For nearly two decades, the whitewash-and-timber Tudor house near the corner of Hudson and Charles was a bi-level bar named Rubyfruit, after Rita Mae Brown’s landmark novel Rubyfruit Jungle, said to be revolutionary in its explicit portrayal of erotic love between women. But just as Brown herself turned from books of political import to writing about cat detectives, the bar lost its way in the past few years, as potential patrons moved to Park Slope and the management installed a series of failed restaurants in the lower quarters, while keeping the upstairs tavern intact. Eventually, the lesbians left, to be replaced by Swine.
The restaurant called Swine, that is. What an unlovely moniker, I thought as I gazed up the stairs where a rainbow flag used to hang. Yet like the exterior, the layout of the new place looks remarkably similar to the old one. On the more desirable second floor, there’s a comfy bar and a scattering of tables lit by votive candles. A rear alcove remains a sort of padded conversation pit, where customers once sat out of sight and canoodled. Downstairs still seems like a basement, which it partly is—the tables are bigger, the decor sparer, the feeling danker. The single advantage to sitting there: An open kitchen occupies the deep interior, allowing you to roughly calculate how long it will take for your grub to arrive.
And the food? One would assume that, consistent with the name, it would be mainly pork products, with belly and bacon scattered around like Easter eggs on the White House lawn come springtime. You’d only be partly right. While fatty pork constitutes a powerful but somewhat outdated lure, there’s plenty more to love on the expansive menu.
One pane of the foldout document lists separate categories of charcuterie, cheeses, and cold cuts. Arriving on an elongated carving board, a five-selection assortment from any category ($27) easily appeases three diners as an app. Among my recommendations: The sliced lardo (cured white hog fat) is especially yummy when draped over a piece of toast. The foie gras torchon proves wonderfully cold and oily on the tongue, like marble, and generous for the price. The recently added gravlax is off-theme but welcome, and the chicken-liver mousse turns out to be no slouch, either. With the exception of the homemade ricotta, the cheese selection leaves much to be desired, so go with flesh instead. Each hillock comes with a cheery dab of jam or chutney and a supply of cornichons and grainy mustard.
One step up from the boards are the Toasts, which are like small toasted-cheese sandwiches. But small doesn’t mean non-filling, and the pastrami Reuben ($14) is one of the finest and densest concoctions to fly from a griddle this season. There are several more menu areas—Pickles, Sides, Condiments, and Snacks—the last including deviled eggs (good), cashews roasted in duck fat (blah), and a gloppy version of nachos made with charred potato chips ($9). That dish looks awful but tastes grand. Get the picture? A menu of concentrated salty and greasy tidbits is thought by modern restaurateurs to encourage an enhanced consumption of booze.
But become distracted by nibbles and you’ll miss some of the restaurant’s better offerings. The division called Plates, which has been expanding since Swine’s debut a few months ago, features a nice burger ground from brisket sweetened with bone marrow ($18), a meal-size salad of delicata squash flavored with mint that would have benefited from a more assertively flavored winter vegetable, and, best of all, a chorus line of a dozen Laughing Bird shrimp bounded by pink grapefruit segments and bitter greens. It comes on a schmear of white bean puree like a canvas behind a fine painting. The crustaceans are said to be sustainably farmed in Costa Rica.
The ostensible centerpiece of the mains is a pork cut the restaurant has the hubris to call Swine chop ($21). It’s not particularly large nor tasty, and masticating it requires more energy than it’s worth. Go instead with the gentler bunny. Planted in a lake of buttery polenta, the braised rabbit leg ($19) comes in a rich and savory brown gravy dotted with baby brussels sprouts. Tons of bacon ups the flavor—thank you, swine! For a change, Bugs doesn’t taste like Foghorn Leghorn.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.