THE SPOTTED PIG
Any non-celebrity who has attempted a table at The Spotted Pig on a weekend night will know the dread with which I approached the restaurant's host stand. It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday. The front door guy, Stephen, winced on my behalf when I inquired after a table for three. "You're looking at 11:30," he said. My optimism for any less of a wait, I knew then, had been as masochistic as it was delusional. Chef April Bloomfield and restaurateur Ken Friedman's first venture—the tiny, cluttered, well-funded West Village upstart (Mario Batali and Jay-Z were among the original investors)—imported the no-reservations gastropub from Britain ten years ago. The bedlam has never quieted.
I put my name down nonetheless and drifted outside to call my would-be tablemates en route. "Oh, didn't I mention?" said my friend Kim from a cab. "Earlier we were at the Breslin"—Bloomfield and Friedman's sister gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Chelsea—"and we asked our server if she could call over to the Pig and add our name to the list." I dashed back inside. "Oh, you're with that party?" said Stephen. "Yes, I've got your table." He led me to a choice perch—a roomy booth against a red and blue banquette. The scent of potted herbs along the windowsill on the left collided midair with the wafts of garlic from the kitchen to the right. I could not have been happier in that moment than if I were a Disney character at the end of "Frozen."
The British and Italian cooking at the Pig has grown more attuned over the years, though no less intense. All chefs worship the holy trinity of salt, fat, and acid, but Bloomfield is a charismatic who speaks in beef tongues. That comes through not just in her most overt dishes, including the famous fried pig's ear with its lash of mustardy lemon-caper dressing. The first dish of our meal was a pureed asparagus soup cloudy with crème fraiche, resembling a picture of earth from space, only green under the swirling wisps. The seasonings were so amped, with the vegetable's taste both heightened and diffused, that each spoonful left us marveling and wanting more. The same right-to-the-edge approach made a modest bowl of champ—an Irish staple of mashed potatoes and scallions, here subbed with ramps and fluffy from butter and milk—one of the evening's most soulful bites.
But a palate can fatigue and an appetite rebel from a constant assault of richness, so it's crucial at the Pig to suss out a few counterpoints. Sodden pork rillettes with mustard and pickles? No. A salad of carrots and avocado, one of the night's specials? Yes, yes, particularly welcome with its juicy grapefruit segments and a cumin-forward dressing that lifted the ingredients into Moroccan realms. And another special, a subtle braised rabbit leg, emerged as the night's sleeper hit buoyed by a verdant supporting cast of fava beans and fiddlehead ferns. I ordered the burger more for context—the patty that launched a thousand imitators and derivations—but, even in our ground-beef-saturated land, the mix of short rib, sirloin, and brisket topped with strong Roquefort stays mighty in the memory.
The mix of short rib, sirloin, and brisket topped with strong Roquefort stays mighty in the memory.
Of course the Pig's very essence makes it as much about drinking as feasting, and the liquid vices tempt from all angles: a Guinness stout or a dry Sorachi Ace saison from Brooklyn Brewery; cocktails like the Commonwealth Cup, a gin and tonic given a broader depth of field with cucumber, lemon, a splash of ginger ale. My chums wanted wine; a ready-to-quaff Brezza Barolo held its own with the food. It was near midnight when we waded through the packed bodies, the Pig oinking as loudly as it was when I first walked in. Amazing how a place so tiny has come to loom so large.
Bloomfield and Friedman have shifted lately into empire-building mode. They're actively looking for another space in New York (with some recent hitches) beyond the four Manhattan restaurants they already run, and there were brief rumors about the duo opening their first venture in Los Angeles. Their western expansion already began early last year when the two took over Tosca Cafe, an almost 95-year-old bar in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. The smoke-stained joint hadn't served food since the 1950s, and its signature drink, popular during Prohibition, was the coffee-less "house cappuccino"—Ghirardelli chocolate and steamed milk with a shot of brandy. Bloomfield and Friedman shelled out $1.5 million to build out a kitchen, restore the old-timey murals, and replace red vinyl booths and stools with crimson leather.
Tosca's clientele had dwindled before Bloomfield and Friedman came in, but Tosca relaunched in October and the two-hour-plus wait last Saturday night—a week after my meal at the Spotted Pig—felt mighty familiar. (Jostled schedules compelled me there that evening; I've otherwise learned my lesson.) Four of us wedged into the slinky, 45-seat bar before dinner. The new team reinvented the "house cappuccino," now a concoction with Armagnac (a hot ingredient in cocktails this year, I'm noticing), bourbon, ganache made from local small-batch producers Dandelion Chocolate, and organic milk. Fun, though I preferred the herbal-earthy Choke Hold with tequila, Cynar, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and Maraschino.
Bloomfield's menu, in keeping with the North Beach's Italian heritage, looks to the Boot for inspiration. The cuisine isn't a leap for her. She learned her craft at London's River Cafe and spent time in the kitchen of Berkeley's Chez Panisse; both of those restaurants draw heavily from the Italian repertoire. But the first plate to hit our table, cubes of gelatinous oxtail terrine topped with a handful of parsley salad, was pure Bloomfield food: unctuous, saline, acidic, balanced, potent. Sliced red chilies and a flurry of pecorino took the tired Caesar in feisty new directions. The kitchen also gave grilled polenta a fresh look, searing firm chunks until the edges were dark and smoky and tossing them among meaty mushrooms, blobs of mascarpone, and grated Parmesan.
The three pastas on offer showed unusual restraint. A bowl of linguine with asparagus and green garlic was all springtime and simplicity. Bucatini didn't go overboard with the guanciale and chiles tangled into its tomato sauce. A variation on cacio e pepe with twisty gemelli pasta arrived a bit gummy, though the straightforward flavors of pecorino and black pepper kept our forks returning to the plate. We didn't order the much-discussed roast chicken for two, nestled on toast smeared with ricotta (it takes an hour to prepare); we finished the meal instead by gnawing down herb-speckled lamb ribs and then sharing a square of tiramisu lightened by a finishing douse of grated orange zest.
San Franciscans often famously reject outside restaurateurs. Bloomfield and Friedman are rare exceptions.
Like the Spotted Pig, Tosca Cafe is a neighborhood restaurant elevated to a sensation by gutsy cooking and the staff's canny professionalism. San Franciscans often famously reject outside restaurateurs. Bloomfield and Friedman are rare exceptions, and they're running with it: For their next California project, the pair will transform a recently closed strip club called the Lusty Lady (which happens to share a back wall with Tosca Cafe) into a bar. San Francisco has a long history of entwining sexual and gustatory pleasures—the city's nineteenth century brothels sometimes spread out lunch or dinner buffets to tempt clients—so the transition from peep show parlor to see-and-be-seen cocktail haven doesn't really seem that farfetched.
Photography: Bill Addison