Tucked away in the depths of Decatur’s town square, a new food-stop has emerged to beckon the foodies, the adventurous eaters, and the hip. Backed by a wealth of internet buzz (here, here, & here – just to name a few), The Iberian Pig supposedly opened this past evening. Truth be told, the restaurant found themselves accepting business over the weekend; hence the inclusion of the word “supposedly” in the previous sentence.
While people have shuttered at the meat-centric name bestowed on that relatively new joint over on the Westside, the reference to Iberian pigs has seemingly drawn a great deal of praise. The truth behind the name is that Iberian pigs are the source of Iberico ham, aka pata negra, aka jamón ibérico. As the restaurant has made it a point to include the delicacy on the menu, the name seems apropos. Why the French word for slaughterhouse caused such a ruckus, whereas the reference to a slaughtered piece of pork brought praise, is an unsolved mystery.
But we digress. Back on point, good press will only get you so far. For a restaurant to succeed, they need to deliver. Like the clockwork that is my life, the Ambiguously Foodie Duo (one part me, one part this guy) set out last night to see how things were starting off.
Before we get to far involved, I’ll let you know that it was dark in the restaurant … very dark in fact. Thus, no picturas por mi papel. If you want to grab a looksie, check out this picture from inDecatur.
So, as you may or may not know by now, the Iberian Pig replaced Sage. If you aren’t familiar with downtown Decatur, or more specifically, Decatur Square, just ask people where The Brick Store is located. From there, head a few paces south and you’ll see a sign for Smith’s Shoes. That’s your target.
Inside, the décor may or may not catch you off-guard. Nothing about the interior tells you that your in what is essentially a tapas bar. There is a wealth of brick, tons of mahogany wood, and a handful of carefully placed pendant lights too keep things nice and intimate (sometimes referred to as dark). Accented by little pigs on your table and a chalkboard beside the bar (more on that in a bit), the space is just nice enough to elevate the vibe beyond the über casual while keeping it out of the über stuffy. It’s easy to assume that many will love the atmosphere while others will shame the Pig for their lack of “authenticity.” I’ll neither applaud them for their misdirection nor shame them for their lack of arte Español. Ultimately, the styling was a respectable choice.
After wading through the uncomfortable experience by the entrance (again – more on that in a bit), we found ourselves seated at a window side table for two … how cute for a couple of dudes on a man date! Soon after, our server Sarah (or Sara – not sure how she spells it), showed up table side. She was well-versed in the menu, competent as a server, kind and curious, and not the least bit annoying. She was undoubtedly the best thing about the experience. At the nights end, it was a bit awkward to hear her spit out the R&D questions on behalf of the higher ups. It was painstakingly obvious that it was a task she was uncomfortable with. That said, she did as well as anyone could be expected asking such silly questions in a restaurant like that. Even if her performance was an aberration, the spunky, subtly tattooed server was request worthy.
Pushing on into the meal, things went from awkward to aww … shucks. After perusing the online menu and the aforementioned web notes, I thought the menu was overwhelming. However, sight finally seen, I might say that while the choices are a bit deep, I’ll offer up some leniency given the fact that it is a tapas-centric menu. While we debated, an order up of a Cape Cod and an Old Fashioned was a necessity. Though there was some confusion at the table as to what color cranberry juice is (ATTN Eat It: it’s red!), we settled in on our sips. Both were watery and then some. The bartender who I knew was unfortunately in the back during our meal, leaving some unqualified hack to booze.
Soon thereafter, we placed an order, not sure of how much we would take down, and not sure just how big everything was. The food came out promptly, but with a haphazard pacing that left me a little out of whack. It would be nice to see if the kitchen can come up with a better system for plating and delivering the goods.
Ultimately, we settled in on a handful of dishes … none of which really lived up to the expectations. However, there might be some hope for the future.
Sample meat plate: we went with the salchichon, speck, and Iberian ham. At $17 (due to the ham), I will say this was neither a deal nor a fleecing. The portion of meat was ample and the quality within was sufficient, though nothing more. The speck, which is similar to prosciutto, was thinly sliced and thick on the cured salts. The same can be said for the salchichon, a cured Spanish sausage. The star of the show, the Iberian ham, was good but not great. I found great solace in the savory flavors at hand, but I’m also well aware of the potential of these types of meats. It was easily the most successful dish of the night given the quality, portion, and price. As an afterthought, there was a useless baguette, too large for meats of this ilk, and a befuddling espresso aioli. The aioli had no place on the dish, and hinted more at honey mustard than of anything closely reminiscent of espresso.
BBQ Octopus: If I may speak for someone else, I am confident in saying that this was EatIt’s favorite dish. The char grilled octopus was a thick cut of tentacle that is sure to drive away more reserved palates. That said, the octopus was cooked beautifully. No small feat, considering how often smaller portions of the sea creature are chewy. While the protein itself was soft and flavorful, the rest of the dish was confused and unbalanced. With a reported 30+ ingredients in the bbq sauce, the flavor was all over the place (and not reminiscent of what folks around here might call barbecue sauce). Ultimately settling in on sweet, it wasn’t helped by the fennel and shallots. The flavors did not come together very well and the potatoes were far from resistant. Had the taters been crispy, and the sauce not so misguided, I’d have welcomed their inclusion.
Chorizo with meatballs and oyster mushrooms: Served up in a little skillet like dish, this one was absent of any true victories. The oyster mushrooms were way overdone and supported by too much sweetness. Meanwhile, the chorizo lacked the true alpha-male punch I expect out of that meat. The meatballs fell apart on impact meaning that not only was the cooking off, but the mixture as well. If not for the jus of the dish, I would say the meatballs reminded me more of a Swedish meatball than of anything remotely Spanish.
Heirloom Composition: This was one of the more delicately plated items. On our plate, we found two large slices of an heirloom tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella, a touch of basil, some figs, a balsamic reduction, and a watermelon foam. This is one of those dishes where I could see the potential. The ingredients were fresh and high in quality, but seeing as we are at the end of tomato season, I’m not sure the Pig put their best foot forward. However, I very much appreciated the subtle hints of watermelon and the appropriately portioned slice of fig. Each bite had a pleasantly sweet aspect, while not tasting sugary. I suppose I should mention the tomato gazpacho … so here goes: tomato water.
Huevos con Trufa: This was perhaps the dish that most certainly represents what the Iberian Pig could be. The slow cooked pork was topped with a bit of sauce (quasi resembling the texture of a chunky marinara), a poached egg, some truffles, and two slices of their baguettes. Despite the overcooked egg, the burnt beyond belief bread, and the true mediocrity in the execution of the pork, this dish came oh so close to true bliss while maintaining a safe distance all the while. An infusion of flavor to the pork, a properly cooked egg, and a reasonable piece of bread would have given this dish all it needed. While it’s pretty bad that it even left the kitchen, I can see the meatiness of the pork hitting the creaminess of the egg only to provide an excellent ship for the black fungi. Seeing as it’s the end of September, and not the beginning of January, maybe things will come together right around black truffle season.
The forgivable, though disappointing, state of the food in the early days is understandable. However, the amateurish marketing employed by the restaurant accompanied by the misguided attempt at humor with the chalkboard made the meal more painful than need be. Throughout our stay, one of the servers continuously touted the foot traffic in front of the restaurant. It was a most egregious of errors. Less of an issue, but still worth a mention is that chalkboard. Peppered with a handful of one liners … half of them seemed a failed attempt at humor (something about no discussions about politics or religion), while the half seemed like legitimate dining rules (the much needed but rarely enforced “No cell phone” rules).
All is not lost however, as the restaurant came backed by deep thought on the part of the owners Federico Castellucci III and sister Stephanie Castellucci along with Head Chef Chad Crete. There are several green initiatives in place, an in-depth wine list that seems exploration worthy (sourced entirely from Spain, Chile, and Argentina), and a solid ingredient base that gives the Iberian Pig a solid foundation. With a protein like goat available, it will be interesting to see if Crete invokes it more heavily in the months to come (currently – only one goat dish is available).
Though not truly one and the same, the similarities between The Iberian Pig and the now defunct Cuerno seem profound. Most notably, the Pig seems to come with a heck of a reputation (earned or not), and an underwhelming explanation of the message. Given that the Castellucci’s, as the purveyors of Sugo, are experienced restaurateurs, the shortcomings of the meal seem far less excusable. At the same time, their experience lends itself well to the potential to fix things quickly. As it stands now, the Iberian Pig is a joint with a good bit of potential that needs more time in the roaster.