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Five Little Pigs, Wallingford: ‘The cooking really is up to scratch’ – restaurant review | Food

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 beginning to think melted cheese might be one of mine. The menu at Five Little Pigs, a well-dressed, smart little bistro in the Oxfordshire town of Wallingford, lists many interesting-sounding things among the starters: fried anchovies with sage and a bone-marrow aioli catch my eye, as does the scotch egg, enriched with haggis, alongside their own brown sauce. It lists among the snacks, deep-fried olives, stuffed with capers and marjoram. We get some of those to nibble on casually, like deep-fried olives are something we always do, while giving the menu the attention it deserves. They are golden, panko bread-crumbed, salty sour, quail egg-sized orbs of brackish loveliness. They are a good sign.

It’s while I’m preparing to take another, that our waiter announces one of the specials: a toastie made with cheese from the nearby Nettlebed Creamery, plus apple and a few dandelion leaves, alongside a dandelion salad. I know immediately that this is going to happen, because it’s a toastie and I am literally incapable of saying no to one of those, even if I should. It’s the utterly domestic, made public. It’s booze food. It’s the thing you eat before going on the lash; the thing you eat while the blood alcohol is peaking, because it seems like a bloody good idea at the time, and always is; the thing you eat the morning after the night before.

‘Rich, salty cheese has leaked out and made direct searing contact with the iron’: cheese toastie. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

And now here it is being brought into the polite society of the restaurant, with a dandelion salad. It’s like your dissolute uncle, the outrageous one who never quite worked out where boundaries lay, but who nevertheless manages to comb their hair and put on a suit for a family wedding. But you know that underneath the sweet waft of dry-cleaning fluid and Paco Rabanne, it’s still him. Even as you shake your head at his behaviour, you know you’d be a little disappointed if he cleaned up his act.

There is no elevated form of the cheese toastie; no, gastronomically evolved version. Sure, you can forage leaves from the hedgerows of Oxfordshire for the salad, and take care over the choice of cheese, but it still must be its rude, coarse self. The Five Little Pigs toastie is exactly that: golden and a little oily, and crusted in places with rich, salty cheese that has leaked out and made direct searing contact with the iron. The bright, lightly bitter salad does mitigate the richness, but if you didn’t want richness, you shouldn’t have bloody ordered a cheese toastie, should you?

‘Properly blistered and burnt’: torched mackerel.
‘Properly blistered and burnt’: torched mackerel. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The only problem is that it’s so engrossing, so damn good, it might limit space for all the other good things on offer here. But hey: I have a job to do and I will damn well do it. I’ve trained at low altitude. Five Little Pigs, partly named after the nursery rhyme, and partly named after the novel by Agatha Christie, who lived in Wallingford, opened in May 2021, after a successful crowdfunder. It’s a partnership between the owners of The Keep, a local craft beer and gin bar, and the restaurateur Aimee Hunt, who also has Lata Lata in High Wycombe.

They make much of their local sourcing, not just from the Nettlebed Creamery, but also fruit and veg from the Clays, a market garden just three miles away run by a former maths teacher, plus Dexter beef and Gloucester Old Spot pork from Blue Tin Produce, five miles away. All of this is a terrific story. It supports the local community and does mean greater transparency in the food chain, even if the claims about carbon sustainability may not bear massive scrutiny; the transport of food is far less important to its carbon footprint than how it’s raised.

‘The best kind of nourishing’: venison ragu with polenta.
‘The best kind of nourishing’: venison ragu with polenta. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Certainly, none of this virtuous purchasing matters if the cooking isn’t up to scratch. Here, it really is. Alongside the toastie, which I might already have mentioned, we have the torched, oily mackerel, its skin properly blistered and burnt, with a buttercup-yellow whorl of aioli, and a pile of crisp pickled vegetables. We have slices of seared lamb heart, deep and crimson at the centre, with a few bitter leaves, a little blood orange dressing and a dollop of crunchy green relish.

Among the mains is a dark, caramelised venison ragu, which must have started cooking the day before, or the day before that. Or the day before that. It comes on a big heap of soft, buttery polenta, whipped to within an inch of its life, and then lightly sprinkled by a grating of hard cheese, like a snow shower just passed through. No knife required. Fork it away. It’s the best kind of nourishing, invalid food, and supremely comforting even if you’re not under the weather. Another main of a trout fillet, the colour of orange sherbet, comes with fronds of chard, the stems a cheery deep red, slices of potato and a yoghurt dressing. If the venison ragu is designed to make the poorly feel better, the trout dish is just designed to make you feel better about yourself, whatever.

‘An appropriate bookend to lunch’: rhubarb doughnut.
‘An appropriate bookend to lunch’: rhubarb doughnut. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

It should come as no surprise that, after all the hot cheese toastie action, dessert space is limited. Here, it’s all about rice pudding and ginger cake, and a dark chocolate delice with more of the blood orange that turned up with the lamb hearts. We just about manage to share their big, sugar-crusted doughnut, the winter jam filling of which alters depending on what’s most available. Today it’s rhubarb and there’s a little cardamom-flavoured custard on the side. It feels like another domestic dish brought out into the world of the restaurant. It’s an appropriate bookend to lunch.

Pricing for this quality of cooking, with starters firmly in single digits and most of the mains in the mid-teens, is thoroughly appealing. The speed of the kitchen is, I’m afraid, rather less so and I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I brushed over that. It takes 45 minutes for the starters to turn up. Curiously, I put this down to the restaurant being completely empty when we arrived, and not being especially troubled by much custom after that. The fact is kitchens really get a move on when they are under pressure; when the orders are flying in and the plates are flying out. The old saying, that if you want a job done quickly you should give it to someone who’s busy, applies equally to restaurant kitchens. This one fully deserves to be very busy indeed.

News bites

Liverpool is to host a new food festival across the Jubilee weekend from 2-5 June, with chef Paul Askew of the city’s Art School restaurant serving as patron. Taste Liverpool. Drink Bordeaux will take over Hope, Bold and Castle Streets in the city centre, with a range of cookery demonstrations, street food menus and cultural events. As the Bordeaux Wine Council and French Government have chucked some funds into the pot, there will also be wine tastings and masterclasses. Find out more at visitliverpool.com/tasteliverpool.

The Seafood PubCo, which originated in the English northwest before falling into administration and being taken over by the Oakman Group, is continuing to expand across the south. Having taken over the Pointer at Brill in Buckinghamshire last October, they have now brought their fish-heavy menu, led by a fruits de mer to share for £79.95, to the Grand Junction Arms in the Hertfordshire town of Tring. At thegrandjunctionarmstring.co.uk.

And sad but understandable news from Sowerby Bridge where the Moorcock Inn, much loved by many when it opened five years ago including me, has announced it is to close in January of 2023. The menu, built around live fire cookery, wild ingredients, fermenting and preserving, found many fans but, according to a statement from co-owner Aimee Turford, trading conditions have just become too tough, with the double challenge of supply issues and rising costs. ‘Frankly,’ she said, ‘it’s just no time to be running a business like ours.’ At themoorcock.co.uk.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1