THE CRISPY PIG
243 Glen Cove Ave., Sea Cliff
AMBIENCE: Comfort food with a Southern twist in a comfortable, rustic dining room.
ESSENTIALS: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday.; Lunch and dinner, noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards accepted, no reservations, takeout orders, valet parking, full bar.
Southern comfort food doesn’t skimp on doling out fatty, cheesy and starchy satisfaction. The hallmarks of the cuisine — macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, pulled pork — rely on humble ingredients and solid technique, and don’t take kindly to creativity. But when those simple plates arrive in New York, chefs have a tendency to complicate them because the current culinary arms race favors flashy foods. The Crispy Pig’s menu does best when the comfort food is presented as such, without pretense.
The Sea Cliff gastropub opened in June in the spot that was most recently a branch of Grimaldi’s pizza. Before 2010, it housed Michael Imbriano’s gourmet market, Buon Appetito. After the market closed, Imbriano signed on as a sales rep for a wholesale food distributor and now his days involve visiting nearly 70 restaurants, from Manhattan to the East End. The Crispy Pig’s menu evolved from his years spent talking with chefs, looking at dining room décor and menus — market research, really. “I wanted a gastropub that did catfish with a little bit of barbecue,” said Imbriano, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Jodie. “Have it be comfort food with a Southern flair and be a little bit different.”
Executive chef Peter Kontomanolis is at his best with straightforward dishes that aren’t creative takes or modern spins on the classics. The cubes of slightly sweet, moist cornbread that grace the table are even better with a dab of softened jalapeño butter. The salmon cakes have a rich, smoky flavor from Cajun seasoning and a nicely browned, pan-fried exterior. Neither they, nor charred broccoli served with them, needed the spicy aioli sauce. Other starters had conceptual lapses, such as the crispy chicken wings and waffles. Eating the wings by hand (is there another way?) it was difficult to get both bird and breakfast into one bite. Others were unnecessarily complicated: the dry-rub wings are first cooked slowly in their own fat, then battered and fried. A bite yields rich meat, but with a mouthful of coating that slides off the bone like soggy chicken skin.
The better entrees get back to basics. A trio of homemade additions boost the tender, flavorful braised, pulled-pork sandwich: a crispy, flavorful slaw; seasoned potato chips; and a sauce made from pork butts and rib drippings.
Another good choice is the juicy, 14-ounce, Cajun-seasoned, pan-seared pork chop, a frequent special. Too bad it was topped with a fresh kohlrabi slaw that needed a little boost of acidity, and cushioned by a bed of Cheddar-scallion grits that relied too much on cream for their creaminess (fully cooked grits are creamy in their own right). The pancetta-wrapped, fried-egg crowned pork-and-veal meatloaf is a lusty portion with a loose texture, served with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes from Glen Head’s Rottkamp Brothers Farm, where the kitchen does a lot of shopping.
There was one break from tradition I could use more of. The catfish, cooked using the French arroser technique of rapidly basting the fillet in butter, also has lemon juice, thyme and rosemary for a pronounced citrusy-herby flavor.
Like any self-respecting gastropub, the Crispy Pig offers eight beers on tap, another 26 in bottles. The cocktail list is creative and the Moscow mule, a combination of vodka and beer made with ginger, cane sugar, nutmeg and allspice, tastes more complex than its two parts. Crispy Pig looks the part too: The bricks lining one wall were rescued after Grimaldi’s coal-burning oven was disassembled. The weathered “Crispy Pig” sign that hangs on the bricks, the light fixture over the bar, stained-oak tables, and the walnut bar were all handmade. It’s encouraging to see new restaurants embrace causal, Southern cooking, and the Crispy Pig is that spot — if you stick with dishes that don’t try to reinvent comfort food.