With the recent opening of The Spotted Pig on a quiet corner of West 11th and Greenwich Streets in the West Village, New York welcomes the first gastropub to its restaurant landscape. But what is a gastropub exactly? I turned to London-based Jackie at The Daily Bread for an on-the-ground definition. A correspondent of hers, with connections to one of the original gastropubs to open in London, provided the obvious answer (“a pub that serves high quality food”), along with some additional details in an email message that she passed along to me.
Gastropubs, he explained, tend to be genuine old pubs that have been overhauled, yet retain the character of a traditional English pub. The furnishings are simple, and the food is “usually Modern European, with a dash of sexed-up traditional British.” The prices, though moderate for the type of dishes being served, are higher than what you might expect for a typical pub. Moreover, “you probably order at the bar,” though the plates will be brought to your table, and like a pub, should you choose not to eat, you may drink without ordering food.
A few particulars seem to have been lost in translation from England to America. Ironically, rather than being fashioned from an old bar, The Spotted Pig exists in a space formerly occupied by a French bistro (Le Zoo), and the dining environment is more akin to a restaurant than a pub, with table service being the primary mode of ordering.
On the whole, however, The Spotted Pig achieves the cozy and comfortable neighborhood ambience that my imagination has projected on its London gastropub counterparts. There is a busy bar with two rooms of tables separated by an arched, exposed brick wall. The ceiling is lined with pressed tin, and all over the place are small porcine figurines and, in the windowsill looking out over Greenwich Street, potted herbs. The menu is simple, consisting largely of rustic Italian fare with a few British-oriented specialties like smoked haddock chowder and shepherd’s pie. Pub grub makes the menu in the form of a chargrilled burger with Roquefort. Though the food isn’t cheap, nothing on the menu is over $20.
The chef, April Bloomfield, dubbed a “power punk” by the New York Observer, hails from Birmingham, England, and has worked at several UK establishments, including the famed River Café, as well as a stint in the United States at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
The Spotted Pig does not take reservations, and my wife, Danielle, and I arrived with some trepidation that we would be turned away. Luckily, we were not. We showed up on Saturday evening at around 7:30 p.m. and were given a 30 to 40 minute wait. Until our table opened up, we went around the corner to Hudson Street and killed some time at the Art of Cooking, a small but well-stocked cooking supply store, and then threw back some beers at the White Horse Tavern. When we returned, we were given a table about 10 minutes later.
I had a brush with fame after we ordered. As we were waiting for our appetizers, I spotted Mario Batali, sauntering up the sidewalk towards the restaurant. Mr. Batali, reported to be a consultant to The Spotted Pig, parked himself on the bench outside while chatting with restaurant staff and passers-by. Knowing my reverence for the man’s culinary talents (he is my personal food hero), Danielle encouraged (dragged) me to go introduce myself and pose for a picture with Mr. Batali.
Back to the food. One of the best things on the menu are the melt-in-your-mouth gnudi, small, plump, lightly fried cheese dumplings. From what I can discern (google search), in the poetic language of Italian cuisine, gnudi are "nude" ravioli whose fillings have been shorn of their pasta clothing. The gnudi (pronounced with a silent g) are made of sheep’s milk ricotta and fried to a golden brown and served with crispy sage leaves. We also shared a chilled salad of mussels and squid tossed with olive oil, lemon, and dill.
For entrees, I had pork sausage with lentils, arugula, and tomato, while Danielle had slow-braised beef shin with risotto and gremolata. The sausage was tasty, but Danielle’s dish was the winner. The rich and tender slow-cooked beef, which tasted similar to short ribs, was the perfect accompaniment to the creamy risotto.
To drink, we both had the house beer, a medium-bodied lager brewed especially for The Spotted Pig by Brooklyn Brewery and served in hefty barrel-shaped glasses.
The desserts were excellent. The Chocolate Nemesis, based on the famous (and notoriously difficult to make) dessert from the River Café, is a flourless chocolate cake/pudding served warm with cool and sour crème fraiche on the side. We also shared two generous scoops of creamy hazelnut ice cream, washed down with coffee served in a French press.
By the time we left, the busy yet relaxed atmosphere gave way to a crush of people huddling around the bar and hungry for our table. A word of advice: Go early to get your gnudi on.
The Spotted Pig, 314 West 11th Street (at Greenwich Street), 212.620.0393.