Mediterranean cuisine in all its forms continues to be a craze on American soil. With this craze comes an endless score of restaurateurs and chefs hoping to capitalize on the market. Some are good, and some are bad.
But The Iberian Pig, which opened one month ago in Decatur, is an upscale Spanish charcuterie and more that should have no trouble making a name for itself.
With a focus on small plates, cheeses and cured meats, owners and siblings Federico and Stephanie Castellucci, whose parents own the three Sugo restaurants, are continuing the family tradition.
The Iberian Pig is named after Spain’s black Iberian pig renowned for its ham, Jamon Iberico, considered to be the best in the world. Located in the Decatur Square, The Iberian Pig is nestled between a Thai restaurant and a coffee shop. The front of the restaurant bears no bright neon logo, just a simplistic wooden sign hanging over the doorway. Above the doorway in faded text is the slogan of the building’s first tenant from way back when: Smith’s Clothing for the Entire Family.
Keeping in line with the rustic exterior, the interior of The Iberian Pig radiates classiness, intimacy and New York-style swank. A dark color scheme with hardwood floors accented by candle-lit tables conveys elegance, while the vibrant, energetic atmosphere sterilizes any pretentiousness.
Jamon Iberico from the world-famous Iberian Pig.
As visually pleasing as the decor, the food here was equally satisfying. Slivers of the Pig’s signature Jamon Iberico created an explosive crescendo of saltiness and ended on buttery smoothness. The accompanying bread with espresso aioli functioned as a tasty palette cleanser. At $14 an ounce, this world-renowned ham does not fit into the typical college-student budget, but it does make for good bragging rights because of its reputation.
Another enjoyable tapa was the Tocino Con Manzana, a slow-roasted pork belly served with green apples, an apple cider reduction, walnuts and a honey-citrus yogurt. Although the crunchy apples texturally clashed with the smooth fat of the pork belly, the honey-citrus yogurt gave the belly great dimension, bringing the flavors together in a clean fashion.
Tocino con Manzana.
My favorite tapa was the albondigas — wild boar meatballs with roasted tomatoes, piquillo peppers and dates. Wild boar sounds dangerous, but when in the shape of a typical meatball, it does not seem nearly as intimidating. Hearty, flavorful and simply excellent, the meatballs had far greater depth than your average meatball, which becomes boring fast. The wild boar’s distinct flavor and the piquillo peppers really came through, as the creamy cheese-like sauce with oyster mushrooms gave it more oomph.
With the kitchen firing out dishes faster than others on the table could be consumed, eating at The Iberian Pig is much less formal and much more energetic than the usual a la carte restaurant. This style could be good or bad depending on what you’re used to.
In many ways, these small plates are the answer to anyone whose curiosity has them agonizing over which single appetizer, entrée and dessert to order at a traditional restaurant. When choosing between this or that, just order both.
Beyond cured meats, cheeses and tapas, The Iberian Pig also offers larger portions with flatbreads and other entrees, albeit at higher prices.
The $9 mushroom flatbread with cremini, oyster, portabello and shiitake mushrooms was mediocre at best. Manchego cheese bound the mushrooms to the paper-thin crust, which was topped with rosemary and a black truffle creme fraiche. In its entirety, this dish lacked balance and aggressiveness. The crust was excessively oily, and the mushrooms masked everything. A cheese sharper and saltier than manchego and more creme fraiche and rosemary for more contrast were needed to balance the overwhelming earthiness of this dish.
But the well-prepared cabrito carbonara was not disappointing, and included slow-roasted goat meat with chitarra pasta tossed in a carbonara sauce with applewood-smoked bacon, fresh cream and a poached egg. The goat, not overly gamey yet very distinct, was extremely tender, and the light carbonara sauce did not overwhelm the dish but added a nice smoked flavor thanks to the bacon. The only downside was the dish’s lack of heat. For its high-quality ingredients and strong flavor profile, the $19 cabrito carbonara was well worth it.
Thanks to the restaurant’s tempered portion sizes, there was just enough room for dessert. The house-made Copa Catalan, an espresso custard served with macerated berries and a brown sugar crust, was absolutely wonderful. The sweet, smooth custard tasted clean and pure while the brown sugar crust added a nice crunch.
Although the food came out quickly and my water glass was never once empty, service was a bit unprofessional. The waitress never asked if we wanted anything else to drink besides water or even introduced herself to us. She started the night by asking if we were ready to order after we had only been looking at the menu for three minutes.
After dessert, the waitress approached our table and said that if guests used their phones to give the restaurant a good rating on online review site Yelp, they would be rewarded with a free dessert. The waitress looked surprised when we did not instantly respond positively.
“Are you saying you haven’t had a great experience tonight?” she asked boldly.
After contemplating the merits of selling myself out for a free dessert, I agreed to the deal. The Dulce di Leche Gelato, although not house-made, cleared my mind of any remaining guilt and ended the night on an appropriately sweet note. A slight coffee-like, buttery taste permeated the entire dish, its texture icy yet smooth.
Dulce di Leche Gelato.
Its menu highly creative and its atmosphere chic, The Iberian Pig serves an array of hearty, tasty dishes in a medium designed to engage you continually as a diner with a variety of flavors in one sitting. In regards to cost, there are options for everyone depending on the size of your appetite. Either way, you’re bound to leave The Iberian Pig with a curiosity to return to try more.
As printed in the Emory Wheel.