Pub Grub Not So Grubby
At the Spotted Pig
I’ve just come back from England, where the restaurant of the moment is the Fat Duck. It’s a village pub in Berkshire that serves, among other oddities, sardine-on-toast sorbet, snail porridge and smoked-bacon-and-egg ice cream. It has three Michelin stars. The cuisine served at the Fat Duck is hardly the pub grub I knew as a girl in Dorset, when the plats du jour were Smith’s Crisps and Scotch eggs (the latter made with a hard-boiled egg rolled in sausage meat and bread crumbs and then deep-fried). But now hundreds of local “boozers” (British slang for pubs, not drunk people) have morphed into so-called “gastro pubs.” Scotch eggs have been replaced by balls of buffalo mozzarella, just off the plane from Naples, and the crisps are now served with mashed King Edward potatoes to go with your order of organic pork sausages from pigs owned by the Prince of Wales.
The Spotted Pig, on the corner of 11th and Greenwich streets, is the West Village’s first gastro pub. It looks every bit the part: quaint and tavern-like, with a pressed-tin ceiling, bare brick walls and archways, wooden tables, mismatched cushions on the banquettes and a long, crowded bar. There are no horse brasses, dart boards or slot machines. Instead, the pub is decorated with pink clay heads of pigs with rings through their septums, pictures of ducks and framed illustrations of vegetables. Red velvet curtains hang in the windows, where herbs are placed in boxes on the green painted sills, sending out an aroma of mint and oregano instead of the usual pub smell of stale tobacco and spilled beer.
You can locate the Spotted Pig, which used to be Le Zoo, by the number of people clustered outside on the sidewalk outside waiting to get a table (the restaurant only takes reservations for parties of six or more). Part of the draw is its stellar cast of investors, including owner Ken Friedman from the music business, and the team from Babbo, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Running the small kitchen is an English chef, April Bloomfield, who once worked at the groundbreaking River Café in London and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
Her food is simple and rustic, using the freshest ingredients, and the menu changes constantly. At frequent intervals, cooks emerge from the basement through a hatch outside and stagger through the front door bearing trays of freshly made burger patties and plump little dumplings. Don’t miss the dumplings: They’re called gnudi, and they’re the size of a quarter and light as a feather, filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and served in melted butter with fried sage leaves.
Bloomfield’s Italian dishes are stellar. I’ve never had a better version of orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. She serves the pasta (the name means “little ears”) with crumbled spicy sausage that goes well with the bitterness of the broccoli rabe, and cooked fresh tomatoes binding it all together.
When I was growing up, Elizabeth David’s Italian Food was the rage, and one of my mother’s standard dishes for a lunch party was vitello tonnato. Sometimes, when veal was too expensive, she made it with pounded chicken breasts. Ms. Bloomfield makes the dish with roast pork, sliced paper-thin and coated with a thick, creamy tuna mayonnaise, capers and arugula. She also does a fine job with a char-grilled skirt steak-it’s rare and juicy and served with fresh horseradish, roast carrots and celery root. There’s also a whopping charred hamburger on the menu, topped with melted Roquefort cheese and served with shoestring potatoes.
You can begin with a wonderful chicken liver parfait, a light creamy mousse served with grilled country bread and cornichons. It’s very rich, so I took the rest home for later. Bloomfield also puts together delightful vegetable dishes, such as roast Jerusalem artichokes with sunflower seeds and sprouts; roast pumpkin with pine nuts, shaved pecorino and arugula; and a hearty stew of asparagus and fava beans simmered with slabs of prosciutto.
Oddly enough, the worst dish on the menu is a “gastro-pub” standard: shepherd’s pie. The chef has no interest in it. The meat is dry and stringy, there’s no sauce (not even England’s favorite, Bisto Gravy Granules!), and the mashed potatoes aren’t rich and loaded with butter, but as watery as those in a school lunch.
Ms. Bloomfield has a firmer hand with sea bass, grilled and served with spiced lentils and sprightly herb salad. Lentils also come with grilled wild king salmon, laced with sliced asparagus.
Since the Spotted Pig is a pub, there are some intriguing beers on tap: Old Speckled Hen (from Abingdon, England), Beamish stout from Cork, and Brooklyner Weisse. The wine list, compiled by Bastianich, is international and out of the ordinary, with plenty of choices at reasonable prices.
Don’t miss what the English call “puddings.” Chocolate nemesis, a dark mousse-like cake made famous at the River Café, comes in a thin sliver with a dollop of crème fraîche. On one occasion, it was sublime; on another day, it was gummy. The lemon tart is splendid, as is the ginger cake made with molasses (treacle) and served with whipped cream.
Aside from lunchtime, when it’s not too busy, there’s usually a long wait to get a table at the Spotted Pig. The hostess or maître d’ takes your name and suggests that you have a drink at the bar or sit outside until a table opens up (but, unlike at a real English pub, you can’t take your drink outside). After waiting over half an hour one night, three of us decided to grab some stools and squeeze around a small high table near the front door. It suited us fine. Suddenly, a crazed-looking woman with a belligerent expression on her face came in, stared around and was told there was a wait. She then stamped out of the front door and kicked in the window.
I once knew a Cockney actor whose local “boozer” was the Coach and Horses in Soho, London. It was no gastro-pub, and after a few pints at the bar he’d say: “Right, then-anyone fancy going out for some solids?” Alas, he died of drink. He’d have liked the solids at the Spotted Pig.