Leaning on the countertop behind his cash register that Saturday night, Jim Malkus looked like the loneliest man in Tremont. Except for our own little party of two, the dining room of the Flying Pig Barbecue Company was as empty as a Cleveland ballot box. It'd been that way the previous Thursday night too, when three of us ducked in for a bite.
His solitary lifestyle notwithstanding, the even-spoken Malkus swears he's not discouraged. Lunch traffic is better than dinner, he says; Friday is better than Saturday; carryout is picking up; and despite its lack of a liquor license, the Pig just added Edison's Pub (along with the Treehouse and next door's Flying Monkey Pub) to the list of watering holes where it delivers.
Still, the dearth of business has taken a toll. When Malkus, a 17-year vet of the Chuck Muer Seafood Restaurants chain (whose holdings include Charley's Crab), and partner Renie Thompson, a former Florida clubs manager, opened their little 40-seat restaurant in June, it was as a fish-and-seafood spot they named Grill Fish. But by September, weary of throwing away $17-per-pound product that had too long gone unsold, they changed the concept to barbecue and repositioned the restaurant as an unpretentious neighborhood eatery. (Not that the duo has given up on the Grill Fish notion; look for another try in spring, at a new location in Geauga County.)
In the meantime, Malkus and Thompson have their clean, cozy 'cue joint to occupy their time; and crowds or no crowds, we're guessing that simple housekeeping chores must take up a good part of their day. Filled with more bric-a-brac than a Kidron flea market, the quaint Country Living-style decor is not only an amusingly incongruous addition to the neighborhood, it's also a dust bunny's dream -- from the faux chicken coop mounted on one wall to the windowsills on the other, crammed with stuffed toys and assorted knickknacks, as well as a maniacal Chucky doll, who reportedly joined the sweet little kitties, teddies, and monkeys for Halloween.
All around, a variety of vivid paint hues -- cobalt blue, mushroom brown, barn red, and silver -- add cheerful blasts of color; on the floor, both dark carpeting and snazzy, retro-style linoleum provide comfort underfoot. Tables are set with red cloths, little Victorian-style oil lamps, a roll of paper towels (these guys are thinking!), and a pitcher of "homemade" barbecue sauce (Open Pit, we're told, jazzed up with brown sugar and molasses). And while the ambient lighting is plenty bright for reading the small all-day menu (7 starters; 11 soups, salads, and sandwiches; and 10 entrées), it is dim enough to make the spot seem charming and relaxing.
Speaking of relaxation, it turns out that, while the Pig can't sell booze, next-door's Flying Monkey Pub is licensed to sell bottled beer to go: Just step around the corner, pick out a few favorite brewskies, and Malkus or Thompson will have a church key waiting on your table by the time you return. No inclination for a beer run? No problem: Like any good former Floridian, Malkus also brews up a mean pot of Lipton, for pouring over ice.
While the Pig's kitchen is tiny, Malkus does a generally good job of coaxing tasty creations from its depths. One of our favorites, in fact, is his thick, mild, homemade chili. Don't let the name -- Cowboy Chili -- fool you: This is a solidly midwestern-style bowl o' red, featuring celery, onion, freshly prepared kidney beans, and lots of tender ground beef, generously topped with sour cream, shredded cheddar, diced onion, and/or lean chopped bacon. Side it with one of the small house salads, and you'll have a perfectly satisfying cold-weather lunch or dinner for less than a 10-dollar bill.
Wrapped in lean, hickory-smoked bacon and lightly brushed with barbecue sauce, a half-dozen grilled shrimp are a good bet too, either as a starter or, with the addition of some sides, as a main event. Handily cooked to juicy stardom, the snappy little morsels seemed even jazzier when spritzed with a bit of juice from an accompanying wedge of fresh lemon.
We were less excited by the slightly rubbery, vaguely undercooked barbecued wings, though; even a bouquet of carrot and celery sticks, and little tubs of ranch and blue cheese dressing, weren't enough to make them take flight. Much better, for chicken lovers, was the southwestern chicken sandwich, a blackened 6-ounce breast topped with shredded cheddar on a standard-issue kaiser roll: Tender, moist, and with an aromatic smokiness, the meat was the perfect foil for a drizzle of barbecue sauce from our tabletop pitcher.
Among entrées, barbecued baby-back ribs stood out with almost textbook perfection: lean, meaty as all get out, yet so tender, it took only the slightest encouragement for them to slip off the bone and into our waiting yaps. And while the flavor ante could have been a bit higher, an added splash of barbecue sauce once again proved the cure.
Snow-crab clusters were the real deal too -- sweet, buttery, and tempting enough that, for once, they were actually worth the work it took to tease them from their shells. Unfortunately, we can't rave nearly so much about the grilled Atlantic salmon filet that a companion chose for his entrée. While it was a reasonably thick piece of fish, it was slightly dry and overcooked; and if the promised citrus butter was indeed added at the finish, we certainly couldn't tell. Most damning of all, though, was the salmon's, uh, fragrance: not exactly "off," but still fishy enough that most of the filet ended up going home as a treat for the feral cats that slink through our backyard.
Side dishes were a mixed bag too. Frozen fries -- regular, curly, and sweet potato -- were served up hot and crisp, with a satisfying crunch; homemade baked beans were thick, dark, and sleekly sweet. Mac and cheese was the usual bland, flaccid concoction, while an odd take on creamed spinach looked like pesto and tasted like Morton's (Malkus says that dish is now off the menu, replaced by a simple preparation of sautéed spinach). And while homemade coleslaw -- a barbecue requisite in a basic mayo dressing -- offered up a mellow crunch on one visit, it was suspiciously limp and lifeless on another.
The limited dessert options include apple and Key lime pies, both from a commercial vendor. Better to pay up at that point and turn your trail boots toward the street, where you can check out the ever-expanding assortment of galleries and wind up at Tremont Scoops, to score a cup or cone of hand-dipped Ashby's Sterling ice cream. (Excuse us for a moment, while we fantasize about our favorite, the ultra-creamy, wholesome-tasting chocolate peanut-butter-cup variety . . . yum, yum, yum.)
On the way back to the car, take a moment to peek in Malkus' window. If he's busy with his customers, good for him. But if he's resting on his elbows by the cash register, be sure to give him a smile and a wave for good luck.
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