Taking nose-to-tail seriously
By Justin Rude
Friday, July 6, 2012
When the EatWell DC team opened the Pig in mid-May, the restaurant group broke free from a few patterns. Until then, their restaurants had gotten larger and larger with each opening. With a mere 80 seats, the Pig is the group’s smallest. And although Commissary, the Heights, Logan Tavern and especially Grillfish aren’t exactly identical, they all rely more on comfortable, classic American cooking than any particular theme or chef-driven menu.
Enter the Pig, where chef Garret Fleming, late of Lincoln and Eatonville, is behind the restaurant’s pork-focused nose-to-tail menu.
There is something almost aggressive about the restaurant’s commitment to its gimmick. It’s not just that the menu includes plates full of porky charcuterie, pappardelle topped with wild boar ragu, Carolina-style pulled pork, a salad piled high with crispy pig ears and a porchetta made up of braised and roasted pork belly stuffed with pig brains. No, it’s the way our server relishes telling us that our bread comes with a serving of swine butter: You know, butter mixed with pig lard and lavender. It’s the way the ramen is made with what the menu calls “hog broth.” It’s the way the “Less Pig” portion of the menu still includes plenty of pig dishes. The way the signature dessert incorporates pig’s blood into a chocolate sundae. And the lavatory walls papered with images of piglets and butcher’s knives.
For the most part, the porcine excess is all in good fun -- though the jury remains very much out on the Porky-meets-Jason washroom treatment. It gives Fleming a platform on which to show off his skill with offal. In fact, it was the restaurant’s commitment to using the full animal, more than its commitment to pork, that drew the chef to the job. Pigs just happen to be very versatile.
“The fat content of the animal really helps out with that,” Fleming says. “You have way more options with pigs.”
The chef uses those options to turn out some memorable dishes. A pair of rich braised cheeks served over creamy grits and topped with a sweet and tangy Spanish tomato sauce makes me want to return just to eat that dish again. The pig’s ear salad is a well-balanced mix of earthy, crunchy pork and bright, slightly bitter greens. The porchetta, the result of a nine-hour cooking process that includes braising and multiple sessions in the roaster, is perhaps the most decadent item on the dinner menu. Incredibly rich, nutty brain is an accent to a slab of glistening, fatty pork belly. The flavor is pure salty pig, though you could be forgiven for wanting a little more texture on the plate.
The menu items tend toward roasts and braises of fatty cuts -- not exactly summer fare. That’s the nature of the restaurant’s signature animal, but Fleming says seasonality hasn’t been an issue. “Finding a seasonal balance is something we strive for,” the chef says, “but there are a few dishes that I thought once it got hot, people would stop ordering them, and we would have to take them off. And that hasn’t happened.”
Servers are eager and knowledgeable about the menu, though once or twice I’ve had to defend my plate from overzealous bussers. If you aren’t in the mood for the full parade of swine, grab a seat at the bar, where Andrew Howells and Lisa Weatherholt have put together a nice program that includes classic and house cocktails, craft beer and an extensive wine list that includes three on draft and 17 by the glass. Like the menu, which is supported in part by a company-owned farm in La Plata, the beverage program has a local bent, including Catoctin Creek spirits in the cocktails, DC Brau in the draft lines and Virginia wines by the bottle and glass.
Ironically, one of my favorite dishes from an early visit wasn’t made with pig. It was vegan: a hash made of chickpeas, mushrooms and chard, livened up with a generous splash of lemon juice. The citrus shock cuts through the richness of the rest of the menu.
There are a handful of vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu, and one might ask, “Why?” The bathroom decor alone could be a deterrent to conscientious herbivores.