OK, let’s get the name-dropping out of the way: Bono, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Alice Waters, the Smiths, Simon Hopkinson, Trent Reznor. All have some connection, real or imagined, with a tiny new bistro in the West Village called the Spotted Pig. And the hype machine has been running on overdrive extolling it as the city’s first “gastropub” with a capital G. Is it? Well, not really. A canvass of London eateries turns up 88 gastropubs—traditional pubs in which an enhanced concern for fresh meat, fish, and vegetables has generated superior versions of English pub food, and where a sophisticated wine list often supplements the usual liquid menu of ales, bitters, porters, stouts, ciders, and lagers. While the Spotted Pig grunts like a pub, with its exposed-brick interior, intimate wooden nooks, and waggish collection of pig sculptures, the truth of the matter arrives at your table with the menu: The establishment is at least partly another Batali-style Italian restaurant—and a very good one at that—with some English and American pub food thrown in as a disguise.
Few dishes downtown can compare with gnudi ($10). It’s not a tip of the hat to totally clothed “naked chef” Jamie Oliver, who reportedly recommended spotted chef April Bloomfield for this gig. Rather, these miniature Florentine dumplings are called “nudies” because they resemble ricotta ravioli without the pasta. Presented with a gloss of butter and crispy fried sage leaves, they’re unbeatable, and your only regret as you lick the remaining butter from the plate is that there are only eight. Bloomfield borrowed gnudis from her previous assignment at London’s River Café, which is emphatically not a gastropub, but an expensive Tuscan restaurant with a comically informal setting. Heck, that kind of place is a dime a dozen over here. Other River Café remembrances include the sinister-sounding chocolate nemesis ($6), a wobbly flourless chocolate cake that threatens to become pudding. Sliced wedge-wise and served with sour cream, it was one of the only things I didn’t like, although a chocoholic acquaintance readily dispatched the entire serving, and called for another.
Other Italian triumphs include a dense squid stew reminiscent of the Tuscan masterpiece calamari in zemino ($11); air-dried beef bresaola brought crosstown from Otto; a splendid salad of roast pumpkin and shaved pecorino that reminded me of Lupa; and a creamy and sweet chicken liver mousse served with grilled bread. There’s also a dense entrée of veal kidney ($18) deliciously sautéed with parsley and garlic that seemed positively Roman. If Spotted Pig were a gastropub, the kidney would be tussling with steak in a pie. Other inventions seem to be Bloomfield’s own, including a perfectly cooked skirt steak served with fresh horseradish made into a sort of cold gravy, and a smoked haddock chowder with big homemade crackers that probably does qualify as pub food, providing a pungent smell that wafts from the kitchen every time a serving is ladled out. Then there are the desserts, and this is where the English sensibilities really emerge. Who can argue with a moist and pungent ginger cake ($6) with a flop of thick crème fraîche?
Oh, and there’s a sodden unreconstructed shepherd’s pie that’s not worth ordering unless you’re a homesick Brit craving pub food. But if you want to try a real gastropub, check out midtown’s St. Andrews.