Small Brewpub Has Big, Weird Ideas about Bar Food, and They Start with Chicken Feet
The chicken feet really reach out and grab you.
This is getting weird: That was my first thought as the plate came in for a landing. It looked like a pâté rolled inside a boneless tube of chicken and sliced into thick discs. A plump ravioli was perched on top of each round, mimicking a cartoonish mushroom, and fried bits of roughage recalled dark foliage. As my eyes darted around the plate, I half expected to see a village filled with tiny blue people, but instead I saw a mossy forest-scape. My expectations pushed back from the table, threw their hands up and left.
I was sitting in Small Brewpub, which opened late last year on a rapidly gentrifying Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff. Small got its start when Aaron Garcia and his partners began throwing private events to show off their home brews. Their suds gained momentum, but Garcia had no interest in joining the movement of craft brewers flooding Dallas' taps with local beer. He wanted to open a brewpub where customers drank his wares on-site while they grazed on interesting dishes.
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It was a novel idea. At one point in history, brewpubs served as the launch pad for America's love affair with better beer drinking. These small operations turned out pints that were marginally better than the big brewers, and served them with a side of cheese sticks, soft pretzels and a Rusted Root cover band. But while the craft brewing movement has sustained that momentum in recent years by focusing on beer exclusively, brewpubs have faded -- ignored by serious beer-drinkers and restaurant-goers alike.
Not here. What Garcia and his team are brewing in Oak Cliff right now is impossible to overlook. They tapped chef Misti Norris, who previously worked as the sous at FT33 under Matt McCallister, one of Dallas' most inventive chefs. Norris filled the Small kitchen with charcuterie, house-fermented vinegars, chili sauces and other complex ingredients. Where a traditional brewpub might make use of bacon from a food service truck, Norris aged coffee-rubbed pancetta for more than half a year.
She took a gamble, using ingredients that most people wouldn't even consider food before walking into Small. When I first visited, I worried she might quickly crap out: The service model felt clunky, with communal seating at picnic tables and walk-up ordering at the bar that seemed to collide with her culinary ambitions. And the execution further muddled an already impressionist picture. The chicken in that chicken galantine -- the Smurf-village tongue-trip I took on my first visit -- was dry and rubbery, and totally overshadowed by the ravioli that shared the plate.
But that dish was soon pulled from the menu, and over time it started to make more sense. The chicken feet are a shining example. Usually a desire to gnash away at feet means a drive to a Chinese restaurant outside the loop. But here they are, sitting on a piece of slate, their toes curled inward in one awkward, final grasp. Chicken feet aren't about meat; they're about flavor and juxtaposing textures. Norris addresses both with a lengthy brine, a long confit and a quick pass through a wicked-hot deep fryer. There's a pad on the bottom that produces a nodule of succulent fat, and the rest is tendons, skin and crunchy cartilage. The trick is to chew gently, spitting out the tiny bones and chewing up the rest. If it sounds savage, that's because it is. It's also outstanding.
But there's more. The feet are propped up on mounds of collard greens, with cubes of soft sweet-potato strewn around. There's preserved lemon, hot sauce, a sprinkling of peanuts and a dusting of shaved ham like porcine snow. It's almost enough to make you forget you're eating chicken feet, which is hard to do.
Many dishes get similar fanfare. Fatty, salty lamb's belly is good enough on its own, but a large smear of Nufenen cheese takes the dish past pleasantly rich to downright heavy. It's plated with lightly fried sweetbreads, paper-thin black radish slices, broccoli florets and perfectly cooked turnips.
It's not a crime for plates to have many components, but each addition makes it less likely they'll harmonize and introduces more room for error. It takes time to decide whether you like the plates on offer at Small -- and they're further hampered when the execution falters. Smoked chicken in one dish was dry, while gnocchi in another approached burnt. The skin on a pork trotter served with chow-chow and mustard was dry and tough to cut through, though the sausage stuffed inside made me long for more animal feet on Dallas menus. I wish more chefs were willing to take such big risks, because when all of the components on one of Norris' plates come together the way they should, the results are really beautiful. They show a style and flair that's unique in the local culinary scene, and that's what Dallas needs more of.
Boudin is spun anew, in golden spheres filled with wild boar and chicken livers the texture of mousse. The plate is offset with thin apple slices, dehydrated until they look and crinkle like oven-toasted parchment paper, and an apple purée that lends sweetness. The maitake mushrooms encased in a translucent, tempura-like batter pack plenty of umami on their own; paired with pickled onions for a high note, they are a formidable bar snack.
At most bars, pickled eggs are fished from a jar and served with a side of indifference and a cloud of sulfur. Not here, where gently cooked eggs with flowing yolks look ready for a tidy bowl of ramen. They float in a vinegar brine before they are plated with sorghum that's been dried and popped like movie snacks in miniature.
The plump ravioli that accompanied the chicken galantine are gone, but evidence of Norris' deft hand at pasta-making remains. Now she shows it off in her tagliarini dressed in a buttery sauce and covered with a razor-thin shroud of pancetta. Charred leeks share the small bowl, lending a pungent grassiness, and wilted radicchio hiding beneath the pasta wraps things up with a bitter punch. It's a steal for $10. On one visit, the dish was a little salty but still good; on another visit the plate was perfect. I spent the night fantasizing about an Italian version of Small called Piccolo, where Norris' pasta and charcuterie skills take center stage.
The space has a lot of potential; it's hard not to daydream about where Small will be when Norris and Garcia iron out the wrinkles, one of which might be that service model. The beer is solid -- especially the peppercorn pilsner, which tastes clean, pairs perfectly with food and finishes with a faint puff of gunpowder in the back of your nose. Cocktails are also on point, with fellow FT33 alum Benj Pocta offering simple riffs on classic drinks that are refined but not showy. And counter to another cocktail trend, the drinks are affordable.
Maybe that's why they're all here. The dining room is consistently packed, and the bar, a gorgeous one capped with a single slab of rough-hewn lumber, sometimes has a line trailing through the dining room. On one visit, at least 100 cyclists had arrived shortly before me, their bikes stacked in large piles out front; inside, a jumble of plastic water bottles, beer glasses and sweaty bodies. The place was packed tight, but with ideas and food this big it didn't feel small at all.
Small Brewpub 333 W. Jefferson Blvd., 972--863-1594, smallbrewpub.com, 4 p.m.-midnight daily, $$$
Pickled egg $4 Boudin $9 House pasta $10 Fried mushrooms $10 Chicken feet $9