Johanna Ware is back in her element. The celebrated chef of Wares will reopen her flagship restaurant Smallwares on July 21, and the Momofuku alum has been playing around with new happy hour snacks and a burger for her pan-Asian restaurant. Still, reopening in the former Chalino space has her feeling nostalgic. Rather than hire a designer, Ware has been working with family and friends to transform the large, austere space into something familiar to the original Smallwares which closed on Fremont in 2016. She’s been remounting her red shelves, and finding more tchotchkes and quirky art for the space with help from her mother, an art collector.
The vibe won’t be the only throwback: Ware has been digging through old menus for recipes and ideas, and classics like her octopus salad with maple fish sauce and pepitas will make their return. “It’s not like I closed because I hated my food,” Ware says, calling from the restaurant days before its opening. It’s not all nostalgia, though—the popular fried kale with bacon and fish sauce vinaigrette from her counter-service restaurant Wares is there, while kimchi abounds, appearing as a side and in her kimchi pancake with prawns and octopus. In the hanger steak, kimchi gets pureed and served alongside roasted mushrooms and bleu cheese. On the formal side, nori risotto will be sure to please with green beans, mushrooms, and squash. Summer vegetables have been a big inspiration for Ware: She puts green beans in her seared scallop dish as well, which arrives with a summer succotash and xo sauce.
The new Smallwares is more than than just a nostalgia trip—it is its own venture, and Ware says she feels happy with the end result. “The other night, when I was in there by myself, it felt like a new space,” she says. “It felt really... me.”