With meals at St. John and Au Pied de Cochon already under our belts, it was time for me and She Who Must Be Obeyed to focus on finding a similar dining experience here in the States. As luck would have it, our return from Montreal coincided with this email from the Craigie on Main restaurant in Cambridge:
Mark your calendar on August 25 when we invite pork lovers to wine, dine on swine, and rejoice at a six-course dinner celebrating all the porky pleasures. As we write, Chef Tony Maws – NOT resting on his slew of Best of Boston awards and mentions – has scouted the organic farms of Vermont for the perfect piglets. The “Whole Hog” menu combines his fanaticism for perfect organic quality with his “nose to tail” approach, and obsession with all things pork.
In short, the Whole Hog Dinner was on, and we were so there.
We had dined at Tony Maws’ previous location, the Craigie Street Bistrot – a tiny restaurant with a tinier kitchen in the basement of a brownstone just outside of Harvard Square. We were eager to taste what would come out of his new, larger, better-equipped kitchen on Main Street, especially after attending two previous Whole Hog Dinners.
We had learned from experience that each course would consist of two choices, both of which we would fight over, until I arrived at a solution: We would tell the server we wanted one of each for each course. When we were served, we’d try the plate and wine put in front of each of us, and then switch plates and glasses halfway through the course. We would both get to taste everything, and the server got to place his easiest order of the evening.
That was our plan for last night, and with the exception of an unexpected surprise – which will be reported in sequence – that’s what we did. So, in menu order, here’s what we ate. Low-light camera photos are courtesy of She Who Must Be Obeyed, who had a better shooting angle – less shadows – than I did. (Dishes are in bold, ingredients in regular, and wines in italic type.) I not qualified to comment on the wine except to say that each paring was perfectly matched with the food, and the dessert wines were superb.
(no menu description provided)
From right to left, we were served lardo on homemade rice crackers, shaved cured pork belly, pig jowl croutons, pÃ¢tÃ© de campagne, and pig skin cracklings. This was a very cleverly arranged plate; the textures and densities increased as you moved from right to left, and every other item had increasing amounts of crunch. There was one bite of each, just enough to preview the tastes and textures that would follow. (Although I could eat a whole bowlful of those croutons.)
The “Piglet’s Delight” was an apertif made from scotch, bitters, fruit juice, and champagne.
Tortellini of Braised Pork Belly
squash blossoms, squash jus, calaminthe
2007 Velentin Zussin Edelzwicker ‘Reserve Valentin’
Even with the pork filling, this was a very delicate dish. You could taste the essence of squash in the blossoms and the jus, with just a hint of mint/basin from the calaminthe.
GlacÃ©e of Summer Farm Vegetables and House-Cured Lomo
pig foot-huitlacoche jus, herbs and greens
2008 ChÃ¢teau Roquefort CÃ´tes du Provence ‘Corail’ RosÃ©
I should get this out of the way now, it will make the rest of the dish descriptions easier: Tony Maws cooks the best vegetables I have ever eaten. Every bite of every plate demonstrates the respect he has for his ingredients. So if I gloss over the vegetables, take it as a given that they are perfect. The other featured ingredient, lomo, is thinly-sliced, dry-cured pork tenderloin that melts in the mouth. And the garnish? Crispy fried pig’s ear strips. I had to remind myself that they had to be shared. All of this was tied together by the earthy taste of the huitlacoche jus.
Crispy Fromage de TÃªte
sunny-side up farm-fresh egg, potato-mustard purÃ©e, sauce charcutiÃ¨re
2007 Michel Guignier Morgon ‘Bio-Vitis’
I just had crispy fromage de tÃªte two weeks ago (I know, what a horrible life I lead), but they couldn’t be more different. At PDC it was mostly the gelatinous/cartilaginous bits, here the cake was mostly meaty bits. I Preferred this preparation for its arrangement of otherwise classic elements into a new layering of tastes. The traditional mustard accompaniment was a component of the potato purÃ©e, but the egg and charcutiÃ¨re (sauce espagnole with gherkins)Â worked together as one impossibly rich sauce.
House-Made Boudin Noir- and Chorizo-Stuffed Grilled Local Squid
fresh white corn polenta, basil
2007 Gran Franco Torelli Dolcetto d’Asti
My horrible life continued with another helping of perfectly prepared boudin noir. This clever presentation treated the squid as the casing into which both sausages were stuffed. The richness of the stuffing was offset by the clean, crisp taste of the corn.
Here’s where the unexpected surprise entered into the menu. Before I had a chance to tell our server “give us one of everything,” he told us there was a third course special special not on the menu. I was mentally working out which dish I would replace – the Pork Three Ways (Spice-Crusted Rib, Glazed and Grilled Belly, and Bacon-Wrapped Loin) or the Guanciale-Wrapped Line-Caught Swordfish – when he said “It’s a roasted pig’s headâ€¦” and paused to launch into his explanation.
“We’ll take it” I said, glancing at SWMBO, who nodded back.
“I can explain the preparation.”
“No need. You had us at ‘pig’s head’.”
Roasted Half Pig’s Head
greens, pork jus
2006 Buondonno Chianti Classico
As soon as this lovely thing landed on the table, I cut out the cheek and the skin covering it and shared it. As you may recall from the Best Pig Ever, it’s the best part of the magical animal’s head.
What I loved about this dish was the variety of tastes and textures. There was white meat and dark meat, crispy skin and chewy skin, firm fat and loose fat, salty bits and meaty bits. We ate the whole thing, from nose to ear, dipping forkfuls in the jus. By the time I was done carving there was nothing left:
Our server walked by, looked at the remains, looked at me, and remarked “You sure know your way around a pig’s head.”
“I’m a biologist with years of dissection experience” I replied.
You’re looking at that picture, and you’re seeing an empty eye socket, and you’re thinking “Was there an eyeball? Did he eat it?” To which I can reply yes, and hell yes. It was chewier than I expected, but I had no problem eating it.
Once you’ve eaten a pig’s eyeball it’s time to slowly bring the dinner to a close. Before the dessert course we were offered this:
We were served two different tea-infused sour milk panna cottas: one was rooibis infused and garnished with candied grapefruit, the other was jasmine infused and garnished with rice syrup. Both were refreshing palate cleansers that cut through the remainder of the pork orgy in which we had just indulged.
Late Summer Macerated Fruits
sweet white peach soda, yogurt sorbet
2003 Lemaire Fournier Vouvray Moelleux
The chef is just as respectful of fruit as he is of vegetables, Craigie on Main is one of the few restaurants where I don’t automatically consider a chocolate dessert of there’s a fruit option. This serving of perfect summer fruit was topped with what appeared to be a foam but turned out to be a carbonated white peach syrup.
Cornbread Pain Perdu
plum coulis, anise hyssop ice cream
1998 ChÃ¢teau le Payral Saussignac ‘CuvÃ©e Marie-Jeanne’
On the right, a chunk of lightly sweet french toasted cornbread with the plum sauce, on the left, a scoop of anise-scented ice cream on a thinner slice of the bread. The restaurant is known for its herb-infused ice creams, this delicate concoction was the best flavor I’ve tasted.
We thought we were done with dessert, but we were proven wrong when another server arrived with “a gift from the chef”:
I thought we were being served another panna cotta by mistake, but was informed that this was a rhubarb hibiscus mousse with yogurt foam. And it was good, but the details escape me. By that point I had reached my limit.
Or so I thought, until the check was delivered along with a tray of mignardises: bite-sized mocha-filled hobnob cookies, blackberry jellies, and Earl Grey infused chocolate truffles.
As I rolled out of the restaurant I stopped for a look at the kitchen from which the evening’s feast had sprung:
I have now experienced the finest level of cooking by three of the greatest practitioners of the porkly arts, and can honestly say that no one of them is better than the others – each has a unique strength. St. John will always astonish with its simplicity, Au Pied de Cochon will always overwhelm with its excess, but Craigie on Main will always surprise with its finesse.
And, unlike the other two, I can eat there on a whim.