Small restaurants that make big impressions
A ‘Pig in a Cloud’ course wins smiles at Eculent.
Big King Providence, R.I.
James Mark bills Big King as “a small, weird restaurant,” but that’s not quite right, said Devra First inThe Boston Globe. “It is, at least, one of a kind”—a narrow, dark, 20-seat room where Mark, a James Beard Award nominee, serves choice sakes along with simple, affordable tasting menus that change nightly according to what local farms are harvesting and local fishing boats are catching. “Much of the food is, if not Japanese, Japanish”: The fish is often grilled over charcoal, but Mark might also arrange slivers of raw fluke atop a sesame paste or set a crosshatched surf clam on a pat of rice. Tempura-fried sweet potatoes come with an irresistible tofu-based dipping sauce, and a salad of squashes and radish “makes two ingredients feel abundant.” When there’s pork, it will be from a pig the kitchen has broken down, and nothing will be wasted. But Mark’s ethic is merely the quiet motor of the place; “what you feel when you eat at Big King is that it’s nice to be here, that the food tastes good.” What more could one ask? 3 Luongo Square
Eculent Kemah, Texas
Texas chef David Skinner is “a real-life Willy Wonka,” said Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. In a small windowless room 45 minutes outside of Houston, the part-time university lecturer delights a dozen diners each night he’s serving because he can make a strawberry taste like bacon and pack “all the flavor of French onion soup” into a bite-size bonbon. Guests pay $225 for each 40-course meal and are rewarded with a three-hour spectacle, complete with shifting aromas, colored lights, and sound effects. When he asks you to pluck and eat a leaf from a tree sculpture, you taste all the flavors of a Caesar salad; when you bite into a cherry tomato, it may taste exactly like a Bloody Mary—booze and all. Not every course is fully developed, and the wine Skinner makes at his winery isn’t on par with his food, but $225 is a relative bargain for one of the most labor-intensive meals you’ll ever find, and Skinner is a wonderful host. He’s “part easygoing entertainer, part Cheshire cat,” and he vows he has already created a full Thanksgiving dinner that he can serve in a single glass. 709 Harris Ave., (713) 429-4311
Bulgarini Altadena, Calif.
In Greater Los Angeles, you might never find a more “pleasantly eccentric” dinner spot than this humble strip-mall gelateria, said Patricia Escárcega in the Los Angeles Times. Owner Leo Bulgarini, already known for his “obsessively crafted” artisanal gelato, began serving pasta dishes and a $150 tasting menu last year, and whether you’re there for three minutes or three hours, the Rome native is always good company. The former sommelier greets dinner guests with a pour of the “smooth, deeply flavored” zinfandel he makes in Santa Barbara, and his pastas are “clean, classic, Tuscan-style” delights: a “lovely” pici all’aglione, say, or pappardelle al cinghiale, featuring an “earthy” wild-boar ragù. Between courses Bulgarini serves wine-splashed gelati: his sublime peach gelato is doused with Spanish grenache; his pistachio with a Bordeaux. The dinner might end with a heavily sauced short rib over crisp green beans, but also—if you’re lucky—a complementary carton of gelato. 749 E. Altadena Drive, (626) 791-6174