Rejoice! Smallman Galley, the gourmet food-court-cum-restaurant-incubator, is on its second round of restaurant concepts, with another location soon to open in the improbably revived Allegheny Center Mall, henceforward to be known as Nova Place. While the future of its first class of aspiring restaurateurs is still uncharted, it’s clear that Smallman Galley, itself, is a success.
The current group of concepts consists of: Iron Born (Detroit-style pizza), Colonia (Latin American), Banhmilicious (Vietnamese) and Brunoise (contemporary American). Other than rotating the kitchen roster, owners Tyler Benson and Ben Mantica have largely left well enough alone. Repeat customers will notice only small tweaks since the Galley first opened, such as the addition of a small satellite bar in the main dining room and the tenting of the tiny courtyard in deference to Pittsburgh’s fickle weather. But the social and spatial routines are the same: Browse the chalkboard menus at the four mini-kitchen counters, order at one or more, find a table, and your food will arrive soon.
Of Detroit-style pizza, we had to ask ourselves: Is this a new trend? Up until this year, we’d never heard of it, but suddenly, here are articles, recipes and Iron Born, in which chef Pete Tolman introduces the concept to Pittsburgh. Detroit-style is a deep-dish pie, cooked in rectangular pans (originally a type used as a parts bin in the Motor City’s auto factories) at high heat such that the edges get very crisp, enhanced by crackling cheese. This contrasts to the chewy main body of the pie with tomato sauce striped across the top, rather than layered underneath, the toppings.
Iron Born offers eight regular pizzas, plus a few other Italian-American items, such as a pressed hot Italian hoagie. We tried the meat pie with sausage, pepperoni, bacon and rosemary ham. The chunky sauce had a hearty but bright character that was a good match for the meats, which were oven-crisped and plentiful. Our only quibble was that the bottom crust wasn’t as crisp as we’d hoped.
We had no quibbles with the eponymous sandwich at Banhmilicious, run by Vietnam native Hoa Le. Served on baguette with just the right balance of crust and air, the dressed veggies that define this sandwich — shredded carrot and daikon, cucumber planks and fiery jalapeño — can be combined with one of five different proteins. Tender, flavorful lemongrass chicken was delicious, but it was those light, bright veggies in their diaphanously sweet dressing that made this sandwich superb.
We also tried the noodle salad, a kissing cousin to ban thjt nuong, a dish of noodles, greens and protein often available at pho restaurants. The version at Banhmilicious was excellent, with the same veggies found on the banh mi, plus wilted herbs and lettuces, lightly united by the dressing and topped with sliced strips of flawlessly roasted pork.
Chef Jesse Barlass, of Colonia, delves deeply into Latin America’s diverse cuisines and their rich melding of native and colonial influences. Molletes, like the banh mi, adapts the European baguette to a flavor profile defined by the fresh ingredients available in the land of its invention, this time, Mexico. Sliced, toasted and served open-face, the bread was smothered with black beans, broiled under a creamy film of Oaxacan cheese, and finished with avocado puree, pickled onions, and sliced radish for a satisfying mélange of creamy, earthy, peppery and piquant flavors.
From El Salvador comes casamiento: hearty, nutrition-dense rice-and-bean bowls with plantains and optional pork. A sort of jalapeño chimichurri, also optional, brought a clean, green spiciness to the dish.
Well-traveled local Ryan Peters trained under Kevin Sousa and Thomas Keller, among others. At Brunoise, he offers refined preparations of familiar foods — a burger, risotto, pasta, even bread and butter — and while the ingredients and techniques rarely stray from standard, the results do. The bread in the bread and butter was a sublime, chewy yet airy, naan-like flatbread; the butter, compounded with just enough salt and studded with radish slices. Pappardelle Bolognese featured perfectly tender yet al dente homemade noodles, well married to minced beef and veal in a sauce that existed only to coat the meat and noodles, not to leave a puddle in the bowl. Lemon was a surprising addition, mellow and fruity rather than bright and tart.
Smallman Galley’s new class seems perhaps less adventurous than the inaugural one, but also more refined. The level of execution is so high across the board that incumbent restaurants might need to look over their shoulders, because exciting things are developing at this incubator.