First Bite: This Little Pig

Being greeted by Mandy Cooke as we walked into This Little Pig yesterday made me feel like all was well in the suburban restaurant world. With so much culinary activity in the city these past few years, a suburban restaurant opening has become something of a red herring. Sure, we’ve had our share of micro-chains, taco joints, and sub shops… but true restaurants in the ‘burbs have been few and far between.

Compound Butter & Herbed Olive Oil served with House Baked Bread

But This Little Pig feels somewhat special. The husband and wife team of Jeff & Mandy Cooke have put their heart and souls into it, and it shows in everything from the decor to the food. It’s rare to land at a place where even the staff seems like they’re having a good time, but it seems the entire service team has caught Jeff’s infectious smile that rarely leaves his face. And the food is pretty good too…

Actually, the food is great. I’ve never taken the opportunity to write about the same chef at three different restaurants, but I’ve talked about Chef Cooke at Osteria 166, wrote up Villaggio, which he opened with Nick Pitillo in Ellicottville, and now find myself sitting with a satisfied stomach in front of my laptop once again, musing on a meal that makes me so very happy that they opened down the street from us.

Raw Oysters on the half-shell

Today’s visit was a drop in with my wife to share some small plates before heading off to the movies. The restaurant was about half full when we got there – not bad for a Wednesday evening – but it was full when we left. The layout allows for patio seating, indoor tables, bar seating, and “the kitchen counter” where eight places are set and you can watch the kitchen action and hang back a bit. We sat there, and were brought fresh baked bread and a dish of compound butter and seasoned olive oil to snack on while we sipped wine and checked out the menu.

Smoked Wings & Smoked Blue Cheese with Carrot Celery Slaw

Starting off with some oysters, I checked out the kitchen setup as our intimate seat gave us a full purveyance of the action.  There is a kitchen off to the back of the restaurant, but as it opens up to the main dining area and bar, there is an open setup for Jeff to expedite and run dishes off of a stack of old school Blodgett pizza ovens. We chatted with Jeff for a bit as he opened oysters, made pizzas from scratch, ran the ovens, and expedited. There is nowhere to hide in this spot, but he seemed very at ease. The motion never stopped, and food kept coming out like clockwork. We probably saw two dozen pizzas go from scratch to table while we sat there, kicking ourselves each time for not ordering one. Next time for sure.

As our first round of food came out, I was able to really appreciate the approach to the ingredients. As I’ve mentioned in previous writings, one of Chef Cooke’s best skills is his restraint when working with big flavors like smoke and spice. His food tends to shine where a heavy hand might otherwise put a blanket over a good dish.

Humbolt Fog Pizza on the cutting board… ready to head out to a table.

The Fried Green Tomatoes are fast fried crisp, with a snap still in the bite, and the cornmeal coating reminds me a little bit of my favorite fried eggplant sandwich from another time and place. The smoked wings are tasty and well balanced, and the smoked blue cheese dressing finds the balance of “just enough” to give it some presence without being overdone. As subtle as the first two components are, the carrot and celery slaw punch you in the face with this great Indian style spice combo that just comes out of left field and makes a traditional Buffalo dish a lot more interesting. Lets face it. If you’re going to do non-traditional wings in Buffalo, you need to kill it. These will stand up, and I hope they stay on the regular menu and they made for great bar snacks.

We tried the BLT Salad, which is – exactly what you think it is – and it was tasty. Crispy bacon, cucumber, avocado, and lettuce… I’d dig a salad like that for lunch, and it was nice to have some raw veggies to break up the meal. We also got the rosemary roasted cauliflower, which has shaved egg and cheese and is finished in the over with toasted breadcrumbs. Again the Indian spice elements showed up here, which was unexpected to be paired with rosemary, but seemed to work. When I asked about it, Jeff said “I like Indian Food.”

The Burger

We finished with the burger. Now, Buffalo has had a surge in this whole craft burger thing lately, but I think we all reap the benefit of better burgers. Regardless of the restaurant’s cuisine, it seems to almost be a badge of courage for chefs to put “their burger” on the menu. Five years ago, a burger in Buffalo was just… a burger. But now it’s gotten cutthroat, and people take this very seriously. I legit loved this burger.

The wagyu beef patty was grilled to a perfect medium rare, and the house made bun stood up to the juices while still being soft. The pimento cheese was just enough, and the bacon and fried pickles on top pushed it over the top. I’d put this in my top five… maybe top three burgers in Western New York right now. It also helped that it came with vinegar dill fries and house-made redeye ketchup.

Shoe-fly pie with frozen Coconut Cream Mousse

As we were ready to roll out of there and hit our movie, we were treated to a lovely shoe-fly pie to share while we got our check. Prepared by Jeff’s sous-chef and sister, this molasses based pie is a southern classic, served with a frozen coconut mousse on top, with a bit of lime zest. That may be a southern style pie, but that crust has a polish grandma’s hands all over it. It was really delicious, and I love seeing yet another family member as part of the team.

Having been open for only a few weeks, This Little Pig already has a stable of regular, repeat customers. It is family friendly, easy to get to, has plenty of parking, a great patio, and just feels so warm and welcoming when you walk in. Buried in the land of the strip malls, it is such a hidden gem that probably won’t stay hidden much longer. Clarence/Williamsville/Amherst deserved this restaurant, and the Cookes deserved a place of their own, close to home, where they can do exactly what they’re doing. They seem well at ease in the suburbs, and with the glut of restaurants still opening in the city, I’d say they made a great decision.

I look forward to returning, and can say that they’ve certainly earned a slot on our repeat visit list.

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