The Black Pig has all the elements of a terrific restaurant.
Opened in August, the small, simply decorated dining room retains the Ohio City building's historic charm. Chef Michael Nowak combines a refined sensibility with an inspired ability to create exciting dishes using available ingredients. And like Nowak's food, the service and drinks are executed with outstanding consistency.
Taken individually each would make for a good experience, but the chemistry of how these come together makes The Black Pig special.
Nowak, a first-time owner who cooked for Clevelanders previously at Bar Cento and Market Garden Brewery, had his concept in mind long before he found the space (the former and abruptly closed Dragonfly). He marries classic French culinary technique and old-school, bistro-style food with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients from small producers. He's not the first or the only one in town to do this, but he does it very well.
The small menu delivers a fixed number of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrees, sides and desserts. There's always a burger, steak, scallops and a vegetarian main course. And while the idea of a dish stays the same — say a classic cream soup — the particulars morph depending on the chef's whim, the products his suppliers offer and the time of year.
So the cold corn veloute of summer may be replaced by a hot pumpkin version ($6) in winter.
The beautifully done piece of seared swordfish on one visit was replaced with loup de mer ($19), a European sea bass, on the next. Both were presented atop a little mound of olive spaetzle, with a scattering of artichoke hearts and mussels, in a light but well-flavored tomato broth.
Given the place's Black Pig moniker, which derives from the heritage breed hogs Nowak buys from a nearby farmer, it's not surprising that he has a thing for pork. Nowak features it in dishes such as the ubiquitous fatty pork belly, a roasted tenderloin and a first-rate schnitzel ($18). The pounded, breaded and fried cutlet gets draped over a warm potato leek salad and garnished with a bright lemon aioli.
The house's charcuterie plate ($10) is our preferred form of consumption, however. It usually includes slices of sausage, a dense, rustic paté and if you're lucky, crisp airy pork rinds drizzled with salsa verde, all accompanied by satiny chicken liver mousse, house-made pickles, mustard and fresh berries. Every bite is bliss.
But when combined with a selection of cheeses ($10 cheese, $18 for both boards), most notably the Fromager d'Affinois with truffle honey and the accompanying wine-poached pear slices, this might just qualify as a religious experience.
Nowak's ventures beyond the namesake swine offer equally estimable options.
We are partial to the rabbit terrine ($8). The four pink triangles, prepared with classic coarsely ground forcemeat, are made special by Nowak's garnish of pickled, vanilla-infused baby turnips and violet mustard, a condiment made with grape must and red wine.
His standout, two-part duck entrée ($22) consists of a juicy roasted breast and a crepinette (dark meat confit, shredded and shaped into patty) with a really sublime buttery apple sauce.
A gorgeous, crunchy winter salad ($8) is memorable. Raw beet, kohlrabi and apple shards, heaped like a haystack, come with a delicate green goddess dressing (possibly the best we've had) that substitutes house-made crème fraiche for the usual mayonnaise.
There is no letdown in the sweets department. We were especially taken with the bread pudding ($7). It's fluffy and reminiscent of French toast, frosted with crème and plated with little rounds of poached apples.
A great way to get a taste of what Nowak can do is to opt for the five-course chef's tasting ($45 per person and everyone at the table must buy in). He comes out of the kitchen to chat about your preferences and creates a unique meal. This doesn't have to be arranged in advance, just request it when you sit down.
In a neighborhood already filled with great places to spend an evening, The Black Pig holds its own, offering a cool, convivial and comfortable setting where the hungry and thirsty can gather to dine, drink and snack excellently and affordably.