How The Spotted Pig Changed American Dining Forever
“This gnudi only has five ingredients,” I remarked to the group after forking a pillowy orb of ricotta, salt and brown butter into my mouth for probably the 100th time.
It was a scene all too familiar — a spring night in the West Village and another meal at The Spotted Pig. Another plate of briny roll mops; another glorious Roquefort burger and fries; another crumbless plate of chicken liver toast (after we’d devoured every last bite). I recently starting cooking my way through chef April Bloomfield’s cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig, which came out in 2012 but I hadn’t gotten around to playing with until now. The gnudi technically has six ingredients, if you count Kosher salt, but essentially, it’s a five ingredient dish. Regardless, if you’ve ever eaten at the Spotted Pig, or talk to people who have eaten there, you will always hear about the gnudi - a dish April swears that one day she will take off the menu (but hasn’t just yet).
Upon further examination of her book, I was struck by how simple April’s recipes really are. Yet at the Spotted Pig I have experienced some of the most complex and haunting flavors around. Bacon and beans, a nightly special I remember eating to this day, was one of the most memorable dishes of my life. And who the hell knew I liked bacon and beans?
This year, the Spotted Pig celebrated its 10th anniversary, having opened in the West Village in 2004 and for the occasion, the no-reservations eatery allowed tables to be booked for a two-week period. Shortly before announcing this special policy, April won a James Beard Award for Best Chef NYC, an award well-deserved by the talented British-born chef. It was during this glorious two-week period of reservations that I revisited The Spotted Pig, a place where I was once a nightly regular (post-shift at the White Horse around the corner).
Over plates of gnudi, coconut-dusted whole shrimp and lemony skate we bantered about the Pig’s importance, and came up with five ways that the restaurant shaped the dining scene of the past decade:
1. Introducing the Gastropub: The Spotted Pig was the most important, and arguably the first gastropub in the U.S. - an English concept that melded high-end pub fare in a bar-like environment. On its own, this was hugely influential. The concept was replicated all over the U.S. and now it seems like every high-end chef is dying to take on deviled eggs, potato chips and hamburgers. In fact, the Pig's char-grilled, roquefort smothered burger — no substitutions allowed — was a key moment in the gourmet burger craze that kicked off in the early aughts and continues to grow to this day. (See: NYC's Burger & Barrel, Atlanta's Holeman & Finch, Charleston's Husk)
2. No Reservations: Love it or hate it, the Pig made it ok for a restaurant with ambitious food to toss out the reservation book and make everyone get in line for a table. Co-owner Ken Friedman says he originally made the decision to ensure the restaurant had a busy, boozy and profitable bar scene. It worked, and it made it ok for plenty of restaurateurs around the country to attempt the same — to the irritation of diners over 40, parents with a by-the-hour babysitter at home and anyone who hates lines. Other restaurants followed suit around the city and country (See: LA's Gjelina, Brookyn's Pok Pok NY and Roberta's).
3. Nose-to-Tail Goes Mainstream: Bloomfield’s way of dealing with those nasty bits — like putting pig’s ear salad on the regular menu — inspired a generation of chefs and restaurants to steer their customers away from the standard chops and loins into other parts of the animal. She also had a hand in proliferating the pork craze of the early aughts with dishes like the pig's ear (at one point a pork sandwich) and later her whole hog feasts at follow-up restaurant, The Breslin. The Pig was also host to FergusStock in which British chef Fergus Henderson would fly in to serve up his nose-to-tail swine dishes alongside April. (See: Chicago's The Purple Pig, Portland's Beast, NYC's Resto)
4. Let the Vegetables Shine: Despite all the swiney goodness The Spotted Pig is known for, Bloomfield's food never felt heavy, most likely because of the way she could make a simple plate of roasted carrots sing. While it seems like every table at the Pig orders the famous burger, the regulars love their radish and Parmesan salad or her oft-replicated carrot and avocado salad. Now veggies are having their moment in the sun from fancy Brussels sprouts to fried cauliflower to carrots Wellington. (See: NYC's ABC Kitchen, Battersby and Narcissa)
5. Italian Technique Applied to Non-Italian Cuisines: Bloomfield honed her skills at London's Italian-inspired The River Cafe, (chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are also vets) and brought founder Ruth Rogers' less-is-more, ingredient-focused cooking to non-Italian cuisines and ingredients. It's this mix of Italian purity with the punchiness and richness of Anglo-centric food that makes the Pig so incredibly addictive — and it's one reason we'll be looking forward to another 10 years of gnudi, burgers and smoked haddock chowder.