Gabriel Stulman never went out on Friday nights. Growing up in an observant Jewish home, the founder of New York’s West Village-centric Little Wisco restaurant empire “wasn’t allowed to leave the house on Shabbat.” Instead of shoveling down greasy food-court grub with his buddies, he kicked off the weekends at the dinner table with his tight-knit family, savoring his Moroccan mother’s Sephardic feasts.
The joy those meals elicited would be rekindled once more when the Virginia native went off to college at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, with the intent of becoming a high school history teacher. “Like a lot of people, I needed to work when I was a student. There weren’t a lot of jobs available, and a restaurant is where I found myself,” says Stulman.
That life-altering restaurant was the husband-and-wife-run Café Montmartre, where Stulman slung drinks and observed the inner workings of the hospitality business. “I watched them work together and bring their kids in; the father would set the son up on the bar. I saw this amazing community they built and I became inspired to do this for a living,” Stulman recalls.
We just want to build our dream vision of what a bar should be.
Immediately after graduating, Stulman landed in New York, eager to create “an ode to Café Montmartre” with a restaurant of his own. That wish came true a few years later with Little Owl, followed by Market Table, both collaborations with chef Joey Campanaro. Although that partnership dissolved, it gave Stulman the impetus to set off solo in 2009 and open the tiny, perpetually mobbed Joseph Leonard in the West Village.
Named after both his grandfathers, Joseph Leonard takes the conviviality of a timeless neighborhood joint and marries it with up-to-date food and thoughtful design. The string of hits that came next—Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fedora, Perla, Montmartre—are each distinctive in their menus, yet all exemplify this same ethos that has become the hallmark of Stulman’s successful brand of modern hospitality. The goal of expansion, says Stulman, is to build “a community of colleagues, friends, and regulars” along the way.
Chances are, the staff at these restaurants is comprised of more than a few Wisconsites, including some of Stulman’s “own best friends from college.” For a real all-in-the-family approach, he also works with his sister, Danielle, and his wife, Gina. The couple now get to bring their own young son into their restaurants.
The latest hangout to join the Little Wisco fold is the forthcoming Bar Sardine, a more casual revamp of the unconventional izakaya Chez Sardine. When it opens later this month, cocktails will be the center of attention, paired with comforting grub like BBQ mayo-slicked burgers.
“All the rest of our places are restaurants first, and we want to have a place that is a bar first,” Stulman explains of the transformation. “We just want to build our dream vision of one.”
Considering what happened the last time he couldn’t get an idea out of his head, chances are Bar Sardine will be another instant classic. But before it launches, we tap into the restaurateur’s mind to learned about some of the dishes that took him this far. From mammoth hash browns to “nose-to-tail” seafood, Stulman puts Little Wisco in the limelight with 10 most powerful culinary memories, including his restaurants’ greatest hits.
I grew up in a Jewish home, and as many stereotypes go, some of my favorite meals were built around bagels and their accouterments. My mother controlled what we ate for Shabbat dinners, but on Sundays my father would get up and buy the family bagels, cream cheese, capers, and lox. The platter would go on the table and we’d gather around. Those mornings he had a ritual of pulling out the Washington Post and reading it to himself. Jeffrey’s Grocery is named after him, and a very popular dish on our brunch menu, the Fresser Platter for Two, reaches into his Ashkenazi roots. Fresser is Yiddish for a healthy eater—someone who can crush a lot of food. This board is loaded with cream cheese, bagels, smoked salmon, gravlax, whitefish salad, soft scrambled eggs, latkes, and salmon roe. It’s a shout-out to my father, my culture, my heritage, and my childhood. (Photo: Stephanie Rae)
Mom’s carrot salad
When I went away to college I missed my mother’s food. I remember calling her to learn how to make her carrot salad so it could always be in my fridge. She would shred carrots on a cheese grater and douse them in olive oil and lemon juice, then add all these little celery leaves, paprika, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. It was bright and spicy, orange with specks of red. It was one of the first dishes I started making for myself, and it was how I became hooked on cooking.
Egg sandwich at Joseph Leonard
Back when I was dating my wife, I used to host a lot of dinner parties on the Lower East Side. The morning after one I woke up and bought us coffee and croissants, and made a sandwich out of soft-scrambled eggs and leftover manchego from the Saxelby Cheese board I had served. I also reheated some version of roasted Brussels sprouts I made for the party and squirted them with sriracha. Gina tasted it and said it needed to go on the breakfast menu at Joseph Leonard. It’s been a staple from day one. (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)
Hash browns at Tornado Steakhouse (Madison, WI)
I grew up eating latkes the size of a fist, and at the Tornado Steakhouse in Madison, they made hash browns that were 10-inches wide and super thick. My chef and partner, Jim McDuffee, grew up in Michigan, and when he said he knew about these hash browns too, we put it on the Joseph Leonard menu as a pancake with chopped scallions (pictured). We eighty-six it almost daily. (Photo: Instagram/jessicasherrets)
Egg in a hole at Fedora
Joseph Leonard is American. Jeffrey’s Grocery is seafood. Perla is Italian. Montmartre is French. But what is Fedora? I don’t know; it’s Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly’s food. He allows his inspiration to come from anywhere. Like his egg in a hole. The egg cooks inside the Pullman bread and the Wisconsin cheddar melts over the top, and it’s covered in tripe and tomato sauce. It’s brunch, it’s dinner, it’s pizza. It epitomizes his approach to cooking. He’s never bound by restriction. He just says, “We’re gonna do this.” (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)
Veal head at Perla
Michael Toscano, our chef at Perla, does a remarkable job of whole-animal butchery. His veal head for three is showstopping. First, they walk through the restaurant with the skull, and then it comes back to the table on a platter with all its different parts—the roasted and sliced tongue, the brain scooped out. It’s such a beautiful presentation and an elegant, refined juxtaposition. (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)
Miso-maple salmon head at Chez Sardine
I think Mehdi is the first person to apply nose-to-tail cooking to seafood. The miso-maple salmon head at Chez Sardine got the most play; it had such an incredible presentation, everyone wanted to talk about it. Getting into a whole fish, ripping apart its face, taking off parts, using fine cuts—it all goes back to Mehdi not being held by any constraints and saying, “I’m going to make this dish Canadian and Japanese at the same time.” (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)
Agnolotti at Perla
It’s not fair to talk about Perla without mentioning its pastas. The agnolotti are just heaven. In line with the veal head, Mike is a chef who believes in slow-cooking methods and multiple days of preparation. He roasts the beef on a rack above a hotel pan and collects the drippings, which he reduces into a meat sauce as thick as syrup and encloses dumplings that get cooked to order. (Photo: Instagram/theritebite)
Black Squirrel Old Fashioned at Fedora
I think so much of our identity, what people love about and celebrate us for, is our cocktails. Brian Bartels runs the program and he’s so incredibly passionate and talented. If there were a state drink in Wisconsin, it would be the Old Fashioned. At the Voyageur Inn in Reedsburg, the name of the lounge is the Black Squirrel. Brian’s drink, with bourbon and his own pecan bitters, is a shout-out. It’s a celebration of what we want to do at Bar Sardine, pointing to a new direction in hospitality that doesn’t just showcase our food. (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)
Burger at Montmartre
Mike’s burger at Montmartre is gaining traction. What I love about Mike is that he said he was going to take inspiration from one thing and apply it elsewhere by translating classic steak frites into a burger. In a bistro, you get a piece of steak with creamed spinach and béarnaise; for his dry-aged beef burger, he makes a brick of béarnaise “cheese,” purees creamed spinach, and toasts it on pain au levain like a patty melt. On the other side of the bread there are caramelized onions—it’s just insanity. Basically, you’re eating steak frites between two pieces of bread. (Photo courtesy Little Wisco)