Shall we just accept that we are not going to become good people? If yes, then we can confront the essential task: not to overcome our own monstrosity, but simply to diminish its impact.
Left unchecked, our crappy instincts are capable of massive and horrifying effects. Zuckerberg just wondered which Harvard girls were hotter than the others — and now he has destroyed democracy. Our own appetites — all of them — grow comparably huge. We want spouses to be soul mates, our children as our best friends, our opponents locked up, our meals delicious, our Uber now, a bottle of water in case we get thirsty — our “needs” met or hell to pay. And we feel alive only when those appetites are fueled by existential, limitless energies — dragon energy, new relationship energy, infantile energy, amphetamines, offshore wind.
Since we are stuck with these frightful appetites, can we learn to shrink them? Can we become smaller giants, as a West End restaurant, opened last year, invites us to ponder? Little Giant itself offers an example. It feels less self-consciously ambitious than the owners’ bar across town, Hunt + Alpine. But Little Giant is more impressive for having dialed things down. It wears Scandinavianism more lightly, and there is also more light — which looks great on all the blonde wood in the dining room and bar.
That light looks great on the cuisine as well, despite dishes that lean toward rustic simplicity. A mushroom tartine, for example, is actually a toasted slice of good dark bread, schmeared with tart ricotta and piled high with meaty, dark, wild shiitake and a fried egg flopped on top. Around it all is a moat of thick honey spiced with red pepper, a bit of which brightens the rich flavor of the whole dish. Lamb terrine also paired a surprising sweetness (a raisin chutney) with rich and savory seared pucks of tender minced meat. A bit of bitter dukkah and tart pickled cucumber round out the dish.
While in those dishes strong flavors were set against each other, in an asparagus appetizer milder ones mingled into glop. The soft egg and remoulade swamped the vegetable, and the capicola wasn’t spicy enough to cut through. But the fettucini was served with sharp ramp that had real bite and stood up to the earthy mushrooms and parmesan. Lovely, colorful little sprigs are dashed over nearly every dish.
It is in style of service that Little Giant stands out most. Experts have made up a fantastical style of parenting called “authoritative” — neither too authoritarian, nor too permissive. Little Giant’s service is analogous: solicitous-meets-chill. If your cocktail is sweeter than expected, they remake it without syrup (resulting in a complexly bitter blend of rye, cognac and amaro). They decant your young wine, even if you paid half price for it (Wednesday nights!). When one dish arrived a bit late, the apology was a complementary lemon custard (creamy and tart) to finish our meal.
Perhaps there is frightening vanity in owners who commission paintings of themselves to decorate their restaurant. But the resulting work is gestural and lovely. In this and other ways Little Giant suggests it is possible to indulge the self and its appetites ... but with restraint.
If authoritative parenting did exist, we probably would not be in this cultural/political mess, born of infantile emotions we never outgrow. But in making our greed and destructiveness smaller, it might become playful and quaint, like a child tinkering dreamily with a dollhouse mansion or crashing toy trains. In Japan, there is a craze for “tiny meals” — real gourmet food done in miniature on little stoves. Can we shrink other appetites? Still want, but need less? Can men desire women without demanding to possess them? Can we love a celebrity without needing them to be president? Can we make due with Knausgård’s Spring rather than Volume Six? Didn’t Hawking prove that to escape a black hole’s energy vortex one must get small and tunnel in? Shall we start digging?
Little Giant | 211 Danforth St, Portland | Sun 9 am-2 pm & 4-10pm; Mon-Thu 4-10 pm; Fri-Sat 4-11 pm | 207.745.5045