By Alexander Bolton - 07/18/12 11:22 PM EDT
The Pig combines the latest in culinary fashion with the longest-running traditions of old-world cuisine to produce a menu that confirms what you might have already suspected: D.C.’s finally getting hip.
Pork belly stuffed with pig brains and a pig’s blood ice cream sundae would have been unthinkable additions to Washington’s staid dining scene 12 years ago, when Nora Pouillon was considered a revolutionary for — gasp — certifying her restaurant’s menu as organic.
The Pig takes the concept of “farm to table” a dramatic step forward.
Owner David Winer bought a farm plot in La Plata, Md., to supply his kitchen and dispatched his rising-star chef, Garret Fleming, to pick rocks out of the fields.
This kind of boot-camp training is catching on among cutting-edge restaurants that strive for authenticity to break from the pack. Fleming, who grew up in Charleston, S.C., and whose palate is influenced by low-country cuisine, notes that servers at Husk, a destination restaurant in his hometown, have to work on the farm to get the best shifts.
Fleming, who has worked in restaurants up and down the East Coast and in Europe, was drawn to The Pig by the promise that he could experiment in ways few restaurants dare.
The results: Roast stuffed belly with brains, hazelnuts and greens; chicken-fried gizzards with chili aioli; cassoulet with boar, tongue and rabbit; and the Sundae Bloody Sundae, blood-chocolate ice cream, ginger whipped cream, a brandied cherry and bacon-peanut brittle.
The blood-chocolate ice cream has a noticeable richness and what one taster described as “enhanced minerality.” It’s one of the restaurant’s biggest sellers.
Other innovations have fallen short. The Pig pulled the rabbit livers-and-kidneys dish from the menu. Though it was Winer’s favorite, it ranked last in sales.
Winer said some of his friends and family were anxious when they saw a first draft of the menu, wondering whether patrons would be turned off by the unusual selections.
As it turns out, “brains have been selling really well,” he said.
I admit I was not brave enough to try it or the chicken gizzards, but there are other adventures for anyone who may feel, well, bored with pan-fried sea bass or grilled angus steak.
The charred pork belly with celery root puree, watermelon jam and pickled watermelon rind and the braised cheek with Spanish sofrito and stone grits are two standouts.
The succulent belly spills juicy flavor that contrasts nicely with the slightly blackened exterior. The watermelon jam, a cooked-down puree of fresh watermelon sugar and lemon, complements the naturally sweet flavor of the meat.
The braised cheek resembles a perfect brisket. The consistency is leaner than veal cheeks and matches well with the creamy sofrito.
The kitchen has a talent for bringing out the natural sweetness of pork by flavoring its dishes with lightly sweet ingredients, such as the watermelon jam, or, in the case of a crispy pig ear salad, caramelized onions, which harmonize with the slightly hot and sweet crisps.
The Pig’s confident handling of sweetness is a hallmark of low-country cooking, and Fleming shows his Charleston influence. He also displays the lessons he learned traveling and cooking in Europe, where offal is considered a delicacy and not wasting anything is a proud tradition.
The boar merguez sausage brings to the menu a North African specialty popular in France. The delicate, spicy sweetness of the sausage folds smoothly with a side of quark, a fresh yogurt hung on the premises in cheesecloth and mixed with lemon juice and white pepper.
The Pig offers several tempting vegetarian options to give diners the flexibility to bring along friends who don’t eat meat.
The chickpea hash, with mushrooms, chard and salsa verde, has a refreshing splash of citrus and comes in an artful presentation.
The mushrooms beurre blanc is served with a perfect puff pastry and duck yolk. My tablemates quickly devoured it.
Most dishes are priced between $7 and $12, and patrons are invited to share as they would at a tapas restaurant. My server informed me that ordering two to three per person would be a good amount, but I discovered that two is plenty, especially if selecting the toothsome pork dishes or an appetizer salad.
The roast beets and the crispy pig ears are the best salads. The beets are cut into fine slices and stacked in between layers of creamy cheese that please the eye and work well the pomegranate reduction dressing.
The menu advertises the crispy pig ears atop arugula, but mine came with a heap of red watercress. The chef said arugula tends to get stringy as the summer wears on and declared that he is not afraid to make game-day substitutions, depending on the seasonality of local produce. In this case, the spicy taste and robust texture of the greens cut offered a good contrast to the meat.
The Pig’s emphasis on local sourcing extends to the draft beer list, which includes brews from Virginia, D.C., Maryland and Delaware. The Port City, Optimal Wit, brewed in the Belgian tradition with coriander and orange peel, was my favorite.
Three wines are offered on tap, a novelty justified by the ecological benefit of reusing stainless-steel kegs instead of recycling bottles. I tried the Cabernet Sauvignon, which my companion aptly described as similar to the cheap wine she used to drink in Uruguay.
Another quirk is the swine butter, a mixture of butter, lard and lavender that comes with bread. My first sampling had been left too long at room temperature, making the lard taste slippery and none too appetizing. The second dollop was served at a better temperature and tasted delicious.
Winer furnished the restaurant with comfortable tufted banquettes and a gorgeous butcher-block bar, at which — if you are lucky enough to find space — time spent waiting for a table will pass more quickly. The Pig accepts reservations only up to 6:30 p.m. or after 9:30 or 10 p.m., depending on the day, which, given its instant popularity, means you could wait for quite a while.