There was no shortage of restaurants at the northeast corner of Main Street and Transit Road before This Little Pig opened in July. Brennan's Bowery Bar, Tully's Good Times and Old Country Buffet surround it.
Yet almost since opening, reservations are necessary at peak hours. A quick scan of the menu didn't crack the code. Wings, pizza, meatballs, salads, a cheeseburger. The usual suspects.
In the room, though, digging through details lovingly embroidered into these dishes, the draw became clear. Wings are smoked, grilled with garlic butter and served with celery kimchi. Meatballs are smoked, too, and award-winning to boot.
Brussels sprouts are shredded for a salad base that outshines mere lettuce. And that cheeseburger? Wagyu beef grilled over oak charcoal, with pimiento cheese, house-smoked bacon and fried pickle chips.
By taking the classics and making them better, This Little Pig is a New American restaurant in the best sense.
In a sense, This Little Pig has been more than a decade in the making. It's the first restaurant from former Osteria 166 chef Jeff Cooke Jr. and his wife, Mandy. Since the pair met on a Missouri riverboat casino in 2005, he's been cooking and she's been serving. Except this time they're the owners.
The former Caffe Espresso space has been brightened and decorated in farm style, with a scythe on the wall and a series of vegetable prints. One downside of the narrow space is its amplification of noise as it fills to capacity, soaking us in chatter chowder as we tried to talk peaceably.
The bar serves custom cocktails, including a bright gin grapefruit martini ($10). Sunday brunch ($15, $18 for call liquor) brings bottomless Bloody Marys, which you can adorn with enough fixings (crisp bacon, cheese and salami cubes, pickles, olives) for a light meal.
The house-made treats start with bread. At brunch, a seasonal French toast is built on fruit-studded bread, sturdy but down-home delicious. At dinner, warm slices of a crusty loaf arrived gratis, with whipped herbed butter surrounded by grassy olive oil.
Meatballs ($10) are made of beef and bacon, smoked and slathered in Carolina-style barbecue sauce with a kick. Downing the plum-sized smoke bombs made it easy to understand how they took the freestyle and crowd choice categories in the 2017 Meatball Street Brawl.
Cheese pierogi ($12), pan-fried with apples and bacon, were plenty tasty, but stiff pasta made me think they could have cooked longer. A poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, rice and Mexican sausage also was tasty, but came out a touch dry.
That was forgotten when the shaved brussels sprouts salad ($9/$14) arrived. The brassica foundation made for a heartier, crunchier salad, bolstered with cubed squash, goat cheese, spiced almonds, dried cranberries and sprightly citrus-shallot vinaigrette. The overall impression was a loaded cole slaw with attitude.
Shaggy, thick-rimmed pizzas offer solace to vegetarians and carnivores alike. The Humboldt Fog ($18) was a wild rumpus of mushrooms, roasted garlic, caramelized onion, spinach and smoked blue cheese, and Humboldt Fog goat cheese, with added crunch from hemp seeds.
A Fall Farmstead ($16) was loaded with vegetables, with squash puree, roasted brussels sprouts, caramelized onions, apples and sunflower seeds, engaging even though we skipped the proffered bacon to make it vegetarian-friendly. The crust was light, crisp and gently charred underneath but lacked its own flavor.
There weren't any vegetarian dishes on the entrée lineup, but the fresh-cut fries, tossed with fresh dill and malt vinegar, and served with garlicky aioli, are worth their own plate.
Smoked beef short rib ($28) successfully wooed meat-eaters with rosy slices of fork-tender beef with smoke-blackened edges. Tangy-smoky tomato-bacon sauce brought it together with smashed potatoes and carrots.
A special of locally raised smoked Kindred Kreek pork ($19) simmered with white hominy in a deeply flavored, subtly spicy chile broth was a resonant hit, even though its cornbread disc immediately sogged in the broth.
Even a seafood dish, San Francisco chowder ($28), sported chunks of smoked pork, in addition to clams, cod, crab and shrimp in a spicy kimchi-bolstered broth.
If it wasn't clear that Cooke will smoke anything, peanuts are smoked before loading into peanut brittle that adorned a slice of refrigerator cake ($8), a deftly executed American throwback of 14 chocolate cookie layers interspersed with peanut butter mousse.
Another throwback, shoofly pie ($8) brought a sweet molasses matrix in flaky crust and crunchy Dutch crumb topping, crowned with frozen honey mousse, lime zest and a few Cabernet-soaked blackberries. Its robust flavor with delicate grace notes was emblematic of many dishes that night.
This Little Pig presents a coherent palette of distinctive yet familiar food, with a little Southern twang tucked here and there. Should you go out to Clarence and give This Little Pig a poke? My answer: oui, oui, oui, all the way home.
This Little Pig – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 4401 Transit Road, Clarence, 580-7872
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11.a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: starters $10-$13, pizzas $15-$18, entrees $15-$28.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: Many options, including pizza.