One thing—maybe the only thing—the Underground Gourmet learned many years ago while immersed in an intensive junior-year student sojourn in England was that although the local pub was indeed an excellent place to conduct long hours of grueling research (i.e., drink too much), it was no place to eat. Conclusive proof came one afternoon, in the form of a ham sandwich that might have been slapped together during Queen Victoria’s reign, and that put us out of commission for days.
Imagine our surprise, then, to learn about the great gastro-pub movement, all the rage across the UK for more than a decade now, and the recent arrival of The Spotted Pig, New York’s first official gastro-pub, on a quiet West Village corner. Categorized as a bar with food, but usually with a chef too good to be relegated to adjunct status, the gastro-pub is not unlike the upscale American diner—an Everyman cultural icon suddenly given a serious focus on good, fresh, often locally grown food.
The Pig’s owner, Ken Friedman, has a fetish for the comfortably decrepit vibe of old New York taverns, which he’s tried to reproduce, with some help from partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, in the old Le Zoo space, now personalized with enough porcine paraphernalia to give Babe the willies. But for every carved, drawn, or painted pig that graces the brick walls, there’s a framed illustration of a slender bean pod, lettuce leaf, or some other presumably organic green matter, most of them the handiwork of the artist who illustrated the Chez Panisse cookbooks. It’s not just window dressing: In its culinary ethos of sourcing high-quality seasonal ingredients, the Pig is more Chez Panisse than Corner Bistro—a convivial place to have a pint, sure, but also a wonderful place to eat and, most shockingly, considering England’s long record of parsnip-and-turnip abuse, a safe haven for vegetarians.
Chef April Bloomfield’s salads, even in the dark days of late winter, wring exquisite flavor out of the unlikeliest sources. Varying combinations of cauliflower, Swiss chard, and Jerusalem artichoke are roasted, perfectly dressed, and served at room temperature, antipasto-style. The arugula salad reinvents its tired genre: Peppery leaves mingle with pine nuts, shaved Pecorino, and creamy bits of roasted pumpkin.
“The Pig is more Chez Panisse than Corner Bistro—a convivial place to have a pint, sure, but also a wonderful place to eat.”
Bloomfield once worked at London’s River Cafe, and her simple presentation of remarkably fresh buffalo mozzarella, served with stewy cranberry beans or olives and marjoram, can be traced back to that restaurant’s inspired take on classic Italian cooking. So can her gnudi, a small but hoardably rich dish of ricotta dumplings cloaked in brown butter and fried sage.
Even though the Pig wallows contentedly on the outskirts of the Batali-Bastianich empire, Otto’s house-cured bresaola has managed to infiltrate Bloomfield’s menu—as have Joe Bastianich’s own Friulian red and white house wines. But the Pig proudly asserts its British identity with two cask-conditioned ales and impressive renditions of smoked-haddock chowder, served with house-made crackers, and a first-rate shepherd’s pie. If the role of the pub (gastro- or otherwise) is to dispense no-nonsense rustic fare, the kitchen acquits itself well with an exquisite purée of chicken liver with grilled potato bread and cornichons, as well as slow-braised beef shin served over a seeping mound of wet polenta.
There’s an exceptional burger, too, thick, juicy, and idiosyncratically topped with melted Roquefort, if misguidedly served with a tangle of shoestring fries, which we’ve always considered a waste of potato—they’re hard to handle, turn cold quickly, and never satisfy. Roast carrots and celery root, though, are fine accompaniments to the nicely charred, medium-rare skirt steak.
In keeping with the rest of the menu, desserts are plainspoken but superlatively done. The chocolate nemesis, on loan from River Cafe, straddles a luxurious line between mousse and ganache, and tastes even better with a tangy dab of crème fraîche. Ginger cake is strong and simple, and almost as English as the wedge of Colston Bassett Stilton we attempted to linger over one Saturday night, until we were finally forced to surrender our bar stools to a vulturelike pack of famished New Yorkers, out gastro-pubbing.