Even in the midst of abundance, sometimes it's the simple things that move us most. A sunrise in the desert. A sip of pure spring water. A piece of toast at the new Black Pig.
Yes, I am raving about toast. But not just any ordinary slice of partially cremated white bread. Rather, the current objects of my affection are the thick slabs of coarse-textured bread from Lakewood's Blackbird Baking Company that accompanied a recent brunch at this delightful addition to the Ohio City dining scene. Griddled to golden perfection, saturated with truffle-scented butter, and served — in an inspired bit of lily-gilding — with a few precious drops of truffled honey, they were heaven on a plate.
If chef-owner Mike Nowak can blow away a professional palate with an order of toast, imagine what he can do with farm-fresh ingredients like eggs, greens, pork, and duck. Or let me save you the trouble: Based on two recent visits, I can vouch that Nowak nearly always puts those ingredients and others into the service of smartly conceived, precisely executed, and beautifully plated dishes.
A native Clevelander and graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Nowak clearly knows that we eat first with our eyes. Neatly arranged on sleek white plates, dishes like golden corn velouté (a chilled cream soup), mahogany pork belly on a bed of orange and ivory squash, and a toss of herbaceous greens bejeweled with cubes of grapefruit and melon stimulate the appetite with vibrant colors well before the tongue confirms what the eyes already know.
While Nowak's classical training is evident in items like a brilliant black-pepper béarnaise or that utterly silken velouté, his concise, seasonal menu remains determinedly down to earth. Feel like a salad, salmon, and Sauvignon Blanc? He's got that. How about a burger, fries, and a cold draft beer? He's got that too.
In fact, everything about the place — nestled in the former City Buddha, a vintage space that most recently held Dragonfly — is an appealing blend of simplicity and style. Worn brick walls, wooden tabletops, and a soundtrack of classic rock lend the high-ceilinged rooms a relaxed and welcoming air. At brunch, tall windows let in plenty of natural light. At night, iron chandeliers spread a mellow glow across diners clad in everything from sweats to suit coats.
In the barroom, a trio of enormous, ornately framed mirrors adds classical elegance. In the dining room, a giant mural of a stylized pig by Cleveland graffiti artist Bob Peck conjures up thoughts of Lascaux cave paintings. Taken as a whole, the decor makes a rustic-chic backdrop to the enticing but approachable menu.
Because of its seasonality — Nowak makes a point of purchasing as much as possible from local farms — there's a good chance that some of the dishes we enjoyed won't be on the menu when you visit. Not to worry. Nowak's approach is such that the innate goodness of his ingredients shines through, regardless of the season.
That's perhaps most apparent in salads like the earthy Kale Caesar. Lightly dressed in an authentic Caesar-style dressing — rich, lemony, and with delightful, salty hints of anchovy — the toss of baby greens is set off with curls of nutty Cantal (a classic cows' milk cheese from France) and three crostini topped with a luxurious shrimp mousseline. At brunch, the fruit salad is equally enticing, with a garden's worth of tender young herbs and lettuces tossed in a sheer dressing, then piqued with bits of bacon, local goat feta, and cubes of watermelon and grapefruit.
Chosen from an all-day Sunday brunch menu that includes housemade granola, omelets, sausage, and French toast, other delights include Country Fried Steak & Eggs and an eye-popping version of the classic Croque Madame. In the first, slender sheets of crisply breaded beef are stacked up with al dente asparagus and two just-shy-of-runny fried eggs. Prick the yolks, and their richness serves as an a la minute addition to the already luscious béarnaise sauce and cheesy grits that ring the plate. In the Croque Madame, sturdy slabs of griddled bread embrace rosy folds of tender ham and a bit of Gruyere; toppings of creamy Mornay and a sunny fried egg elevate what is basically a sandwich into the realm of plush indulgence. A side of slim, skin-on fries – alas, not the duck-fat frites that Nowak made famous at Bar Cento — makes a pleasant but mostly unnecessary addition.
At dinner, pork schnitzel revisits some of the charm of the country-fried steak, with paper-thin sheets of pork coated in an addictively crunchy breading, then stacked with warm potato-and-leek salad and ringed with lemony aioli. In fact, Nowak's best dishes pit richness against piquant, citrusy notes. That was exactly what seemed to be missing in a roasted duck breast entrée, where a relatively flat-footed accompaniment of hominy and corn failed to ignite the otherwise lovely trio of crimson breast meat, succulent confit, and a savory tuile of crisply baked duck skin.
Our one foray into sweet endings wasn't entirely memorable, either. Two plump but barely bite-sized doughnuts were perfect examples of the wonders of fried dough; but the peach filling seemed more lackluster than luscious, as if the peaches had been less than perfectly ripe.
To drink, the bar stocks three dozen craft brews in bottles and cans, as well as eight varieties on draft. Craft cocktails are also an excellent option, including the signature Sticky Pig ($10) with its sure-handed blend of bourbon, peaches, mint, and ginger beer. A smallish wine list hits all the high notes, including a featured red and white on tap. A steady stream of humanity passed by the tall windows during our visit, reflecting the attraction of this trendy 'hood. No doubt about it: The Black Pig fits right in.