Pig & Fiddle comes to 50th and France
With the twinkle lights wrapped around each lamppost and a fine dusting of powder resting in every store window, the blocks surrounding 50th and France have been transformed into the kind of high-end holiday shopping scene you'd find inside a snow globe. Suburban ladies browse the Le Creuset selection at Sur La Table. Holiday brides go from boutique to salon with gaggles of girlfriends. Yeasty, fresh-baked smells are wafting from the doors of Breadsmith. Everyone is fighting for a good parking spot. So imagine my surprise when I strode confidently up to the much-buzzed-about Pig & Fiddle and yanked on the door only to have it yank right back.
"Really? Opens daily at ... 4?" Our little group surveyed the bustling corners, full of potentially hungry shoppers and those surely in need of a toasty fire and a nice, soapy IPA. Then we peered back into the windows of the darkened restaurant, with beautiful wood floors and a large, open bar area just begging for people to belly up to it. Why would they not be open for lunch?
Occupying the space that Pearson's Edina Restaurant left behind, Pig & Fiddle has been a work in progress since opening in October, and the slow build has been deliberate. Far be it from me to question the intentions of successful restaurateurs Mark van Wie and Paul Schatz, the duo behind this project, but there was a malt-braised chicken sandwich calling my name, and I had to wait three hours to get it.
Once I was inside, ready to contemplate whether the pan-European fare was worth the wait, it quickly became evident that van Wie and Schatz did not plan their concept solely around the ladies-who-lunch crowd. There's a small but by no means bare-bones (nothing here is) late-night menu, close to 40 beers on tap, and a 1 a.m. closing time. Oh, so it's like a bar-bar, we all realized once we were seated, though our server was quick to let us know that we couldn't "get a cocktail yet, because of politics."
Like its St. Paul sister, the Muddy Pig, Pig & Fiddle boasts an impressive beer list with several locally made favorites on tap. Per our server's helpful suggestion, I sampled a Rush River Batch 1000, a deep red ale, and a wickedly strong Delirium Belgian Tripel that was, as he said, "slightly banana-y in the finish." It paired perfectly with the Polish-style pierogi, which were lightly fried on the outside and garnished with a variety of meaty mushrooms, but soft with cheese and buttery mashed potatoes on the inside. The dish might be better as a plate to share, since the four small packets make for a fairly light entrée. The potted pig made for a weightier starter. Pork rillettes with a thick layer of pale, opaque fat on top could definitely be categorized as "peasant food," in that you feel as if you need to go till a field to work it off. Shreds of pork cooked in their own fat are served room temperature and spread on slices of grilled baguette. The rillettes had a fine texture and almost liver-like flavor that recalled braunschweiger. Your Oma would approve.
Crowd-pleasing Austrian knodle came five to an order atop a pool of delightfully tart red-wine vinegar sauce and a handful of chopped walnuts. These bread dumplings have bitter kale and smoky Gouda cheese on the inside, but unlike traditional knodle, which is generally boiled, this one was deep-fried, so it acted more like a croquette. The apple bramborak, sort of like a Czech latke, is not to be missed. Delicate potato pancakes with apples, fennel, and herbs are topped with thin slices of ham and piled high with quick-pickled cabbage. With the anise flavors from the fennel, bites of pepper, and a sweet-salty molasses gastrique, the dish had an almost Asian taste. The ruby borscht with a dot of sour cream and feathery dill on top is a soup that could cure homesickness as easily as it could a common cold.
The entrées continued our tour of old-country cuisine. The unassuming solyanka is like a Ukranian bouillabaisse, with mild pan-fried sole, sliced potatoes, pickled cabbage, and salty capers. It's a lighter option, but the fish doesn't take on any of the lovely pickled taste of the vegetables in the stew, and since sole isn't very firm it gets a bit mushy. Flavorful and hearty, if a tad dry, the braised beef carbonnade with a mash of carrots, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes tastes like all the best leftovers from a rustic, home-cooked meal. Beer is used artfully in this dish, and the depth of flavor is dramatically improved by its addition.
The Alpine rabbit stew was rich and comforting, with a light, tomatoey broth and warm hints of cinnamon. A scattering of slivered almonds provided textural interest, but the more we ate of the dish the more we tasted just salt. Same story with the peasant chicken, a monster portion of pan-roasted, bone-in chicken breast that arrived with beautifully caramelized, but unfortunately not very crisp, skin. Our server tipped me off that the vegetable side was the real winner in this dish, and she was absolutely right. Poor cauliflower never seems to get the treatment it deserves, but head chef Stephanie Kochlin rolls out the red carpet for it, baking it until tender in cream and pan juices.
I did finally get my beer-braised chicken sandwich, and it, along with the impossibly crispy nubbins of Belgian-style frites, was well worth the wait. The sourdough was slightly grilled on the outside and sopped in the jus of the pulled chicken on the inside, making for a kicked-up blue-plate-special effect.
The short dessert menu has some intriguing choices. Swedish cheesecake is drizzled with honey-softened almonds, and the filling is whipped and fantastically light, but the crust was abysmal. It had neither the buttery crumbliness of a graham cracker crust nor the savory flakiness of a regular pie crust, but was more akin to chilled sugar cookie dough that only made it to the half-baked state. In the appelgebak, or Dutch apple pie, the typical lattice pastry crust is replaced by a lemon-scented, cake-like base. Get it a la mode with Grand Old Creamery's Sweet Cream ice cream. The chocolate stout pudding with brown sugar creme anglaise was pointed out as a favorite by every staff member who talked dessert with us. The bitter stout flavors cut the richness of the pudding and made it endlessly, dangerously eatable. It's served in a short, narrow glass with the creme anglaise floating on top, giving the impression of a perfectly poured pint of Guinness that's been cartoonishly shrunk down with a ray gun. So go. Eat. Drink. Bring the kids. Bring the grandparents. Just make sure you plan your visit for after 4.
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