Have you ever tried duck tongues before?" our server asks as she sets down the plate.
These are chicken-fried, with star anise-pickled peaches. Fifteen minutes ago, I didn't even know ducks had tongues, yet I have the strangest feeling that I've seen the dish before. My friend and I shake our heads.
"So, there's a little ... piece in the center," our server says. "I think of it like a cherry pit."
I flash back to second grade when I swallowed a cherry pit and asked my teacher if I would turn into a tree. We suspiciously eye the tongues. Barely two inches long, they look like chicken wing scraps.
I take a bite. They are startlingly rich, which I initially blame on too-cold frying oil and later learn is the nature of the bird. While more "mainstream" mammal tongues, like cow, are muscular, duck tongues are mostly fat. We nibble a couple, then push them aside, embarrassed by the quantity left behind.
"I'm going to count them," my friend says. "Two, four, six..." she mutters. "Twenty-one."
"Twenty-one tongues?" I ask.
"Twenty-one ducks," she says.
Days later, I realize why the dish felt familiar: the pig ears at Pizzeria Toro. Deep-fried, piled high, paired with a peach mostarda, it's the same formula, like a sequel or a copycat younger sibling. So why did Littler fall short?
The same question can be asked about other aspects of this dinner-only, second venture for owner Gray Brooks, following his wildly popular Pizzeria Toro, which opened in 2012. He hired Amanda Orser—acclaimed for her time at the iconic Magnolia Grill—as chef de cuisine. I was excited about all of it.
Littler is barely a few months old, but it's been making headlines for over a year since Brooks unveiled the working name for the restaurant, "Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain," and the community erupted over its racial implications.
The restaurant lives in the original Monuts location, a petite space on Parrish Street, with heavy blackout shades that hover somewhere between chic and "Closed." Brooks originally described the thirty-six-seat concept to The News & Observer as a "dinner party."
I like to think he meant Betty Draper's dinner party. Much like The Durham Hotel, Littler oozes mod, with wood paneling and strung lights, floral plates and colossal artwork, Ikea-chic chairs and grandma-chic duck napkin holders.
The menu shows less focus than free spirit, flirting with various cuisines but never committing to one for long. Between the four sections—raw, snacks, supper, vegetables—there is Southern American and Italian and French and Mexican and Israeli and Greek. The result is what some would call "American" and others "all over the place." I still can't decide between the two.
The kitchen often feels out of its element, like a host who tries a shiny new recipe when she should have stuck with her tried-and-true. The butter bean falafel offered a creative, Southern update on the chickpea classic but delivered dark, swollen balls with bright green, raw centers. The salad that came alongside—hunks of cucumber and a rainbow of tomatoes garbed in goat yogurt—almost made up for the error (the server offered to omit the dish from the bill).
The lamb burger was similarly outshined by its side. (Which reminds me: Dear, dear kashkaval potato salad, I'm sorry to smack-talk your friends. But I love you. Wait for me.) The patty was ground into submission, until all it had left was a chicken nugget texture and zero self-esteem. This is an easy fix, assuming Littler processes the meat in-house.
I don't want to talk about dessert. But, if we must, the olive oil cake was dry. The lemon curd tart was having an identity crisis and just wanted everyone to call it "eggy mousse." We kept calling it "lemon curd?" and then no one was happy.
All of this was either made better or more confusing at the end of my second visit when a plate of tiny, pristine chocolates arrived unexpectedly at our table. "Recipe testing!" explained our server. "They are sniffing you out!" my friend whispered. And she might have been right. Still, the candies were lovely enough for me to wish that my cover gets blown more often—especially the milk chocolate filled with a gooey, piquant pepper jelly.
Sometimes, Littler was exactly what I wanted it to be: humble in approach, impactful in flavor. The collard greens, braised with guanciale and showered with crunchy breadcrumbs, were vinegary and sweet and spicy and completely unassuming. The sort of dish you try at home and never make half as good.
Like the duck tongues, the arugula salad evoked a beloved Pizzeria Toro dish: the Tuscan kale salad. Here, peppery arugula is the backdrop for fresh figs and whispers of fennel, fatty almonds, and shards of truly good Parmesan cheese.
Most of the dishes fall somewhere between, though, a sign that some kink is still working its way out of Littler's system. The shrimp and spoonbread with zucchini and nduja, a spreadable salami that tastes better than it sounds, was good enough to finish but rich enough that you hated yourself afterward.
The potted rabbit portion was so giant it raised the question of whether an entire rabbit was tucked in the jar like in a magician's top hat. But the accompanying from-scratch Ritz crackers were so buttery and crisp and addictive, I ate a bunny's worth.
Similarly, the smoked trout and latke Benedict—with a poached yolk that melted into sauce at the touch of a fork—pushed the boundary between how much you want to eat and how much you can. In my head, I would pair the smoked trout and Ritz crackers into their own appetizer and return for that alone.
If Littler is truly "dinner party" in concept, isn't faith in your host part of the deal? If Betty Draper burns the casserole but invites you back next month, you go, right? Brooks and Orser's newest project may not exceed expectations, but they're still two standout talents in the Triangle. I can only hope that Littler is like a duck treading on a pond: stalled from where I sit, but with a lot of excitement beneath the surface that we just have yet to see.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Great Expectations"