Sunday, March 22, 2009

2-24-09

When I sat down with a menu at Park Kitchen tonight, I had no idea I’d end up having pork three ways. Three dishes ordered – an appetizer, “salad,” and entree, each featured pork. I didn’t intend for that to happen. I was enthralled by all of the interesting possibilities offered that night - chickpea fries, sizzling baby octopus, parsnip soup, and duck in a licorice sauce. But when I asked the for the waitress’ favorites (as I often do), I ordered what she recommended. When I was a server, I was guilty of consistently recommending pork dishes too. What can I say? Bacon is better.

Once the dishes began to arrive, it became evident that this restaurant takes on a whole pig at a time. First there was the tesa - almost like a brined, pickled pork belly - but crisp on the edges. It was served at room temperature, with a housemade kim chee, in which I tasted maybe a little fennel, and definitely orange rind. One of my dining companions ordered a salad of endive, sweet potato, shredded pork (shoulder?) and dungeness crab, which actually turned out to be surprisingly light, despite the pork.

My entree was a show stopper though - the kind of richly comforting dish anyone would want to tuck into on a rainy winter night like this. Thin slices of juicy pork tenderloin lay atop a nest of browned spaetzle, chopped chesnuts, dark roasted pork, and braised cabbage. Around all of this was a shallow pool of sweet and savory pumpkin puree. The dish was a bit sweeter than I expected, with just enough salt from the bits of crispy roast pork to balance it (a vinegary salad on the side would have been the perfect complement-or a glass of white burgundy).

The flavor of the browned chesnuts had a caramel character to them, which recalled a meal I had this autumn, at a cooking school. The menu was comprised entirely of ingredients grown within 100 miles, and it was my job to prepare a dish of chesnuts and brussels sprouts to pair with venison, our centerpiece. The chestnuts were made with a caramel sauce, poured over the greens. Among all of the premium ingredients comprising my meal tonight, I felt most privileged to dine on chestnuts. Like fava beans, they are a humble ingredient that are actually very labor intensive to prepare (they must be cracked, roasted, then meticulously peeled before cooking). But I digress – back to pigs.

Indeed, butchering a pig, and carefully curing its various cuts in entirely different ways requires much skill, time and knowledge, and I appreciate that. But it seems that lately it’s been sneaking its way into everything. The other night I ordered scallops, in the mood for a lighter dinner. And what were they served with? Lentils and shredded pork. Two weeks ago I had an amazing wild salmon, alongside was a root vegetable “hash”, studded with bacon (okay, I’ll admit that this one was my choice - the side looked so good that I subbed out the quinoa that was supposed to go with it). What’s next? I’ll tell you - one of Portland’s newest restaurants created a stir late last year with an apple pie that, instead of a lattice pastry crust, had a lattice of bacon over the top. You know what – it looked completely disgusting, but I’m sure it tasted like heaven.

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