When food-obsessed people talk about modern cooking, they’re often talking about Spain. Spanish restaurants such as El Bulli have defined modern cooking in recent years, giving us the mad science of molecular gastronomy, and advancing flavors and techniques in ways that have changed the very nature of the relationship between the words “modern” and “cooking.”
So it presents a bit of a problem when a decidedly non-cutting-edge restaurant (even in Decatur) defines itself as “modern Spanish.” The Iberian Pig does just that.
Atlanta has had a strange courtship with Spanish food. The recent closing of Cuerno, our most authentic Spanish restaurant to date, is a prime example of the oft-quoted adage, “Atlanta isn’t ready for authentic Spanish cooking.”
The food served at the Iberian Pig isn’t authentic Spanish, but it’s not modern Spanish, either. To be blunt, it’s bastardized Spanish food.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this fact alone. The restaurant, perched on the edge of Decatur Square and swimming in Spanish romanticism — dark wood, twinkling lights and wine bottles as decor — exudes charm. As do the owners — members of the Castellucci family — who roam the dining room dishing out stories of their family’s five generations of restaurant ownership. And the menu’s nods to Spanish flavors and presentations are often delicious, regardless of the lack of authenticity or modernity.
“It’s like what they’d serve if Maggiano’s opened a Spanish restaurant,” I said to my dining companion through mouthfuls of tender pork, served in a small dish with heaps of caramelized onions, a poached egg and black truffle.
“You’re right,” she said, scooping up another bite of stuffed calamari, the squid barely making an impression beneath its blanket of red sauce. Still, the soppy stew of grilled veggies, tomato and melted cheese, while not exactly doing the unidentifiable calamari any good, made for a tasty and comforting dish regardless.
The Castellucci family’s history includes the Sugo restaurants, which deal in some of the same shtick that made the Maggiano’s empire: Italian classics heavy on saucy, cheesy comfort and light on nuance. Certain dishes here hint at nuance — a recent salad special of pumpkin, mache and pomegranate was both autumnal and bright, exhibiting a balance and elegance missing from much of the menu. But the comfort-over-precision school of cooking reigns with the majority of dishes. Lamb ribs, while cooked perfectly and served over slices of musky, flavorful lamb sausage, are slathered in an out-of-place barbecue sauce that only distracts from the dish. The merluta con pisto, baked hake with prawns, ratatouille and “citrus butter” was a fresh and vivid mixture of firm white fish, acid and vegetables. “It basically tastes like orange juice,” I said to my husband. “But it’s delicious.”
If everything at the Iberian Pig simply tasted good without adhering to any particular style, I’d applaud the effort. Unfortunately the restaurant falls into more serious problems, particularly with fried items. A heavy breading coats much of what’s served, hiding flavors that ought to be front and center: Eggplant fries are turned into leaden logs by the breading and oil. A vegetarian entree of eggplant rellenos paired goat cheese-stuffed eggplant with corn and tomatoes, and sounded promising. But the vegetable could barely be tasted because of the weighty and oily breadcrumb coating. Even stranger, an overwhelming sweetness permeated the dish, obliterating its savory charms.
In general, the kitchen needs to trust ingredients more. A medley of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts on the side of those lamb ribs was somehow coaxed into bitterness. The mushroom flatbread was way over-salted. Desserts are heavy handed: Churros taste of too much fryer oil; Copa Catalan, an espresso custard topped with berries, lacks the singular egg-meets-sugar pleasure of a true Spanish custard.
And the restaurant’s most prized ingredient, the famous Spanish jamon Iberico, is served with espresso aioli, a dessert-like mayo that’s best ignored. For $14 per ounce (up from $11 for 2 ounces when the restaurant opened), the ham feels lightly salty and feathery in the mouth, and shouldn’t be encumbered with someone’s weird interpretation of “modern” cooking.
That ham, minus the aioli, is reason enough to visit the Iberian Pig. In fact, many of the pork-centric dishes here succeed, and there are a lot of them to choose from. The bar, staffed by an exuberant and tattooed crew of “bar chefs,” is a fun place to hang out and the cocktails are whimsical twists on classics. This place has charm, hospitality and comfort in spades. The food could benefit from a touch more authenticity and a touch less gooey shtick. But perhaps the Iberian Pig can be a gateway restaurant — one step along the path towards an Atlanta that’s “ready” for Spanish cuisine.