Little Bistro, Big Moves
Little Giant carves out a space for itself among Portland’s dining staples.
On a Sunday night, a middle-aged woman with blond hair is sitting on the covered patio of Little Giant, at a small cafe table against the gray clapboard wall of the restaurant. She has the New York Times Sunday edition spread before her and is carefully turning the pages between sips of her martini. She looks up as the server delivers the restaurant’s signature burger, which is made from a custom blend of Maine-raised, grass-fed beef atop a butter brioche bun and piled high with melted cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, and pickles.
When I mention the solo diner to Kate and Ian Malin, the owners of Little Giant restaurant, they immediately know who I’m talking about. She’s a regular at the West End bistro, and Kate tells me the bartender will often have her martini mixed and waiting for her when she arrives. “That’s part of the joy of a neighborhood spot, right?” Kate says.
Perhaps West Enders have known all along what other Portland diners may have overlooked: Little Giant has quietly come into its own as a neighborhood bistro serving a menu of what Ian describes as “American food with a sharp Maine focus.”
In November 2019 the Malins became the sole owners of Little Giant after buying out partners Andrew and Briana Volk, who own Portland Hunt and Alpine Club. The Malins and the Volks parted amicably, and Ian was energized by the idea of having sole creative control of the restaurant. The last year and a half, however, have hardly played out how the Malins envisioned.
Of course, Little Giant shut down its indoor dining in March 2020. It hosted diners on the sidewalk in the summer and then closed down until in January of this year, a newly constructed covered back patio with radiant floor heating and 35,000 watts of electric wall-mounted heaters made dining possible again. With seating for up to 50 (not factoring in COVID-19 capacity restrictions), this new patio allows diners to once again enjoy a seasonal menu of small plates from chef Neil Zabriskie, a Los Angeles native who cooked in a variety of New York City restaurants before moving to Maine and joining Little Giant in 2018.
Zabriskie builds a menu of local ingredients wherever possible in what he calls “an ode to Maine’s bounty.” In spring when those options are a bit thin, Zabriskie enlivens ho-hum ingredients like sweet potatoes with creamy Vermont burrata and a green chive and chile oil. He offsets the earthiness of a whole charred beet by surrounding it with a sauce made from habanero-spiced blood orange juice.
The spring menu also leans heavily on Maine seafood, like a crudo made from thick slabs of scallop and topped with finely diced green olives and a bright tomaquet: grated tomatoes, olive oil, and white wine vinegar. Rich polenta and buttery hen of the woods mushrooms are lightened up by the pleasant bounce of razor clams and a jammy egg and caper sauce.
The most decadent menu item at Little Giant is by far the lobster roll, which skips the butter-versus-mayo debate and opts for both. Spiked with spicy Calabrian chiles, the lobster meat is piled into a Norimoto Bakery brioche bun that is fried to a rich, buttery crisp. A delicate sprinkle of thin celery and pepper slices adds crunch to the heaping roll.
Zabriskie has adapted dishes so they can be taken to-go, only offering foods that he believes will travel well to a second location. Diners can be assured the squid-ink infused black rice and peekytoe crab dish—the chef’s take on arroz caldoso, a brothy paella—will be just as intriguing at home as it is on the patio of Little Giant.
A short list of specialty cocktails ranges from the refreshing Sea Witch, a rum daiquiri with filtered sea water, to the warming Princess Maxima, a complex blend of mezcal, grapefruit juice, balsamic vinegar, and spicy chiles. Dessert options, including Basque-style cheesecake and coconut sorbet, are similarly concise but intriguing. The Yee-Haw Toast, a thick-cut slice of housemade pullman bread soaked in orange custard, fried, and topped with salted honey ice cream, is a standout.
In addition to creating a takeout-friendly menu and a new patio, Little Giant has partnered with Cooking for Community as a result of the pandemic. This volunteer-run organization pays restaurants to produce meals using local food that go to individuals experiencing food insecurity. Ian serves as the organization’s operations coordinator and has expanded the program to include 20 restaurants from Portland to the midcoast. Ian values the connections this community work provides. “After all, if you want to be a neighborhood restaurant, you have to invest in the neighborhood,” he says.
Throughout the pandemic, the Malins have doubled down on this commitment, nimbly responding to community needs and business realities. Ian is optimistic that his restaurant will continue to gain a following. “When people say ‘Portland, Maine,’ they think of Fore Street—staples like that. They don’t think of Little Giant,” he says. And then with a smile, he adds, “Yet.”
211 Danforth St., Portland
Neighborhood bistro serving elevated American fare with plentiful seafood options.
Small Plates $13–$17 Entrees $17–$27 Desserts $8–$12
To increase his restaurant’s resiliency during the pandemic, Ian Malin hired baker Shannon Mahoney to utilize the restaurant in the otherwise quiet morning hours. Branded as Sugar Giant, the bakery offers huge cardamom-spiced cinnamon rolls, an ice cream sandwich made with chocolate chip cookies, and the perfect take on a Snickers bar. Preorder for weekend pickup and delivery at sugargiant.com.
Dinner: Tuesday–Sunday, 4 p.m.–9 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Bakery: Saturday–Sunday, 7 p.m.–10:30 a.m.