January 4, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

The Breslin: This Little Pig Spotted Again

The Breslin satisfies the fantasy of an aging pub with pigs resplendent. Photo: Steven Richter
The Breslin satisfies the fantasy of an aging pub with pigs resplendent. Photo: Steven Richter

        The six of us are cruising out of control tonight. It’s all that piggy stuff on The Breslin menu. I’d like to hope we’re just caught up in an end of the decade seizure. Of course the crush of noise whips away our usual reserve too. Plus the triumph of having crashed this notoriously inaccessible room and maybe the vodka we sipped while waiting for this table has loosened some inhibiton. Our sixsome is in a maniacally piggy overdrive. (Well, make that four of us: Penny has discreetly ordered a salad and baby chicken. And poor Pascal is lobbying plaintively for poached cod with brandade while Karine screams he must share the pig’s foot which comes only for two.)

       “Let him have his brandade,” I cry. “We’ll all share your foot.”

Is this the best Caesar salad ever? Certainly one of the top three. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s probably not possible to get a seriously healthy meal at The Breslin, in the revamped Ace Hotel. No surprise since it’s the newest venture of The Spotted Pig duo, chef April Bloomfield and dramaturge Ken Friedman. Certainly it won’t be the mussel soup with curry butter or the fabulous onion and bone marrow porridge with parmesan toast we’re tasting tonight and not the warm smoked salmon with bacon in garlic butter sauce. Dr. Dean Ornish might suggest the skate and potato terrine (hold the aioli) and sea bass on the plancha with treviso, potato and anchovy, channeled from the pair’s recently defunct John Dory.  If you’re working with the Bloomfield larder (note the derivation of that word please), who knows how much fat might be lurking around that fish. 

       Remember, at one point Caesar commanded all of Gaul. Of course his namesake salad will be notoriously rich but never richer than this marvelous toss of romaine hearts, with fresh anchovy, anchovy-flavored croutons, fried parsley and parmesan shavings. And those are clouds of crème fraîche smothering the poussin, smartly vinegared for flavor oomph and served with pumpkin and mint.  (Scarlet, you can fast tomorrow at Tara.)

How rich can a poussin be? Rich as Warren Buffett maybe. Photo: Steven Richter

        I must confess I’ve never been to the fabled Spotted Pig. I boycott places that don’t take reservations and suffer when I hear all the raves. A friend used his name to get our table at John Dory. That’s where I first fell for April Bloomfield’s uniquely “impassioned and embellished cooking” as Alan Richman says it.  Ken Friedman materialized at my table from behind the giant aquarium, friendly, even deferential. He gave me his cell phone number in case I decided to break down and ask for a table at the Spotted Pig. I didn’t. But when I was flatly refused a table at The Breslin – no reservations…no, I was told, not even for six -- I dialed the number of surrender.

         The Ace Hotel stands out on this cheesy Flatiron block an optimistic press agent has tried to glorify as a new neighborhood -- NoMad for North of Madison Square Park. Can’t fool me. NoWhere maybe. I enter into the roar of milling scenesters clutching cocktails, sharing loveseats, trying to look comfy on the arm of a velvet sofa in a Victorian hunting lodge. It’s the Breslin’s lobby bar. Overnight, an essential destination. I never cease to marvel how that happens.

You’re young now but you’ll age a little waiting for that table. Photo: Steven Richter

        I dare to hope the restaurant will be quieter. It’s noisy but we can talk. The table we have not reserved – there are no reservations – is getting ready to leave, we’re told. No it’s not named after Jimmy Breslin. “Everyone asks is it named for the newspaper guy.” says the manager, “It’s the hotel’s original name.”  We find two of our six clutching highballs in the Breslin Bar, a soaring double height room leading to the pub proper with its weathered wood booths, pressed glass dividers, and a peeling plaster ceiling. Friedman is famous for his flea market clutter. There are pigs everywhere, a fish leftover from the closing of John Dory, paintings of prize-winning cattle, faded State Fair rosettes and ribbons. It’s dark and packed, the crowd tilting young but not intimidating.

       “I’m the oldest one here,” says Peter.

       “Don’t be silly,” I comfort him.

       “I am the oldest one here.”  He keeps repeating it.

       “Look, there’s a man with grey hair.”

       “I’m the oldest person here.” he says.

       “You could be right.”

Pay $5 for Breslin’s fresh (today’s) pork scratchings or bring your own. Photo: Steven Richter

        He orders “pork scratchings” from the snack list (spiced almonds, caramel popcorn, malt vinegar and sea salt crisps). Fried pork rings in a cellophane bag – but hey, freshly fried pork rinds. We’re sharing as usual.  The $6 beef and Stilton pie with its lard crust is tiny – a crumb each for six to taste and oddly appealing.

       “Order the boiled peanuts fried in pork fat,” Peter urges. But I’m curious about the “scrumpets” whatever they are: crisp fried logs of something porky (I’d rather not know) to dip into mint vinegar, a hit at our table though I can’t say I crave a reprise.

A great lamb burger provides comic relief from pig. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Breslin is cheap and not so cheap. Cocktails at $10 to $12 count as sustainable these days. Cask beer is the authentic tipple in England’s pubs; the two here are brewed exclusively for The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.  Penny pinchers can fill up with snacks and $7 sides, then share heaping entrées (from $17 to $32). Even starters at $10 to $15 are shareable. My guy and I will be back for the Caesar and the excellent $17 char-grilled lamb burger on a sourdough bun with cumin mayo and a stash of sensational fat and puffy thrice cooked chips – blanched in water, then blanched in oil, then fried to order.

       But tonight in our rational exuberance we’ve ordered much too much of Chef Bloomfield’s too-muchness. One of our yeoman eaters finds it impossible to do justice to the splendid braised beef shin on polenta with buttery black cabbage after the cod and brandade with bread salad. Pork belly aficionados are doing shout outs for this hulking piece of anatomy, bigger than a rhinoceros’ foot, smoked and oozing on mashed potatoes ($50 for two). To me it’s fat larded with a bit of meat.  A little of the juicy flesh goes a long way.

It looks like what it is, a pig foreleg. Scary but delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

        A nice little battered pig’s foot with gelatinous bones, neatly fried is more my fetish.  Nothing has quite prepared us for this trotter ($36 for two the menu suggests, I say three at least). It’s actually a foreleg, long, like half a baseball bat, stuffed with a housemade chorizo-like sausage.  It’s too easy to imagine it attached to Porky Pig– especially when our endlessly patient and agreeable waiter enthusiastically describes how it is made – slit, stuffed, resown. Yoicks! The ruffles of brussel sprout leaves, braised shallots and garlic on top hide nothing. I taste and go back for more. (Well, I don’t mind eating Thumper or Bambi.) By comparison the lamb burger seems like a dietetic option.

       “Would you like to take the rest of the pig’s foot home?” the waiter asks.   “Shall I wrap up the chicken for tomorrow’s lunch?”

       “I’m not eating tomorrow,” mutters the table’s most caution player.

         Our crew sits quietly as if gelled in fat. I believe it is me who insists we must taste one dessert. Everything is mysteriously English and tempting if one had planned ahead not to be comatose at this point – Eton moss (lemon ricotta cream), frozen custard with treacle, quince pithivier with vanilla custard, chocolate stout syllabub with bubbled caramel and crème fraîche. Those still in the game agree on sticky toffee pudding.  It comes in a deep mixing bowl, with midnight dark Turkish coffee sauce and slivers of pear. Delicious.

16 West 29th Street between Fifth and Broadway. 212 679 1939. Breakfast Monday to Friday 7am to11:45am; Lunch 12pm-4pm.  Dinner Monday through Sunday 5:30 pm to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 7 am to 4 pm.

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