Late last year, a friend interrogated me during lunch: “Why do you wait three months to review a restaurant? Shouldn’t you be able to go on the first night and write about it? If it’s open for business, shouldn’t it be fair game?”

Such good questions.

“Imagine you’ve just started a new job, and during your first week – just as you’re learning how to connect to the printers and where to hide your sandwiches in the break room fridge – your new boss shows up to conduct your annual performance review,” I said. “That wouldn’t be fair, even if you’re extremely capable and well-qualified. Everyone needs time to settle into a groove.”

Little Giant, a new Portland restaurant, has made me think back to that conversation many times over the past few months. It started in mid-July, when out-of-town guests insisted we visit during the restaurant’s soft opening. Since then, I have watched Little Giant evolve into an ever-more confident business, one that feels like it has been a resident of the West End for a very long time.

Credit some of that sense of belonging to the cozy-yet-clean Scandinavian-esque space: blond wood in every direction, midcentury modern bar seating and watercolors by Tait Hawes that depict scenes from the owners’ family photographs. Both dining rooms, one casual and one slightly more formal, whisper “hygge” as a form of dinnertime seduction.

“We wanted it to be full of brightness and be welcoming, even in the dead of winter,” explained owner Andrew Volk, who along with his wife, Briana, also owns Portland Hunt & Alpine Club. “In February, when it’s cold out and people don’t have any food in the house, they can come to Little Giant and have a meal and just feel comfortable.”


An eclectic menu of hearty dishes contributes to the restaurant’s homey vibe, especially comfort-food classics like rolled buttermilk biscuits ($6), as light and laminated as croissants. Executive chef Rian Wyllie serves them with a mound of aerated lardo (cured pork fat), into which he whips rosemary, garlic and maple syrup. Spooned over the top is a tart hot-pepper jelly that tap-dances tiny prickles of heat along the back of your tongue.

Or Wyllie’s LG Burger ($14), a flat, 4-ounce patty, griddled and served with BBQ mayonnaise, American cheese and shredded iceberg lettuce, all on a squishy potato bun. “That’s my burger right there: 100 percent the burger I want to eat,” Wyllie said. True, it’s a greasily indulgent treat, but the plate also features a few clever flavor upgrades. First, there are the charmingly sweet and smoky pickled red onions that the kitchen prepares by grilling and charring before brining. Then, instead of french fries, there are Jojos, skin-on potato wedges – a northwestern U.S. specialty that links the menu to Oregon, where the owners met and where Brianna Volk grew up. Little Giant’s version arrives stacked on the plate like split firewood that has been sprinkled with salt, pepper and fresh thyme.

Come during the autumn and you might find whole trout ($25), deboned so only the backbone remains, and served with potato-leek puree and a tangy matchstick salad of julienned beets, rainbow carrots and pickled apple. Or if you’re very lucky, grilled lamb steaks from North Star Sheep Farm, bathed in a spicy tomato-fennel ragu and served slipping down a miniature mudslide of meltingly soft, thick-grained cheddar polenta ($23). No longer on the menu, it’s a dish that deserves a comeback.

One evergreen dish (if a four-month-old restaurant can be said to have such a thing) is the crisp, savory Moxie-braised pork belly ($14). “I wanted to try that dish for years. Then we made it, and at this point, we can’t take it off the menu because people complain. It just makes sense: Moxie is Maine to me,” Wyllie explained.

To prepare the dish, he sears cubes of dried local pork belly, then cooks them in Moxie, with star anise, molasses and clove thrown in to emphasize flavors that fade as the soda cooks down. When an order comes in, the kitchen gives the belly another sear, then tosses the crunchy-edged pork in the sticky Moxie reduction and plates it on a puree of applewood-smoked Spanish onions.

The bar area reflected in a mirror at Little Giant in Portland’s West End.

During one recent visit, my Moxie-braised-pork-belly experience was pure crisp-crackling pleasure, with a yielding and tender interior. On another, my portion was warm on one side, while on the other, stiff and as cold as refrigerated butter.


I encountered similar temperature inconsistencies in the agnolotti ($18), rectangular pillows of homemade pasta filled with oyster mushrooms, sage, orange zest and Little Giant’s own ricotta. When it’s lukewarm, the dish is a bit sticky and lifeless, but when served hot, the interplay of pasta with chunks of butternut squash, creamy cranberry beans and brown-butter breadcrumbs is phenomenally good.

On the Little Gem salad ($11), Wyllie uses more breadcrumbs – this time rye – to give the dish a quiet rustling crunch. “It’s really just a play on a Caesar salad, with those breadcrumbs, Parmesan and a creamy dressing,” he said. Instead of a traditional garlic-and-anchovy dressing, he substitutes Green Goddess, animated by lavish bouquets of fresh dill. My dinner guest took one bite and laughed, “It’s like a summer picnic in St. Petersburg!”

The Little Giant Martini is made with gin, filtered sea water and vermouth.

Little Giant’s Beets Three Ways ($12), with its horseradish-spiked, sweet-tart pickled red beet puree, would fit right in on that imaginary picnic along the banks of the Neva River. And if you tire of dreaming of Russia in August, the same plate features Italianate raw, julienned chioggia beets in balsamic reduction, roasted golden beets atop tarragon-infused Swallowtail Farm Greek yogurt and spiced pistachios to transport you farther south into continental Europe. I have tried this dish three times recently, and every time it has gotten better.

The same can be said of the quality of desserts, under the aegis of pastry chef Morgan Ditmars. His chocolate semifreddo ($9), presented in finger-like rectangles that resemble candy bars or even Fudgsicles, is playfully juvenile, with an airy texture and sophisticated depth of flavor – miles ahead of anything sweet Little Giant was doing as recently as a month ago. Maybe the whipped cream is a little overbeaten, but if the rest of the menu is anything to go by, it’s hard to imagine that in a few weeks, it won’t be close to perfect.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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