata squash stuffed with creamed Brussels sprouts and sprinkled with parmesan panko? Or a pumpkin tart with smoked walnuts and ricotta, its filling plumped with eggs and cream, but light on herbs so that the vegetable’s earthy flavor shines through? These are dishes that screen-shot the season without playing to stereotypes. I’ll be sorry to see them go when winter is over, though Lyons will no doubt find something equally interesting to do with pea shoots and asparagus.Despite all that it has going for it, Small Wonder isn’t likely to become a destination restaurant — not in a town with our current depth of talent. And not when there are still a few production flaws. Chicken arrived with so little honey gremolata that the breast tasted unadorned, not to mention overcooked, and the accompanying risotto was gummy. The burger’s bun was too big for the patty, so the beef got buried under inches of bread. A plate of salt-baked, grilled and roasted root vegetables — on my visits, those included beets, parsnips and celery root — was too offbeat and off-putting, since some veggies were hot, some were cold, and some were still woody at the core. And the odd drizzle of strawberry purée that was supposed to unite the dish into a coherent whole didn’t have the oomph to do so. Servers, though friendly, weren’t much help with the menu, having not tried several of the dishes we asked about; they also raved about a dulce de leche ice cream that tasted mostly like leche. But while the pumpkin-pie ice cream wasn’t recommended, it turned out to be a showstopper, with plenty of spices and bits of pumpkin pie.
Small Wonder isn’t likely to become the Next Big Thing, but it’s a solid addition to the neighborhood.
Small Wonder Food and Wine
3489 West 32nd Avenue
Delicata squash $14
Pumpkin tart $12
Root-vegetable plate $12
Wonder burger $11
Rosemary chicken $22
BBQ spare ribs $21
Pumpkin-pie ice cream $2
Small Wonder Food and Wine is open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at smallwonderfoodandwine.com.