New Pig 'n Whistle owners Vuong and Tricia Loc have shown they know how to run a restaurant with Portage, but Pig 'n Whistle seems to be operating on autopilot, making for a frustrating hit-or-miss experience.
News over the summer that the Pig ‘n Whistle, a long-running Greenwood bar and grill, had changed hands caught my attention, because I’m a fan of the new owners: Vuong and Tricia Loc, the couple behind pretty little Portage on Queen Anne.
I was intrigued by the menu: “lowbrow snacks” (crunchy pig ears, smoked-chicken wings), pub grub (burgers and sandwiches) and entrees like pasta and fried chicken. I especially liked the frills: homemade mustard on the Brat burger, smoked-tomato jam accompanying sweet-potato fries, preserved lemon mayonnaise with fried smelts.
But it was not love at first sight. The remodeled interior feels as soulless as an Edward Hopper painting. It’s poorly lit and painfully loud, thanks to high ceilings, concrete floors, bare tables and a sound system cranked to the max. The abstract artwork in the dining room might be channeling Picasso in the throes of disco fever, but at least it contributes a splash of color to counteract the drab dun hues everywhere else.
The giant-size TV images projected on the dining room’s back wall provide color of another sort. On a Saturday night, with the pub’s few patrons riveted to the on-screen action as Texas Tech upset the Longhorns, the Pig ‘n Whistle seemed more sports bar than gastropub. Wines take a back seat to beers.
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Half-a-dozen local microbrews join more than twice as many imported beers, including Chimay on tap. Cocktails are well-made and well-priced: $8 for a generously sized mixed drink is a bargain these days.
The menu leads with snacks that are all half-price during twice-daily happy hours. Fries are terrific. Sweet-potato fries in particular are a fine match for smoky-tomato jam. The spuds are sprinkled with chopped parsley and garlic, which rounds out the sweet and the smoke. Garlic is sprinkled over smoked-chicken wings, roasted green chilies, too; yet those crispy wing dings could have used a bit more oomph.
Smelts, headless and lightly fried, are very good, though the powerful preserved lemon mayonnaise is somewhat daunting to these mild little fish. That puckery-sweet dip was better suited to the fish and chips, lackluster breaded pollack fillets that needed all the help they could get.
Lemon brightened Dungeness crab risotto cakes, too. Though more rice cake than crab cake, they were a pleasing pair of thin pancakes with soft bellies and crackling edges. I preferred them to fried fresh mozzarella, bland pucks that were neither as crisp nor as oozy as one could wish.
The lively, fresh-tasting marinara that enhanced both of those plates also sauced disappointing vegetable lasagna. The layers of pasta, cheese and vegetables lacked cohesion; though the players were promising — eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and greens — tough, chewy slabs of eggplant let the team down.
Stick with more standard pub fare. Sauerkraut embellished two excellent sandwiches: the Reuben and the Brat burger. The classic corned-beef Reuben, less greasy than most, was built on marbled-rye toast slathered with house-made Thousand Island dressing.
The savory sausage patty was snug in sesame-seeded bun spread with spicy house-made mustard. Both came with fries, and we asked for a side of pickles: sweet bread-and-butter dills that should be standard equipment for sandwiches.
Pork gets a lot of ink on this menu, as you’d expect given the name. Entrees include a pork chop; pork and beef “bangers”; and “Pork Bolognese,” a sweet, meaty tomato sauce tossed with rigatoni noodles.
On Friday and Saturday, the kitchen roasts suckling pig. A crisp slab of pig skin flagged a bowl of moist, pulled pork mounded over sweet, pickled red cabbage and boiled new potatoes. A dab of Dijon mustard provided piquant counterpoint.
I’m guessing the weekend’s leftovers ended up in the pork chili, a featured soup I enjoyed midweek that was thick with meat, hominy and red beans simmered in a mild, tomato-rich broth.
Steak-lovers take note: You can indulge in a rib-eye here for $15.95, and it’s a good one, thick, full of flavor and cooked exactly to order. It comes with skinny fries and — purists beware — a knob of curry-apple-flavored butter melting into its lightly charred surface.
That same rib-eye with a couple of eggs turns up on the weekend brunch menu at the same price. Bars don’t usually look their best by day, but this one is less tenebrous flooded with natural light. The walls transform from muddy brown to warm pumpkin, and the sound system is mercifully muted.
Families turn up for brunch staples, such as eggs Benedict, corned-beef hash and omelets, plus kid-pleasers like thick brioche French toast fragrant with vanilla and cinnamon, served with sweetened whipped cream and warm, mixed-berry compote.
Corned-beef hash, however, was woefully under-seasoned. Heavy with potato, it was more mash than hash and topped with two overcooked poached eggs.
The good news: Sandwiches from the regular menu also are available at brunch, including the decidedly breakfast-y Croque Madame, a hefty grilled ham and Gruyere made with good, rustic bread smothered in sharp cheese sauce and crowned with a perfect sunny-side-up egg.
At Portage, the Locs have shown they know how to run a restaurant, but Pig ‘n Whistle seems to be operating on autopilot. This makes for a frustrating hit-or-miss experience and keeps me from a heartier endorsement.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org