Music and food have a lot in common. Both stimulate the senses and both tend to be driven by trends. Kingston’s Chez Piggy is an example of both. At first, one might think it was a hot spot in the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie. The locals, however, know that the claim to fame is the fact that this restaurant was opened in 1979 by Zal Yanovsky who was one of the members of the Hall of Fame Inductee band “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.
The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands that had a number of top ten hits you know but have no idea who sings them. Even in their heyday, they were overshadowed by other hippie bands in the mid-sixties. That said, here are a couple of facts about the Lovin’ Spoonful. First, in 1966 their biggest hit “Summer in the City”, was Billboard’s number 11 song of 1966, finishing higher than Paperback Writer, the Beatles’ top entry that year. Another fact is that two of the songs that kept the Spoonful out of the top 10 were by Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’. The irony was that these songs were performed by the Mamas and the Papas, who that had two members who jammed with Yanovsky in the Mugwumps before forming their Hall of Fame band.
The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands who had a bunch of songs people know but can’t identify the band who sung them. For example, I remember numerous commercials asking the question “Did you ever have to finally decide?” while some dude had to decide which super model to choose. On the theme of questions, they also asked the question “Do you believe in magic?”.. a song that has survived the test of time. I still remember Chris Klein singing it to Mena Suvari during American Pie almost 35 years later (yes..there were more parts to that movie other than Stifler’s mom and objectophilia).
The question is whether Chez Piggy had evolved with the times or if it is a disguised homage to Zal who unfortunately passed in 2002. At first sight, it’s a secluded stable. When you enter, the landing on the stairway upwards has a tribute to Zal in the form of a picture along with some T-shirts boasting the Chez Piggy experience. The setup is more traditional than modern as you are rewound into 80’s decor that is much more intentional than the many retro diners which grace the landscapes. The waitstaff are not pretentious students but instead a mix of people who have probably listened to “Daydream” a few times in their lives.
Chez Piggy features a traditional cocktail menu with retro prices. I opted for the ceasar for $6.35. I was pleasantly surprised as it was absolutely delicious and rivaled many others I’ve had that are priced in the double digits.
The menu is like a greatest hits album. It contains all the classics with a few feeble attempts at new creative expression. I hounded the waitress about the number one hits and she said the gambas al ajillo. Not to be mistaken for a Carlos Santana song, it is a fancy of saying garlic shrimp. This is the dish that has stood the test of time. It’s a pot luck favorite, bringing haute cuisine to picnic tables everywhere. It was deliciously incomplex. Seven wonderfully cooked shrimp swam circles in a slurry of oil and garlic within the confines of a cast iron skillet.
I was intrigued by the coast to coast canuck plate. Patriotism on a plate is always a risky en devour. Consisting of maple cured salmon, duck prosciutto, cured venison, bison and blueberry sausage, highland blue cheese, lankaaster cheese, caramelized onion & cheddar tart, smoked cod spread with scrunchions, pickled beets, red cabbage & horseradish salad, it did fairly represent our great land. It was plainly served on a white plate which took away from some of the aesthetic value but served as a reminder that a 35 year old restaurant need not succumb to silly trends like serving cured meat on cutting boards or finished cross-sections of tree trunks (although they do charge a very modern $23). Otherwise, it was a tasty array and captured many of the elements of Canada on a plate. It was sort of like eating a Tragically Hip song.
For the main, I got talked into the special, which was a short rib with potatoes gratin and roasted beets. The plate had a forgivable messiness. The short rib was a bit disappointing in that it was too tough, lacking the “fall of the bone” nature of a perfectly cooked rib. The potatoes were retro-good, another reminder of the days of old where my mom would orchestrate her scalloped potatoes (served exclusively with ham), microwaves were not an option and hit songs tended to be only two or three minutes long. It pushed the limits of acceptable price with the $30 price tag.
I’m not surprised that Chez Piggy is a culinary icon in Kingston. It appeals to those who enjoy a quiet and traditional dining environment. I’m always amazed when I sit in a joint where foodies and seniors can co-exist. I’m also impressed at the fact that, despite the late co-owner’s hall of fame induction, Chez Piggy doesn’t exploit the band. It’s not called the Lovin’ Spoonful (which is actually a cool name for a restaurant). There are no cocktails called “She is still a mystery” or “Six O’Clock”. Other than a modest picture by the T-shirt rack, there is no concert paraphernalia plastered all over the walls. You leave with the impression that Zal wanted it this way.
The food is decent but a bit pricy. The attempts at modernization are more along the lines of menu items additions like Vietnamese spring rolls and less about following current trends of modern cooking techniques. It’s a bit of a refuge from the influx of bourbon houses, enotecas and restaurants named after their address. My guess it’s the leading choice for a Queen’s student who needs to find a place to mooch a pricy dinner off their parents. As a result, it is a little sleepy.
In the end, Chez Piggy is like a concert from a band that hit their peak 30 years ago. The crowd is diverse, the highlights are the old songs although there are a few ones thrown in and there is always a core group of fans who, despite the fact that the singer can’t hit the same octave as they could in the past, thinks the band can do no wrong.
Although it’s not a place I would flock to in Kingston, it’s not a place where I would say that I’m “Never Going Back”.