THE SPOTTED PIG: A New York State of Mind, C+/B-

March 17, 2011

Spotted-Pig-coasterIn the days that I was an editorial assistant tucked away in a niche in front of an IBM Selectric type writer and regularly making restaurant reservations for a brilliant editor at Random House, I acquired an intimate knowledge of what powerful New York media people liked to eat. And in the 1980s in New York City, France stilled ruled the roost, since my editor, a wonderful man from the Philadelphia Main Line (that string of affluent suburbs west of the city of Brotherly Love), regularly asked me for a table at Le Veau d’Or, La Caravelle, and a whole litany of other expensive French restaurants on the East Side.

This lovely man really cared about what he ate, too, since he was also the editor of what was then one of the most sophisticated guides to eating in New York City, “The Restaurants of New York,” by Seymour Britchky, and once or twice during the time that I worked for him, he invited me to lunch in one of these fancy spots, which made a change from the slices of pizza and hot dogs that were then the noontime fare of publishing juniors. The meal at Le Veau d’Or on the occasion of my birthday was a pig fest, too, since we started with slices of delicious pate de campagne and then shared a roast suckling pig with a stunning bottle of Cote Rotie.

Today in New York, the most important pig is spotted rather than minced, herbed and baked into a succulent, savory loaf, and so for dinner with an old friend on my first night in the city, I was keen to try the Manhattan ‘gastro-pub’ that won a star from the New York Michelin guide. And all I can say is what a long, strange trip it’s been. When I lived in New York in the 1980s, the amazing culinary revolution that had so recently blossomed in San Francisco was just reaching the city, and if New Yorkers have always loved to eat, they were suddenly interested in eating a lot better. Sure, you could still go to dinner at hokey places like Luchow’s, the nominally German restaurant on 14th Street or the very good Cafe Geiger in Yorkville, and dozens of Italian restaurants, but France definitely still lorded it over every other country at the table in Manhattan. Still, there was a sudden quickening in the city’s culinary hierachy, based on a peculiar mixture of immigration and social prejudices, with the opening of seriously good and adventurous new restaurants like Karen and David Waltuck’s Chanterelle which were not only upending the local gastronomic totem pole but delicously mocking it. A flock of ‘real’ Italian restaurants was also coming on strong, and a Chinese and Mexican food was suddenly becoming much more authentic, too.

Spotted-Pig-Deviled-Eggs-SMALL   So how, I wondered, did we reach the point that deviled eggs are on the menu at the Spotted Pig, one of the city’s most talked about, widely lauded, and most popular restaurants in New York City? Mind you, I loved deviled eggs, but in giving a Michelin star to this place, I think Michelin was trying to strike sort of a hip, irreverent pose, and I’m not entirely persuaded it comes off.

Granted, I like the look of this restaurant, with it’s stamped tin ceiling, bric-a-brac, and bare wood floors, a lot, but it doesn’t look much different from the dozens of pub-like places that once quietly catered to the large number of single men and women who live in the West Village who don’t cook, like to start their evening meal off with a potent cocktail or too, and then go for comfort food like fried chicken or meat loaf, before having another potent cocktail for dessert, and of this genus, Fedora’s, also recently rebooted, was a perfect example. These unassuming neighborhood places are more or less extinct now, washed away by the flood of Wall Street money that sluiced through the city’s economy during the now discredited ‘boom’ that ended with a catastrophic financial meltdown (For anyone who hasn’t yet seen the brilliant film “Inside Job,” an extremely intelligent and lucid documentary that explains that this catastrophe was thirty years in the making beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan, it’s required viewing).

So I met my friend Ted here and we were ushered upstairs, which is very dark. There was a nice table for two by the window, though, so I asked if we could sit there and was told we couldn’t, because it had been reserved for one of the restaurant’s managers, an honest if indiscreet explanation. So we sat on low little stools at a bare wood table and looked at the menu. For fun, we both ordered deviled eggs, decided to split a puntarelle, radicchio, speck and blood orange salad, because I’d never seen puntarelle in the United States before, and then both go with the legendary cheeseburger with its grilled roll, blue cheese garnish and succulent mixture of excellent Pat LaFrieda beef with a bottle of delicious Ridge Zinfandel. This burger has been the object of ecstatic praise in New York, as has the Spotted Pig’s chef, Englishwoman April Bloomfield, who was profiled in the last food issue of The New Yorker.

The deviled eggs were okay, but over-salted and lacking the paprika that made my Mom’s, or mine–I use pimenton, better. Next the salad, which was a puzzle. In Rome a few weeks ago, I ate puntarelle salad constantly. It’s a spring green that requires a lot of handwork to prepare, and comes to the table in thin, crunchy celery-like strings in an anchovy dressing. Here, curiously, there were just a few of the small, tight green puntarelle heads the Roman would throw away, a few slices of delicious smokey speck, some radicchio and a couple of tiny medallions of blood-orange, but the dressing had no taste, so the ingredients with which it was made weren’t melded together. Overall, disappointing.

Spotted-Pig-Speck-Puntarelle-Radicchio-Blood-Orange-Salad-2

We arrived at 6pm–New Yorkers seem to eat out earlier and earlier, and by the time our burgers, arrived the place was packed with a crowd that was curious mixture of West Village types, including the two NYU film students to our left, one of them with elaborate tatoos, and a couple from New Jersey who were very audibly alarmed by these same tatoos. Or to wit, the crowd was a mix of the few arty types who still survive in the heavily gentrified West Village, plus a lot of braying Wall Street types and Bridge-and-Tunnel couples. The nasty New York snobbery of calling anyone who comes from over the Hudson or the East River ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ has lost a lot of it’s sting now that Brooklyn is so hip, and trendy types are pushing into Queen’s neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, but the political and aesthetic short-hand the phrase denotes still applies.

The burgers arrived with an avalanche of shoe-string fries, which look dramatic on the plate but are a non-starter for me, because they’re always cold. These were also very heavily salted and lukewarm. Odes have been written to Bloomfield’s burger, and because I loved her short-lived John Dory restaurant, and she sounds like a really nice woman on the basis of the New Yorker profile, I couldn’t wait to tuck into mine. It was good, too, but not as good as the burger served at chef Michael White at Ai Fiori (he also uses Pat LaFrieda meat, but dresses his up with bacon, cheese, lettuce, onion and tomato, whereas Bloomfield admantly insists on cooking hers with the unique garnish of blue cheese).

The New York press has described The Spotted Pig as a gastro-pub, but for anyone who knows real British ones, it’s not. It’s a rebooted West Village bar restaurant, with better than average food and the eye-watering prices that only bond traders might find digestible. With tip but no coffee or dessert, this meal cost us both $65, and walking home through the beautiful tree-lined streets of one of the world’s most civilized urban neighorhoods, I couldn’t help but thinking that this same wad of cash would have bought me a knockout meal at Les Bistronomes in Paris, which I reviewed here two weeks ago. “It’s been a longtime since a really exciting restaurant opened in New York,” Ted said during dinner. I can’t comment on that, but I do find New York menus all read the same these days, with an admirable onslaught of offal and a more puzzling preponderance of brussels sprouts, or to wit, they’re admirably earthy and locavore, but not many exhibit the electric creativity you find at such recent Paris openings as Frenchie or Daniel Rose.

The Spotted Pig, 314 West 11th Street, New York, NY 10014 Tel. 1-212-620-0393. A,C,E trains at 14th Street and 8th Avenue or No. 1 at Christopher Street. Average $60.

  • love the article, agree, agree, agree, happy memories of the Punschtorte and the Linzertorte mit Schlag at Cafe Geiger! one little nit, it's Yorkville, not Yorktown. I forgive you.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thank you for the copy editing. I briefly lived in Yorkville, and loved the Konigsberger Klopse at the Cafe Geiger, so please chalk it up to jet lag.

    Best, Alec

  • Totally agree with you re: Spotted Pig, Alec. I simply could not see what the fuss was about. There are countless places which do this kind of contemporary jazzed-up pub food better in the south east of England and, as you mention, a whole raft of more refined, technically accomplished modern bistros in Paris too. The burger was nice (and, actually, I admire Bloomfield's blue cheese dictatorialism), but there are way better burgers to be had within a five mile radius of the West village – even Five Guys' was better, as far as I am concerned. Plus, one can really do without the 'too-cool-for-school' waiters when one is paying this kind of dollar.

    Aside from Prune, I was really quite disappointed in my recent eating tour of NY.

    And yes, burnt brussels sprouts at Momofuku were another puzzle…

  • Alexander Lobrano

    I grudgingly admire Bloomfield's dictorial attitude to the burger, too, and it is very good, but the shoe string fries could have been used as packing material, and I just didn't get what all the fuss was about re this place. RE New York, I feel as though the city's in sort of a mannerist phase in gastronomic terms. I'm all for locavore eating, but the last meal I ate in NYC that really impressed me was at Aldea, an excellent New Portuguese place in the Flatiron district. And the even larger mystery to me is why the food in suburban New York is so mediocre–I can't believe that gilded Westchester and Fairfield counties can't support better restaurants than those I've been to recently.

  • ted siegel

    Thanks, Alex, for the honest review of SPOTTED PIG. The NYC restaurant scene is 99% hype and hyperbole and 1% reality based analysis and criticsm. restaurants like SPOTTED PIG; PRUNE; etc. are nothing but glorified, upscale "coffee shops"….I'm not sruprised that April Bloomefield would not know how to prepare puntarelle…not only is this salad green painstakingly labor intensive to prep it requires a dressing with a high degree of pungency (as you correctly pointed out). I ate at Spotted Pig a few years back and had one of the most depressingly, mediocre burgers one could possibly have anywhere between MacDonalds and Minetta Tavern (dry ground beef with the texture of saw dust and horribly over cooked)….with shoestring fries that were soggy, greasy and limp as the dirty sponge in my mother's kitchen…but when you hook your wagon up to Mario Batali's celeb, people seem to think that you are some "culinary genius"….One of the original, so-called "gastro-pubs" (the term in and of itself is annoying….sounds like something out of Anthony Burgess's masterpiece "A CLOCK WORK ORANGE")…in NYC has been around for almost 40 years (in Greenwich Village)- Elephant and Castle that nobody ever talks about (great burgers from Pat laFreda), english farm house cheddar and Comte-Gruyere on the burgers before anybody knew the difference boiled ham and prosciutto di Parma…..I recently discovered "HUNGRY FOR PARIS" and enjoy the articles and news…..keep up the great work….a truly valuable resource !

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks, Ted. I used to live around the corner from Elephant & Castle, loved it and went often. Glad to hear that it's still good. I also used to make a mean blue cheeseburger myself with plain old ground chuck from the now defunct Jefferson Market back in the days when they sold some of the best meat in NYC. It's really a shame that a great neighborhood institution like that went so wrong, and ultimately belly up, after they moved across Sixth Avenue. Best, Alec