Eat at the Blind Pig
Chalkboards and Sturgeon Where Sitka & Spruce Used to Be
On the bathroom wall at Blind Pig Bistro, someone has written, "DAMN! STURGEON." It seems improbable that sturgeon could be good enough to merit cursing on a bathroom wall, but Blind Pig Bistro's sturgeon is damn good. Sturgeon always seems dense and steaky and dryly flaky. The fish are gigantic, as big as cows, and prized for their caviar, not their flesh. (They are cartilaginous, toothless bottom-feeders who can live to 100 years old; even for fish, the sturgeon is an unromantic creature.) Once you've had sturgeon once or twice, it seems entirely bypassable. But if there's sturgeon on the chalkboard menu at Blind Pig Bistro—it's shaped a little like Pennsylvania—do not pass it by.
The night I had it, the sturgeon (from the Columbia) had a golden-browned top and bottom, crusted with exactly the right amount of salt. (It was $10 for a smaller portion, a few dollars more for entrée-size.) The inner flesh was also golden in the candlelight, and magically cooked, with no gradation from exterior to core—none of this seared-outside, sashimi-in-the-middle nonsense—not too firm, not too soft, just fresh and mild. It reminded me of very fine steelhead. It sat on top of roasted baby brussels sprouts, with bits of almond for crunch and currants for winey sugar; then there was a dollop of creamy anchovy sauce, which was so good that it made each bite of fish a battle—enjoy it for its pure essence of ocean-and-river, or push it through the sauce for an extra shock of creamy brine? Also, there was the issue of defending the sauce from the person I was eating with, in whom it inspired a mania—he would've consumed his own shoe if it had that sauce on it. Back off, buddy.
Blind Pig Bistro is where Sitka & Spruce started out, then Nettletown lived, in a tiny strip-mall space between a teriyaki shop and a Subway on Eastlake. (Before that, it was a really good doughnut shop called Sophie's.) Charles Walpole, who was most recently head chef at Anchovies & Olives, has waited a long time for this, his own first restaurant. (Also on his résumé: Marjorie, the original Mistral, 727 Pine, and the underrated Avenue One.) "Blind pig" is another name for a divey speakeasy where they'd charge admission to see a not-all-that-attractive attraction—such as a blind pig—then issue "complimentary" alcohol to all comers. At the Blind Pig, there's a taxidermied boar's head, and the walls have been painted deep orange-red. The napkins are dish towels, but in the absence of mismatched chairs or flatware (or tattered American flags, or antique doorknobs, or decorative jars of pickled stuff), that just seems functional. Financing and supplies aside, you can picture Walpole's to-do list: "Paint walls, hang boar, get candles, make great food." Then "NAPKINS!" scrawled in. (Walpole also found a great right-hand man, Josh Nebe, who was the sous chef at Marjorie and, before that, created the fancied-up carnival-foods menu at the Unicorn and worked at Steelhead Diner.)
The pig I had at the Blind Pig was almost as excellent as the sturgeon. It was pork belly ($7.50/small), with the fat all bacony-crisp and the meat all rich; it came with turnips so little they were still sweet, braised red cabbage, and horseradish jam "by Josh," according to the chalk menu. Josh (I met him in his corn-dog days) didn't even know he'd been credited; all you do to make the horseradish jam, he said, was grate it twice, then cook with bay leaf, simple syrup, and vanilla. It was only barely spicy, tasting mostly, somehow, like honey, like the honey on the toast you might be eating with a pork-belly breakfast. These extra sauces, thoughts, steps—like the anchovy cream with the sturgeon—take the Blind Pig beyond here's-a-plate-of-exquisite-baby-turnips farm-to-table dining. It is also pretty much unheard of for a chef to credit a sous on a menu, even just in chalk; Charles Walpole, you're a stand-up guy.
At the same time, Blind Pig Bistro never gilds the lily. Totten Virginica oysters on the half shell ($3 each) were so lightly dressed with grapefruit and the Spanish paprika pimentón, it added only the merest suggestion of extra flavor (which is, fussy people agree, how any dressing on an oyster should be). While it had more ingredients, a fluke crudo ($13) was also fresh-tasting in the extreme. Its green-apple brunoise was like tiny, sweet-tart celebratory confetti, while leaves of celery were so young, it seemed almost wrong to eat them; add a hint of serrano, some very subtle citrus, the tastiest tidbits of fish, and yum. A squid-ink risotto ($11) with manila clams and fresh mint had us pulling out the clamshells to lick them. The risotto was slightly liquidy, but precisely oceanic. (Also, it is difficult to get squid ink out from under your fingernails.)
While I found a skirt steak ($8/small) a little chewy, my companion and the bathroom wall both disagreed. (Written there—chalk is provided: "♥ the skirt steak," with: "Thanks!") Its confit potatoes were as awesome as potatoes can be, and it came with yellowfoot mushrooms sautéed with shallot, along with, weirdly but brilliantly, some smoky eggplant puree. Slices of red-rosy duck ($10/small) were deeply flavored—rare but not at all rubbery, with the fat roasted to crackling—with slidey, bitter escarole and buttery-sweet sunchoke puree, and, hidden between, dissolving pieces of persimmon.
The most interesting dishes I've had at Blind Pig Bistro, though, might be a couple of salads. One had a sort of Mediterranean antipasto feeling to it: grilled-then-chilled, crunchy and slippery fennel bulb, with a scattering of small pieces of chioggia beets ($10). If you're expecting a regular old roasted beet salad, this isn't it. It had a spicy kick and small slices of orange, as well as sweet beet puree so fine, it was practically a foam (it seemed like a trail the beet-bits might have left behind while trying to flee). To be frank, it was an odd salad, but it was also a good one. A quinoa salad ($10) was also strange, but straight-up great: It had kale roasted until shattering-crisp, dried capers that exploded saltily, sliced radish for freshness, and a poached egg on top. Lots of textures, lots of flavors, the warm yolk leaking onto the cold quinoa—all unexpected, all delicious together.
There are no complimentary alcoholic beverages at the Blind Pig, but the wine list is nice, with an excellent low-to-high price range—you can get a glass for $6 or a bottle for $25, or drop a hundred bucks on some good champagne. Rene Gutierrez, who worked with Walpole at Mistral, is partner and manager and probably your waiter here; the service is low-key but high quality. And the soundtrack is low-volume but keyed up; one night they played the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and the Clash's "Straight to Hell" quietly enough that you barely noticed, another night was all, softly, '80s pop.
Also chalked on the bathroom wall: "BEST MEATLOAF EVER." It wasn't on the menu, but you can only imagine how good it would be.