I've been busy recently, writing an article for this food journalism course I'm taking, under the expert tutelage of Alan Richman. I wanted to write a few words about why the gastropub movement here in the US is taking off, and why it's here to stay. Of course the mighty Spotted Pig got a couple of mentions and while thinking about going there again and checking out their menu, I noticed something on their website. There was a little bubble on the front page saying that offal magnate and St. John chief Fergus Henderson was in town to cook up some brilliant grub, with April Bloomfield as sous chef. I couldn't bloody believe it! One of my favourite chefs ever and all-round British cuisine superhero was coming to my town to dish out some refined offal and gristly bits. I couldn't round the chaps up fast enough. Adam and Grant agreed to come but JB couldn't make it sadly.
The Spotted Pig doesn't take reservations unfortunately, so we'd have to troop down there on a sunny Wed night and chance our arm with the rather brusque chap on the door who decides who eats and who doesn't. With a 5.45pm ETA, we thought we'd be straight in. We were not unfortunately. The place was overrun and Matey on the door told us we'd have a 40 minute wait. Well what the hell, we'll just hang about a bit, drink some ale (about a dozen pints of Spotted Pig Bitter and Old Speckled Hen between us) and psyche ourselves up for some ace food. We descended on the upstairs bar. The bar staff at the Pig really look after their beer, which is what you'd expect from a eatery claiming a gastropub denomination. Clean beer lines and correct temperature bring out the best in beers, and both ales we tried were marvellous. Hoppy, fruity, creamy almost, eminently quaffable and entirely moreish. After polishing off ale number four, our mate on the door, presumably the Maitre d' and not just some random bloke who fancied impersonating somebody useful, came to and remembered we'd been in there for 2 hours and we still weren't seated. I wasn't that bothered to be honest that we'd been in seating limbo for 2 hours, the beer was good and the conversation was stellar. I didn't mind if it was "so we don't hammer the kitchen" either. Good food takes time.
After plonking ourselves down on probably the cosiest table for three ever, we found ourselves surrounded by some serious foodies. To my right, Jeffrey Steingarten. To my right also, Hung from Top Chef. To my left Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appetite magazine. Clearly, news of Fergus' NYC arrival hadn't gone unnoticed. Or perhaps they always dine there and the Spotted Pig is a celebratory hangout? The only person missing I suppose, and one who claims his death row meal would be cooked by My Henderson, is Anthony Bourdain. I can't believe he'd pass up an opportunity to eat glorious variety meats cooked by his hero. Perhaps he'd been a clever chap though, and came later on after the crowd died down?
Our server took orders for some more beer and passed us our menus. There were about 8 Fergus dishes on the menu, and we were determined to try them all plus what Grant describes as one of the best dishes in the World, April Bloomfield's faggots. Without hesitation, we ordered: chicken liver toasts, roll mops, bone marrow and parsley salad, crispy pig's ears, duck hearts with bibb lettuce, roast trotter with bacon and prunes and finally the faggots.
My my, we were hungry when things started to turn up. We'd been eyeballing other customers plates as they came out of the kitchen while at the bar, and there's no better appetizer. We'd seen whole golden split pig's heads whizz past, piles of upright bones releasing their seductive odour. The chicken toasts came as a thick slice of homemade bread, toasted of course, and smothered in a delicious liver paste. We were ravenous and the plate hardly touched the table before the were knives and forks were slashing at the toast and piling up the pate greedily on certain corners before slicing it off selfishly and stuffing it in. The rollmops were served all rolled up and doused in a cream dressing (I assume made with shallots, vinegar and cream?) and they were pretty damn delicious too. You can't go wrong with herrings, they just taste brilliant however they come. As our roast marrow bones turned up, there were murmurs of delight from the table next to us (a lovely couple from Billyburg) but nobody had prepared themselves for the arrival of the crispy pig's ear. Like a giant misshapen pork scratching, the skin was blistered in places concealing unctuous layers of golden pig grease. Then the duck hearts arrived, four small burgundy nuggets glazed with what tasted like a rich duck-stock and red wine reduction. We were almost overwhelmed to be honest. Our table looked like a medieval banquet. I sliced off a crispy sliver of the pig's ear and bit into it. Then again and again. Piggy ear fat seems to be a powerful adhesive and I found myself, between moans of delight, picking at my back teeth trying to coax the stuff back down into the mouth itself. Salty, crispy, greasy and everything you secretly really want in a mouthful, we agreed. The pig's ear dissapeared fairly quickly and we were sawing away at the duck hearts. Unique texture on that, I reckoned. It is after all, the hardest working and therefore leanest muscle in an animal's body and if you can imagine biting a boiled squash ball, that's my first impression. But when I chewed on it, I could feel it slowly fall apart in my mouth, releasing it's duckiness and reduced sauce that had collected in the ventricles. I was eyeing those lovely milky white bones with their hidden treasure. I took the marrow out in one melting lump, spread it thickly on not too much bread and dressed it with a touch of salt. I closed my eyes and savoured the carnal essence. We were literally wowed into silence by this point, and happily there was just a bit more to come. The faggots were dressed in just the tiniest drizzle of mustard and that's all they needed. All their ofally richness was encapsulated in that thin crepinette casing and I couldn't wait to puncture it and watch the faggot's steaming entrails come tumbling out. Great that there was three of them too. By my math, that was roughly one each. We dispatched the faggots with speed and gusto, as Grant had nearly demolished the trotter with bacon and prunes and I was not going to miss on that. A fine balanced plate that it was. With a good swidge of creamed spud and a light sauce, the pork and prunes was a classic combination.
Our server came over to ask how everything was and clocked our silly satisfied grins. Three highly plump, drunk chaps with glassy eyes. She knew the answer to her next question before she asked it: "Want any dessert lads?" To be honest, we were far too interested in watching Mr Steingarten plunge his cutlery in and out of half a pig's face on the table next to us. Damn it. We really wanted one of those but they just didn't have one left when we ordered. Anyway, he looked like he was having a great time. Strange though, that one of his dining companions was eating a burger and fries.
I can't wait to go back. It's inspiring stuff, Fergus Henderson's cooking, and I'm anticipating his new book coming through the door, fresh from Amazon. You just have to admire his philosophy that if you're going to kill something, at least be respectful and use all of the damn thing. And why not when the unuseable stuff can taste this good?