There’s a certain wave of reassurance that washes over a person while in the presence of someone radiating with confidence and passion for his craft. Chef Nathan Jolley — who operates his tiny restaurant, Burnell’s, out of the former Mayberry location on Vine Street — is such a man.
What’s immediately clear upon meeting Chef Jolley is his infectious, almost childlike enthusiasm for food. Ask him about Burnell’s challah bread. Ask him about their authentic line of Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer and micro-brewed cola. Ask him about the process by which corn becomes hominy, and hominy is ground to grits, and how he painstakingly infuses batches of them with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese and bacon fat. Ask him.
Burnell’s space is both snug and intimate, with only three tables of four and a row of seats at the window and along the north wall. It’s one reason why they’ve only recently begun experimenting with taking reservations: a no-show from a large enough party could be fairly devastating for a restaurant the size of Burnell’s, which can only accommodate about 25 people at a time.
Like its predecessor, Burnell’s offers sandwiches, salads, soups and flatbreads for lunch and a frequently rotating small-plates menu for dinner. The lunch menu is a particularly great value, with tasty, hearty sandwich and flatbread portions accompanied by fresh mixed-green salads for $8 or less.
I was initially dubious of their dinner menu because, as a whole, the small-plates trend in America, which mimics the Spanish Tapas and Chinese Dim Sum traditions, has been a problematic one for me.
My general beef with the small-plates phenomenon is twofold: Unlike their Spanish and Chinese counterparts, many small-plate dishes found in New American cuisine simply aren’t inherently sharable and, perhaps most importantly, some restaurants exploit small plates by using them as an excuse to charge more for less, ultimately leaving everyone going home hungry and broke.
Burnell’s, thankfully, is a notable exception. Sure, a couple can expect to pay a total of about $40 for the recommended three plates ($33), side dish ($2-$4) and drinks ($1.50 each), and you might in fact feel snacky later in the evening if you order less, but damn, the food is very, very good and, despite the diminutive dishes, you’ll easily see the quality of the ingredients, the beauty of the presentation and will genuinely feel comfortable you got your money’s worth.
My girlfriend and I kicked off the evening with a plate of Roasted Wild Mushrooms, a Baby Arugula Salad with grated cheese and buttery, garlicky Challah Toast Points. This was a perfect example of what works with small plates: a requisite build-your-own experience making it simple for diners to evenly share components as they interact with one another, piling up their toasty vehicles with meaty mushrooms and peppery arugula.
Next arrived a Pan Seared and Roasted Scallop secured atop a molten pool of Sriracha Grits, topped with Micro-Greens and decorated with wisps of green Scallion Cream. Chef Jolley’s affinity for all things grits is perfectly highlighted in this dish, in which Sriracha adds just enough spice without overpowering the rich corn flavor. The conspicuously lonely scallop exhibited just the right amount of sear for a delicious textural counterplay with the plate’s remaining ingredients.
Our third small plate was a hearty Garlic and Parsley Braised Leg of Lamb, with a cabbagey Colcannon Sautee and an intense, vibrant Tomato Jam. A single, ginger push of the fork was all that was needed to slide the tender lamb off the bone, its welcome richness pairing admirably with the neighboring tomato and cabbage.
We wrapped up our savory dishes with a prodigious slab of baked Mac & Cheese. While we’re typically fans of the stuff that comes in the blue and white box, we found this side dish epitomized all that’s great about comfort food: hearty, not too creamy, with a pleasingly buttery crumb topping, a thin, cheesy, crunchy bottom layer, and tender pasta in between.
Dessert was a stack of warm, fresh-baked, “sugar in the raw” shortbread cookies, so warm and fragile that they required a fork to be picked up intact. They were nearly as good as Chef Jolley’s lightly sweet pineapple upside-down cookies, which occasionally make an appearance on his rotating menu.
Burnell’s is a homey, small-plate gemstone in the center of the Queen City’s culinary tiara.
Go: 915 Vine St., Downtown
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: 6-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday