I'm a big fan of low-key, homey bars with a kitchen to keep me fed while I sip my beer, the kind of inexpensive bites that can turn into dinner without much effort. Usually those kitchens are devoted to burgers and fries; for lighter meals there's places like Nolita's Little Rascal, a softly-lit bar with a few sturdy wooden tables that has a lovely wine list and an intriguing menu of meat-free Mediterranean mezze.
With a generous pour of velvety Malbec in hand I perused the menu of small plates. Eggplant Salad ($8, pictured at top) was the first to arrive; it featured roasted, finely chopped eggplant and fruity olive oil in what seemed like almost equal measure, with roasted red peppers bringing sweetness and lemon and garlic bringing acidity and heat to the perfectly balanced spread. It was a spot-on rendition of the better eggplant salads I ate in Istanbul a few years back.
A chunky Ezme, or spicy red pepper salad ($6), served to reinforce the point. Here, smoky, oily chopped roasted vegetables such as sweet onions and hot red peppers mingled with crunchy fresh vegetables including cucumber and tomatoes. A healthy drizzle of pomegranate molasses balanced the spicy with sweet, again bringing me right back to Turkey with its flavors. The yeasty, spongy squares of bread encrusted with black and white sesame seeds served on the side tasted just as I remembered, too.
A plate of Artichoke Salad ($7) didn't deliver on the menu's promise of braised baby artichokes, serving, instead, tender chunks of artichoke bottom. These were well cooked but underseasoned, though a crunchy salad of slivered red and green bell pepper, red onion, and pickles took care of that problem.
Looking to stray a bit from the beaten path, I ordered Kisir ($6), a bulghur wheat salad that the waitress described as heavier on the grain and lighter on the vegetables than its cousin tabbouleh. What arrived was possibly the showstopper of the meal: a mound of unremarkable-looking but intensely complex-tasting nutty grains bound with olive oil and plenty of fragrant spices like cinnamon and cumin, surrounded by refreshing piles of tomato, Persian cucumber, and more of those pickles that you could mix into the grain salad at will. It was a delightful surprise of a dish.
Little Rascal is completely unpretentious and extremely welcoming, and the care put into its food goes above and beyond for a place that likely makes most of its profits off of its booze. It's well worth a visit the next time you're drinking in lower Manhattan.
Little Rascal 163 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012 212-966-0446 http://www.littlerascalnyc.com