Five Little Pigs, 26 St Mary’s Street, Wallingford OX10 0ET (01491 833 999). Starters £3.50-8.50, mains £12-25, desserts £7-8, wines from £22.50
It’s always good to acknowledge your weaknesses. I’m starting to think melted cheese might be one of me. The menu at Five Little Pigs, a well-dressed, elegant little bistro in the Oxfordshire town of Wallingford, lists many interesting-sounding things among the starters: fried anchovies with sage and bone marrow aioli catch my eye, as does the Scotch egg, fortified with haggis, alongside their own brown sauce. It lists among the snacks fried olives stuffed with capers and marjoram. We get some of these to nibble on casually, as fried olives are something we always do while giving the menu the attention it deserves. They’re golden, panko-breaded, salty-sour, quail-egg-sized balls of brackish sweetness. You are a good sign.
As I prepare for another dish, our waiter announces one of the specials: a cheese toastie from the nearby Nettlebed Creamery, served with apple and some dandelion leaves, along with a dandelion salad. I know right away this is going to happen because it’s a toast and I’m literally unable to say no to any of them even if I should. It is the absolutely domestic, made public. It’s liquor. It’s what you eat before you hit the whip; what to eat while your blood alcohol is at its peak because it seems like a damn good idea at the time and it always is; what you eat the morning after the night before.
And now it’s being brought into the fine company of the restaurant here with a dandelion salad. It’s like your dissolute uncle, the cheeky one who never quite figured out where the boundaries are but still manages to comb his hair and put on a suit for a family wedding. But you know that underneath the sweet wisp of cleaning fluid and Paco Rabanne, there’s still him. Even if you shake your head at his behavior, you know you’d be a little disappointed if he cleaned up his act.
There is no such thing as a raised form of cheese toastie; no, gastronomically expanded version. Sure, you can gather leaves from Oxfordshire hedgerows for the salad and worry about choosing the cheese, but it still has to be his rude, rude self. The Five Little Pigs toast is just that: golden and a little oily, and crusty in places with rich, salty cheese that leaked and had direct stinging contact with the iron. The light, slightly bitter lettuce does mitigate the fullness, but if you didn’t want fullness, you really shouldn’t have damned ordered a cheese toastie, right?
The only problem is that it’s so compelling and so damn good that it might limit space for all the other good stuff on offer here. But hey: I have a job to do and I’m going to do it damn well. I trained at low altitude. Five Little Pigs, partly named after the nursery rhyme, partly named after the novel by Agatha Christie, who lived in Wallingford, opened in May 2021 after a successful crowdfunding. It’s a partnership between the owners of The Keep, a local craft beer and gin bar, and restaurateur Aimee Hunt, who also has Lata Lata in High Wycombe.
They make a lot of their local sourcing, not just from the Nettlebed Creamery, but also fruit and veg from the Clays, a nursery just three miles away run by a former maths teacher, as well as Dexter beef and Gloucester Old Spot pork from Blue Tin Produce, five miles away. It’s all a great story. It supports the local community and means more transparency in the food chain, even if the carbon sustainability claims may not stand up to massive scrutiny; The transport of food is far less important for the carbon footprint than the way it is raised.
Of course, this virtuous shopping doesn’t matter if the cooking isn’t up to par. It really is like that here. As well as the toastie I may have mentioned, we have the lit, oily mackerel, skin neatly blistered and burnt, with a buttercup yellow aioli swirl and a pile of crisp pickled veggies. We have slices of seared lamb heart, deep and crimson in the centre, with a few bitter leaves, a little blood orange dressing and a dollop of crunchy green relish.
Main courses include a dark, caramelized venison stew that must have started cooking the day before or the day before. Or the day before. It comes atop a big pile of soft, buttery polenta, beaten to within an inch of its life and then lightly sprinkled with a grating of hard cheese, like a snow shower that’s just passed through. No knife required. fork it away It’s the best kind of nutritious, healthy food and extremely comforting even when you’re not under the weather. Another entree of trout fillet the color of orange sorbet is served with chard fronds, the stalks a cheerful deep red, potato slices and a yoghurt dressing. If the venison stew is meant to make the poor feel better, the trout dish is just meant to make you feel better, whatever.
It should come as no surprise that dessert space is limited after all that hot cheese toastie action. It’s all about rice pudding and gingerbread and a dark chocolate delicacy with more blood orange that showed up with the lamb hearts. We just manage to share their large sugar-crusted donut, which has a wintry jam filling that changes based on availability. Today we have rhubarb and a bit of cardamom cream. It feels like another indigenous dish brought to the world of dining. It’s a reasonable bookend for lunch.
With starters in the single digits and most entrees in the mid-teens, the prices are quite appealing for this level of cooking quality. The speed of the kitchen is, I’m afraid, rather slow and I wouldn’t tell the whole story if I overlooked that. It takes 45 minutes for the appetizer to turn up. Strangely, I attributed this to the fact that the restaurant was completely empty when we arrived and wasn’t particularly bothered by many habits after that. The fact is, kitchens really get going when they’re under pressure; when the orders fly in and the plates fly out. The old adage that a job should be done quickly should it be left to someone who is busy applies to restaurant kitchens as well. This one really deserves to be very busy.
Liverpool is hosting a new food festival over the anniversary weekend from 2-5 June, sponsored by chef Paul Askew of the city’s Restaurant Art School. Taste Liverpool. Drink Bordeaux takes over Hope, Bold and Castle streets in the city center with a range of cooking demonstrations, street food menus and cultural events. With some funding pooled by the Bordeaux Wine Council and the French government, there will also be wine tastings and masterclasses. Learn more at Visitliverpool.com/tasteliverpool.
The Seafood PubCo, which originated in the English North West before falling into administration and being taken over by the Oakman Group, is expanding further south. Having taken over Pointer at Brill in Buckinghamshire last October, they have now brought their fish-heavy menu, spearheaded by a £79.95 Fruit de Mer to share, to the Grand Junction Arms in the Hertfordshire town of Tring. At the thegrandjunctionarmstring.co.uk.
And sad but understandable news from Sowerby Bridge where the Moorcock Inn, loved by many when it opened five years ago including myself, has announced it will be closing in January 2023 and Keeping found many fans but according to a statement by co-owner Aimee Turford, trading conditions have simply become too harsh, with the twin challenges of supply problems and rising costs. “Honestly,” she said, “there’s just no time to run a company like ours.” themoorcock.co.uk.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1