The Bibb salad ($9) is composed in two heaps with chicken, avocado, bits of bacon, and kind of rethought ranch dressing. The "simple salad" ($8) is more like field greens in your regular bistro, with candied walnuts, bits of pear, and shaved Parmesan worked in. The fried mushrooms ($5) are crisp and fresh in so much tempura batter you can barely find the mushrooms, which makes for the equivalent of a $10 plate of calamari, with a soy-garlic dip for tempura lovers, and loose mayonnaise-based dip for lily-gilders.
Littleneck clams in the shell ($10) are done in the wood oven, but otherwise like any other dish of clams or mussels, only with more bacon bits. A cauliflower soup ($5) was great at the price, with the flavor of the vegetable set off by surprising use of golden mushrooms, some subtle pork belly, and lots of cream.
My favorite appetizer, though, was a pepperoni pizza ($11). That's what the wood oven was made for, and this was a thin-crust masterpiece topped with rectangles of homemade pepperoni and big thin rounds of even spicier soppressata. The saltiness of these sausages belongs on a fresh pizza.
There are real entrées, sort of, and I had a bowl of pig-ear ragu ($12). I've had pig ear in Taiwanese restaurants, where it serves as a gelatinous but crunchy delivery system for hot sauce. Here, morsels of ear were slow-cooked into an impressive creamy pasta sauce, done with orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) as a witty and satisfying combination. The vegetarian option was Anson Mills grits ($12) topped with a fried egg and some roast vegetables. I was excited at my first taste of these heirloom-variety corn grits, grown and milled in artisanal fashion by revivalist Glenn Roberts. I am afraid that the chef was overly reverent, however, as I like my breakfast grits creamier and my dinner grits enriched with cheese. But then, any vegetarian who walks into a place called Salty Pig should probably stick to the beer and fried mushrooms.
There was a dessert our night, and it was an incongruously beautiful composition of Nutella ($6) spread on a plate with three crumbly shortbread cookies, blueberries and large red currants (as rare an item on local menus as Anson grits), and dabs of what I am fairly sure was marshmallow-like Italian meringue. Such high-toned cheffery in a gastropub setting at moderate price upends one's expectations, and that's a good thing on the whole.
Like almost all gastropubs, the Salty Pig is mostly painted black with doodley abstract designs that sometimes resolve into figures of pigs. Long wooden high tables account for most of the seating, and reservations are taken only for larger parties, so our approach of having beers at the bar until some table seats open up might be the way to go. It's dark, and it's loud, but you can talk there. Service was somewhat random, at our request — "Bring everything out when it is ready." But our servers knew what was what, and the food was full of fun surprises.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.