It's an odd thing to pick up and move an existing restaurant. One day it's here, and then another day it's over there, like some large-scale David Copperfield illusion without all the shimmery curtains and litigation.
But here's the thing: Because restaurants and their surroundings are so intertwined, a physical move involves much more than just a new package of return address labels. Everything changes, from the parking to the greeting to the seating to the eating. What comes out the other end might not feel at all like what went in, which can be a good thing, a bad thing, or no thing at all.
The Black Pig always seemed like a square peg to West 25th Street's round hole. Surrounded by beer bars on an increasingly entertainment-driven strip, the chef-driven Pig stuck out like a sore thumb. But those very same neighbors also prevented chef-owner Mike Nowak from going all "Parker Bosley." Energy snuck across the threshold and into the barroom, which was roomy enough to encourage pop-ins and boozy brunches. An open kitchen and kick-ass Chef's Table transformed a seemingly bland dining room into a lively parlor.
That's all changed now. The Pig's new pen is somber and hushed, like its more residential neighborhood a block off the main drag. That might not seem like a country mile, but in terms of volume and tone, it's night and day. The front dining room — a brick-walled space that looks out onto Bridge Avenue — is elegant but spare, cozy but cramped, with little more than some linen on the walls to dress it up. Still, it's miles more enjoyable than the back room, a Siberia-like space that switches from private to public dining room given the need.
A slender, stylish barroom still delivers top-notch cocktails like the Blood and Sand ($12), with the intense medicinal nose of Laphroaig Scotch peeking out from behind the fruity spiced orange and Cherry Heering. Or the perfectly balanced, easy-drinking Bourbon Smash ($10), a study in spice and ice, citrus and mint.
Chef Nowak used the resettlement as an opportunity to make a fresh start, it seems, to unveil Black Pig 2.0 rather than Black Pig 1.1. He brought in some serious firepower in the form of Adam Lambert, Nowak's right-hand man and successor at Bar Cento. One of the first things the duo did was toss the old menu into the bin. Along with it went crowd-pleasing items like sandwiches (other than the fabulous banh mi), gravy fries and crispy fried pork, which were geared more for the walk-in crowds of West 25th than destination-bound diners.
Thankfully, the Pig still offers the signature braised Berkshire pork belly ($11), a bisected cube of shellacked meat and fat. The buttery belly is paired with a seasonal winter squash puree and roasted root vedge. It's one of the best versions anywhere. So, too, is the charcuterie plate ($12), which while light on accoutrements and accompaniments succeeds where it counts. From poofy pork rinds to chunky terrine to smooth pate, the selection runs the gamut of porky flavors and textures.
Nowak's take on tartare swaps the customary beef steak for Ohio venison heart ($12), a move that, counter to logic, nets a lighter, cleaner and more tender end product. It's the sort of classic nose-to-tail cookery that Nowak (and Lambert) embrace and excel at. The diced meat is paired with earthy-sweet beets and topped with shavings of salty cured egg yolk. The only thing the dish lacks is the acidic punch of ... mustard, citrus, capers? The oddball on the starter menu is the ham and eggs ($11), with fluffy clouds of bland, almost watery eggs topped with bits of crispy ham and salty fish eggs.
Nightly, Nowak holds a clinic in braising. The chef's textbook technique of transforming stubborn bits of pork and beef into seared, succulent and savory dishes like braised pork collar ($19) and pot roast-style short ribs ($22) is on full display. The former is paired with a mini-crock filled with a homey medley of parsnip, sunchoke, kale and raisin, while the latter comes, aptly enough, with pot roast-style veggies and sauce.
Given that the Pig is a pork palace, we were pleasantly surprised one evening by what we all agreed was the highlight of the meal: a vegetarian pasta ($15). Portly little ravioli pillows are stuffed with potato and turnip puree, paired with bright Swiss chard, and garnished with finely diced veggies that provide the perfect textural contrast.
A dessert that gets talked about a lot — and for good reason — is the Eggs & Bacon ($9), with lifelike but miniature hard-cooked eggs made from vanilla-scented panna cotta. Bacon and brioche breadcrumbs round out this whimsical and delicious finish.
So far, it appears that the big move has been a great thing for the Pig, but that's something only its new neighbors ultimately can decide. In the meantime, you can bet that Mike Nowak, one of Cleveland's most talented, passionate chefs, will be cooking his heart out day in and day out at his new home.