Green Pig Bistro plays the heavy
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, July 15, 2012
I applaud the dash and playfulness Scot Harlan stirs into Green Pig Bistro. Since it opened in Clarendon this spring, his casual ode to innards puts the former pastry chef front and center in a kitchen for the first time in his career. If you enjoyed your desserts at the pre-renovation 2941 or the late Inox, you probably have Harlan, a mere 32, to thank.
His clever inclinations start with walls that have been papered over with the recipes of his culinary heroes, among them Julia Child and James Beard, who are referenced again on the (ha!) restroom doors. An inexpensive way to dress up the interior, those mounted instructions turn out to be a sly way to get cooks to return, if only to jot down directions for making marinated shrimp salad a la Beard or buerre Provencal in the style of Auguste Escoffier. Warm touches are sprinkled throughout the corner restaurant. Witness the scooped wooden bar stools, the cooking equipment used as art and the exhibition kitchen that makes diners feel like a part of the action (and vice versa). Low ceilings and wraparound windows create a sense of intimacy. So do the cheerful servers, some familiar from white table-clothed establishments around the area.
Anyone for a crispy pig taco? It’s among the snacks that kick off the menu and demonstrate Harlan’s interest in whole-beast cookery. In the case of the taco, the filling gets its crunch from fried pig ear, and its savor from cilantro, avocado and salsa verde. Offal doesn’t describe every nosh. A hearty ragout of snails and mushrooms comes with a cushion of grilled bread to sop up the sauce, and sweet rock shrimp bound with sriracha-fired mayonnaise spill out of a house-baked roll that crackles with every bite.
It all sounds swell until you start dissecting some of the dishes. Green Pig Bistro is guilty of a heavy hand with both the salt shaker and the sugar spoon. The first thing you notice about the chicken liver: cloying sweetness from maple and bourbon. A breakfast sandwich at brunch could double as a salt lick, with the sodium-saturated biscuit to blame. The bartender sometimes gets syrupy: a gimlet should be refreshing, not make someone scratch his teeth.
The strapping plats du jour, presented on partitioned platters, strike an all-American chord. Thursday brings meatloaf, Friday features spaghetti and meatballs, and you know it’s Monday if you smell fried chicken. Every nightly special I’ve sampled looks as if it’s auditioning for Betty Crocker -- but misses with its seasoning. That brined fried chicken shows up with creamy but salty macaroni and cheese, as well as collard greens that sting not just with vinegar but with sodium. Salisbury steak’s gravy is undone by sweetness; the chopped beef patty goes unfinished. The entree’s asparagus and cheesy scalloped potatoes, on the other hand, aren’t just photo-ready, they’re momlike.
The breakout stars are both appetizers. Gazpacho made green with apple, jalapeo and tomatillo is every bit as compelling as it sounds, and a sprinkling of sweet crab lends richness to the refreshment. Lamb sweetbreads get the kung pao treatment: a shower of crushed peanuts and soy sauce fueled with ginger make for a marvelous meal that will send your tongue on a joyride.
I wish Harlan and his sidekick, chef de cuisine Will Sullivan, finessed all their food this well.
In between the high fives and the thumbs down are dishes that are satisfying but unlikely to coax you from outside the neighborhood: crisp rockfish on a sunny yellow sauce of sweet corn and diced zucchini, and cavatelli arranged with shredded duck, a dusting of Parmesan and bright peas.
Instead of a bread basket, the bistro offers as side dishes parkerhouse rolls and corn bread with maple butter. Both add $5 to your bill. Served warm and enough for a trio to share, a batch of either improves any meal.
The wine card stretches viticultural boundaries by touting obscure wines from obscure places. Consider the Hula O’Maui, a pineapple sparkler from Hawaii; Donkey and Goat’s Improbable Chardonnay from Berkeley, Calif.; and Virginia Wineworks viognier and cabernet franc -- straight from a box. The waggish attitude, however, needs to stand on a firmer foundation of value-priced quality wines to avoid seeming gimmicky. Scratch, for instance, the tired Sunday Mountain Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Clos Robert cabernet from California in favor of such gems such as the 2005 Domaine des Girasols, a blend of grenache, mourvedre and cinsault that’s classic Côtes du Rhône, and priced to please at $32.
As you might expect, Green Pig Bistro features some novel endings. Smiles of recognition follow the arrival of a bouquet of Icee Pops, slender sleeves of frozen fun updated from childhood memories in such chic flavors as passion fruit-banana. More reflective of Harlan’s recent past is an elegant banana sponge cake rolled up with banana buttercream and presented with a ball of peanut butter ice cream crisp with crushed peanut brittle. There’s always a pie of the day. I found myself making a serious dent in a cast-iron skillet brightened with Key lime pie encased in a buttery graham cracker crust. Butterscotch pudding on a chocolate brownie base is a ride -- and a wreck of one, alas -- on the Sugarland Express.
Green Pig Bistro, Harlan says, “is not fine dining.” I like a relaxed approach as much as the next diner, but his kitchen needs to confront its demons, those dietary white devils of salt and sugar.