British Invasion

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:34

    British Invasion An upscale, downtown spot leads the gastropub pack. The Spotted Pig 314 W. 11th St. (Greenwich St.), 212-620-0393 I just learned about a type of eating- and-drinking establishment that, according to the Financial Times, did not exist in New York City until a few weeks ago. The genre is called "gastropub." (Apparently, we were just late to catch on?out of 60,000 pubs in the United Kingdom, 5000 of them are thus classified.) The "gastro" in gastropub signifies a place that offers drinkers something a little more sophisticated than bangers and mash with their pints.

    At the recently opened Spotted Pig in the West Village, New York City's first official gastropub offers cask-drawn ale and an extensive wine list alongside a short but polished menu. Although this all sounds perfectly nice, I couldn't help but wonder how a small pub serving good food is different from, say, a small restaurant with a bar that also serves good food.

    So I went to see for myself. In the space that was long occupied by a neighborhood favorite, Le Zoo, the Spotted Pig leaves no recognizable signs of the dainty French eatery in its wake. The pig figurines, framed prints of game birds and rickety wooden chairs all visible from Greenwich St. through parted velvet curtains reveal to passersby a setting that, at least for urbanites, passes for bucolic.

    At eight o'clock on a Thursday night, I waded through a throng of twenty- and thirtysomethings front-loaded at the curved wooden bar, a prominent fixture on the front section of the one-room eatery. My dining partner for the evening, Matthew, a food professional and enthusiast, was already waiting for me, buried deep in the crowd. He seemed to be hanging on for dear life to a wooden column in the middle of the room, though he had managed to put a healthy dent into a half-pint of the house brew ($3), hand-pumped and served in a handsome dimpled stein.

    His assessment: "Fewer bubbles."

    Apart from such superficial touches as old-style beer and country decor, the Spotted Pig seemed less like a pub than British-tinged upscale dining in a downscale space. That may very well be the definition of gastropub, but in New York City, where drinking and eating are already well-integrated (see Markt, Union Square Cafe, Pastis, Zum Schneider, to name a few), the distinction seems redundant.

    We were shown to a tiny table, adjacent to the bar and pushed up against the windows. We studied the menu and noted some very un-pubby prices?appetizers ranged from $7 to $12, entrees from $13 to $19, including a whopping $17 for shepherd's pie. At this spending level, the table seemed a little too small. For a $17 entree, I'd prefer a little bit more space, but perhaps that's where the pub part comes into play.

    The menu is eclectic, with only a few typically British offerings?the aforementioned shepherd's pie and smoked haddock chowder ($7). We chose mostly appetizers?a smart move in hindsight. The variety was satisfying, the portions were great for sharing and it saved us a lot of money. Matthew was smitten with the fritto misto ($8), an unlikely mix of lightly tempura-fried lemon slices, onions, radicchio and salted anchovies sandwiched between fresh sage leaves (a combination borrowed from London's River Cafe, the alma mater of Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield). The silky chicken liver parfait with cornichons and potato bread ($8) was my absolute favorite, and I plan on returning sometime for more. Pureed with butter and a reduction of port and Madeira and served with grilled salted bread, the parfait was winey and luxurious but so deceptively light that I just kept spreading it on one toast after another until it was gone.

    Another fine appetizer was a meaty octopus salad ($8) with cilantro and arugula. It was served smothered in a dressing of chile, garlic, lemon juice and rinds of lemon, lime and orange, which was delicious in its own right but masked the superb flavor of the lightly seasoned octopus. The dollop of fresh aioli on the plate, a whip of olive oil and garlic, was extraordinary but superfluous.

    A special appetizer for the evening, a gnocchi-style pasta called gnudi ($9), which our waitress told us means "nude" in Italian, turned out to be fantastic bite-sized pieces of sharp sheep's milk ricotta coated in semolina flour and served in a small pool of brown butter with leaves of crispy sage. Matthew complained that the extra parmesan sprinkled on top was overkill, but I was too distracted by the way the fresh cheese balls disintegrated in my mouth to notice.

    Since we were, apparently, eating in a pub, we decided to try the burger, served with Roquefort cheese on a brioche bun ($13) with a surplus of twiggy shoestrings fries that looked like starchy scribbles. The meat was good, the bun was good, the cheese was good and so were the fries, though Matthew complained that there was no tomato or pickle to impart freshness or variety. True, it was just a bunch of good stuff together on a plate, with little to tied everything together.

    After the dishes were cleared for dessert, a busboy returned to our table. As one might expect at a fancier restaurant, he leaned over and proceeded to brush away the lone shoestring fries that littered our butcher-paper tablecloth. In this context, the gesture was well-meaning but absurd. Usually french fries coupled with paper-covered tables signal a restaurant where no one minds your crumbs. This out-of-place display indicates the central problem of the Spotted Pig: When a restaurant, gastropub or whatever it is attempts to combine the high and low, the two generally cancel each other out.

    Dessert was the chocolate nemesis ($6), a velvety, deep chocolate cake (also borrowed from the River Cafe) that was satisfying but awkwardly paired with creme fraiche. We also tried the cookie plate ($6), an inconsistent special of overcooked walnut chocolate chip cookies, ginger biscotti, a chewy almond orange cookie and wonderfully thin candied orange peels. The pistachio ice cream that was served with the latter would've made a better pair with the former.

    By the end of night, I had enjoyed a noteworthy meal at a table the size of a chess board, sat elbow-to-elbow with my neighbors and bore the din of the crowd hovering around the bar and, subsequently, around my table. Gastropub or not, intentional or not, it was a distinctly New York City dining experience.