On one visit to the Tipsy Pig, early in the evening and in the week, it seemed a fairly quiet neighborhood restaurant and bar with uneven food. On a subsequent visit on a Thursday around 8:30 p.m., there was a bouncer at the door checking IDs, the bar and the dining room were thronged, the noise level was painful, and yet the food was distinctly better than the time before. The latest offering from restaurateurs Nate Valentine and Stryker Scales (Mamacita, Umami, Blue Barn) and chef Sam Josi was intended, they say, to be a restaurant with a bar, not a bar with a restaurant. That's the way the place felt early on.
There's a wide-open space in the bar room as you enter from the street, as well as in the dining room a couple of steps up to the left. There are additional tables in the back, and on an inviting outside patio. The menu seems ambitious, even for a place that identifies itself on its Web site as a gastrotavern. It offers fancy salads such as the mixed greens and rocket with hazelnuts, strawberries, pomegranate vinaigrette, and goat cheese crostini ($9) and baby spinach with avocado, pancetta, manchego, shaved egg, and sherry vinaigrette ($10), alongside seared dayboat scallops ($17), pan-roasted local halibut ($21), and mac 'n' cheese ($8), a burger ($12), and french fries ($5).
The scallops, served with a spicy Romesco sauce, quinoa, and a salad of fennel and watercress garnished with blood orange sections, were blander than those ingredients would suggest. A fried free-range chicken breast ($18) was, alas, boneless, and its accompaniments of buttermilk mashed potatoes and collard greens were obscured by a curiously bitter and thin dark-brown gravy. A side of two warm and flaky cheddar and thyme biscuits ($5), served with spiced honey, was so good that it seemed to have come from a different place entirely.
The children's menu offers items such as mini cheeseburgers ($8) and pasta elbows with tomato sauce and Parmesan ($8). The kitchen cheerfully substituted french fries for the Tater Tots offered with the chicken fingers ($8), which impressively were house-made, lightly breaded, and juicier than the chicken breast.
The Tipsy Pig's setting is calm and cozy, with exposed brick, a patterned tin ceiling, and dark wood tables. In the dining room, you can sit at a long upholstered banquette. In the back room, there are walls of books under racks of wine. The stone-walled patio features bench seating with low coffee tables as well as regular tables and chairs, and would be especially pleasant for Saturday and Sunday brunch.
When we arrived a few weeks later for a 6:15 reservation, we were greeted by a CLOSED sign, due to a plumbing emergency. (We wished the restaurant had called to let us know.) Two weeks after that, when we showed up, reservationless, around 8:30, the joint was jumping. It was standing room only, not only in the bar room, which felt like a mosh pit, but in the main room, where diners clutching glasses were dotted between the tables. It felt like a party, but the crush, the noise, and the sight and sounds of many people shouting into their cell phones made it feel like one we didn't want to stay at for very long. (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are always like this, we were told.) Three of us squeezed into the only space available, a high, tiny table set near one of the windows flanking the door, with an excellent view of the constant comings and goings.
An English Fashion (Bulleit bourbon, orange marmalade, soda, blood orange bitters, brandied cherries, $9) came in a Mason jar and was quite tasty (though not light on the soda as requested). A chipotle margarita (Hangar One chipotle vodka, simple syrup, and cilantro, $10) was mildly spicy and "always served on the rocks," which seemed unduly doctrinaire.
After the low expectations engendered by the first meal, the Tipsy Pig's kitchen surprised us. Dish after dish was excellent. A very generous serving of tender steamed clams in the shell, more than two dozen ($13), in a covered casserole with rings of fingerling potatoes, big chunks of spicy chorizo, and strands of dark-green chard, the whole drenched in a flood of hot cream, was perfectly balanced and exciting to eat. Thin sweet- potato fries ($5) were crisp and came with a ramekin of aioli. The smoked bacon mac 'n' cheese ($8), again a generous portion, featured tiny, pillowy lengths of tubular pasta; lots of even tinier bacon bits; and a creamy white cheddar sauce — a seductive and grown-up version of the dish.
The lightly cooked pan-roasted local halibut ($21) came atop a bed of the thinnest possible baby asparagus and roasted halved fingerling potatoes. It was dressed with a snappy Meyer lemon beurre blanc and an even snappier green caper salsita. It was carefully cooked, and sophisticated enough to have been served in a fancy old-fashioned white-tableclothed frog pond. The chicken pot pie ($15) contained lots of chunks of white meat, rounds of fingerling potatoes, carrots, and a few green peas and mushrooms in its creamy sauce under a pastry topping. It was almost perfect, save for some squash and turnip pieces that were still too sturdy and should have been cooked more before being added. The only disappointment were the Tipsy sliders ($12 for three), pulled pork braised in Chimay ale, topped with red-cabbage slaw, and served on puffy Hawaiian sweet buns: The whole effect was too sweet and too soft to please. But the dinner on the whole had pleased. "Comfort food on a night we needed comforting," one of us said.
A PB and J sundae ($8), a moist chocolate brownie with peanut sauce and strawberry ice cream, kept us in our seats for a few minutes, but the din was so overwhelming that we soon made our escape. It had been so noisy that conversation was an impossibility. The food was enjoyable despite the setting, but the evening was the opposite of relaxing. As we left, I took deep draughts of the cool night air. A very good meal, I thought, and I wouldn't come back on a bet. Well, I might. But only before 6 p.m.