Like many successful suburban restaurateurs before them, Hicham Azhari and Fikret Kovac cut their teeth at a strip shopping center. They opened Little Alley Tapas in 2005 in a Roswell mini-mall and showed everyone they had a real talent for vibe — getting that right mixture of food and mood, of drinks and clinks, of tight spaces and nice places to squeeze into.
But they soon learned the real action is out by the street and not in a building sequestered behind a parking lot. In 2008, Azhari and Kovac opened their next restaurant — an instantly popular pub called Red Salt (since renamed Salt Factory due to a trademark conflict) — amidst the colorful thicket of storefronts that crowd the base of Canton Street in downtown Roswell.
The following year, they opened Inc. Street Food a couple of doors down, serving casual Mexican fare. The crowds kept coming, the energy multiplied, the great vibe doubled down. When the time came to renew the lease on their flagship restaurant in the mini-mall, they walked away. These restaurateurs had gone suburban urban.
Now Azhari and Kovac have extended their mini-empire to a storefront across the street from the pub, long a purveyor of dusty tchotchkes, and have opened their most ambitious and accomplished concept to date.
Little Alley Steak is a full-throttle gourmet steakhouse done up in high-modern style. This means the kitchen carefully sources everything from premium steaks to locally made charcuterie and cheeses, Pacific oysters and live lobsters. It also engages in a lot of trendy culinary ideas, so scallops arrive dusted with porcini mushroom powder, escargot swim in Pernod and the Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout, and the tuna comes raw in an emulsion of Japanese citrus and serrano chile. Even the plain hunks of beef get into the foodie game with their supplemental “enticing steak enhancements,” such as roasted bone marrow or crab Oscar topping. All this happens in a small, ever-crowded space that seems half chic butcher shop and half Bourbon Street bar during Mardi Gras. Even if the kitchen doesn’t hit all its culinary marks, you will likely walk away charmed by its enterprise and goodwill, with a couple of favorite dishes to come back for.
For a restaurant in its first few months of operation, Little Alley Steak has a surprisingly large cohort of regulars whom the staff greets by name. I watch these folks from my perch on a bar stool one evening; many are couples in their Viagra-ad years — handsome, active empty nesters out for a nice evening.
I’m thrilled to ignore the serviceable cocktail list and instead explore the bodacious selection of brown spirits, surely one of the best in the metro area. The bartender pours me a taste of a vintage 1996 Oban Distillers Edition ($14) before I commit; I swoon my assent. (If you like your spirits on the rocks, you can get one rocking ice cube made from Evian water.)
I could just sip my Scotch, savor a platter of deeply cupped Shigoku oysters ($2.50 each) and be a happy camper. But there’s a lot to consider on the menu.
In my experience, restaurants that offer both simple, ingredient-driven dishes and complex chef creations tend to do one style better than the other. My early impressions of Little Alley suggest keeping it simple.
Chicago’s Meats by Linz provides the beef for a smorgasbord of steak options, both dry- and wet-aged and both USDA Prime and Certified Angus Beef. I heartily enjoy the most inexpensive choice, a hanger steak ($19.95) that had been wet-aged for 21 days and marinated to come off the grill with a firmer grain and more buttery texture than I usually associate with this cut. And there was nothing too shabby about one of the most expensive choices, a 16-ounce Prime ribeye ($47.95), which had a nice patina of crunchy, salty char and a melting texture.
For a gas, you might consider ordering the progression of New York Strip ($49.95), three four-ounce servings of wet-aged, dry-aged and Prime beef served in slices on a wooden board with some fancy salts. (Our table ordered this as an appetizer and all agreed we liked the dry-aged the best.)
Another great choice: the terrific presentation of boneless Springer Mountain chicken ($19.95), with crispy skin encasing both the white and dark meat. Add in a side of roasted fingerling potatoes with herbs ($5) or some garlic spinach ($6) for happy times.
The wine list tends toward expensive, well-rated, California red wines, which may frustrate those of you whose tastes run to Old World bargains. I very much liked the tannic, well-structured Prevail cabernet sauvignon ($60) our table ordered, but might have preferred a more expressive Spanish or Rhone wine with this meal.
I’d also edit out a few of the dishes that seem like they wandered in from an early “Top Chef” elimination. Those porcini-crusted scallops ($11.95) (actually one rubbery halved scallop) arrive stacked alongside pork belly over parsnip puree with sauteed spinach and a bubbly substance that calls itself “truffle-scented walnut foam.” Rich, gooey, forgettable. A house foie gras mousse ($14) tastes like liver-kissed whipped cream. Shellfish pappardelle ($19.95) offers a more-than-generous heap of good enough shrimp, mussels, calamari and noodles slicked in lemon-saffron butter that turns rich and tiring. Best of the more gourmet-minded options turns out to be the weirdly winning tandoori-spiced tofu steak ($16.95) with wild mushroom risotto, mascarpone cheese, bok choy and a truffle sauce. It’s a yummy train wreck.
The tightly-packed dining room is more like Grand Central Station, fun and really loud, with tables barely big enough to hold the plates and the wide decanters into which waiters transfer your wine. I found it got a little much on a weekend night when the kitchen was falling behind and we spent a good 45 minutes between courses shouting and nodding. Our waiter admitted he gets hoarse by the end of the evening.
But when a vibe is this hot, that’s what happens.Little Alley Steak 955 Canton St., Roswell, 770-998-0440 Food: A steakhouse with gourmet stylings and a killer wall of whiskey Service: Attentive and helpful. The kitchen seems to have a hard time pacing courses. Best dishes: Springer Mountain chicken, progression of New York Strip, tandoori-spiced tofu steak Vegetarian selections: Sides, salads and one killer tofu entree Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express Hours: 4-10, 4-11, 4-9 Sundays Children: Not a good spot for little kids Parking: Complimentary valet in lot across street Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Bring your bullhorn Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes