I recently had the fortune to be invited to a whole hog dinner at Town restaurant (3435 Waialae Ave. in Honolulu). What’s a whole hog dinner anyway? Well, taking a step back, one of the regulars of our informal wine group won a silent auction benefiting the culinary program at Leeward Community College. The item for auction was a whole hog dinner prepared by Chef/Owner Ed Kenney of Town restaurant. “J,” who bid on the item first, asked the chef if he could bring his own wines to the dinner perchance he outbid the rest of the attendees.
“No problem,” he was told. Of course, that set the wheels in motion, with J placing the winning bid and yours truly eventually savoring the spoils at this spectacular dinner event.
A whole hog dinner is basically a dinner where the chef tries to use as many parts of the animal as possible — not just the “good” parts. Actually, in many of these “whole animal” dinners, you’ll hardly see (or eat) any of the “good” parts. And it was befitting that Kenney hosted this dinner since he’s one of the few chefs in Hawai‘i (if not the only chef in Hawai‘i) who can actually butcher a whole pig. And since I was in the company of six other wine aficionados (including Hawai‘i’s latest Master Sommelier, Patrick Okubo,) we paired each course with a couple of wines.
The Menu (and wine pairings)
Billecart-Salmon Rose Champagne
J Lasalle Rose Champagne
2010 Cleto Chiarli e Figli Lambrusco di Sorbara Vecchia Modena
Chef Kenney made seven different types of salumi along with a pork liver pate paired with pickled vegetables and toast points. While all of the salumi were outstanding, rivaling salumi from “name” producers, my favorite was the testa or headcheese. It had a perfect balance of meat, fat and connective tissue with a pleasing crunch and the perfect amount of salt. I actually find name brands have too much salt and that Kenney used the perfect “hand” in salting the meats. Another revelation was the dry Lambrusco paired with the salumi — enough earthiness to balance pork flavors and enough red fruit so it stood up to the cured flavors.
1997 Au Bon Climat Isabelle Pinot Noir
Amuse Bouche of Roasted Pork Heart on Crostini with Lardo
Though this dish wasn’t on the menu, it was one of my favorites! Tender slices of roasted pork heart topped with lardo (cured pork fat back) that was torched just until it started melting served on crostini. The heart had a flavor between pork ribs and liver with a touch of minerality and the minerality in the Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir was the perfect partner.
Pickled Pig’s Feet, Lum’s
Watercress, Kim Chee
2009 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Gueberschwihr
2006 Hiedler Riesling Maximum
I know what you’re thinking: that stuff in the bottles at the supermarket. No! Not even close. In this case the pickling refers to simply brine curing the flesh. Kenney made a panko-crusted cake with the pig’s feet and served it with fresh watercress and a kim chee sauce. It was crispy, fatty and gelatinous, with slight heat from the sauce and herbaceous watercress to balance the rich flavors. By itself, it’s a great dish, but with the wine… In years of attending and trying to find the ideal food and wine pairings, usually one wine is the clear winner. In this case, both wines were five out of five winners! The fruit in the Zind Humbrecht was forward enough to stand up to the rich flavors of the pork, while the Hiedler’s minerality played off of the earthiness of the dish to bring out the fruit in the wine. And since both were Rieslings, the abundant acid cleansed the palate between bites.
Pork Belly, Turnips, Savoy
2007 Diochon Moulin a Vent
2001 Alvaro Palacios Priorat Finca Dofi
I’m a sucker for pork belly, so you know I enjoyed this dish! It was crisp on one side, succulent on the other, with sweet baby root vegetables and mustard seed to cut through the richness. I also believe the sauce had a touch of Asian spice (five spice?) partly mimicking rafute or shoyu braised pork belly. The two wines, while coming from different vintages and countries, both worked with the pork belly, though I gave the Diochon the nod.
Pig’s Blood Pasta, Guanciale, Rapini
1999 Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Riserva
2005 Amativo Cantele
Another food epiphany! I have tried morcilla or blood sausage before but this dish didn’t have that same iron minerality that you find in blood sausage. The pasta itself had the appearance of a milk chocolate pasta with the subtle flavor of a good pork liver mousse. Add some rich guanciale (pork jowls, which resemble pork belly and are used interchangeably with pancetta) for another dimension of porky richness and balance it with slightly bitter rapini (broccoli rabe). If this wasn’t another perfect dish, it was 4.95 out of five! And perfect with the Taurasi!
Farm Fresh Egg
2000 Roda II Rioja Reserva
2001 Emilio Moro Ribera
While this was a good dish, I didn’t give it its due attention mainly because some of the preceding dishes were such food epiphanies. You know something’s wrong when a runny egg doesn’t catch my attention. But you couldn’t lose with a dish when you pair fresh pork sausage, white beans and slow cooked egg. And both wines paired admirably!
1986 Chateau Lynch Bages
Tacos de Cabeza
2006 Tempier Bandol Rose
1996 La Spinetta Barbaresco
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Kenney presents a roasted pig head, fresh tortillas and all the fixins’ for tacos. Golden crispy skin on the outside and rich, succulent flesh within, the heads were served with tongs so the diners could literally tear at the head Neanderthal style. This was served with a tray of sliced cabbage, radishes, avocado, cilantro and spicy pepper slices and fresh salsa. Though one of the wines was from one of my favorite producers — La Spinetta — I hardly paid any attention to the wine at this point. NEED. MORE. PORK. HEAD.
Brown Butter-Quince Tarte
I have to say that this was one of the best dinners I’ve had in quite a while. Though different in approach, it was up there with The French Laundry, La Mer and Chef Mavro in that I will remember individual dishes for quite some time. And make comparisons in the future.
Therefore, if you have the fortune to attend one of these “whole animal” dinners, don’t be squeamish and just go for it! I guarantee that you won’t simply be served a plate of “guts!” Chefs are professionals and they do want your return business, so each dish will be artfully crafted and plated. And I’m sure you’ll be amazed of the tastes and textures of those “other” meats. And if you think about it, restaurants in the Motherland serve an array of those other “parts” whether it’s grilled hamachi collar, soft roe, yakitori chicken gizzards or intestines.
What’s the difference with our four-legged quarry? Though you may be accustomed to simply seeing steaks and burgers on those Styrofoam trays in the supermarket, there’s a lot more flesh to the animal than what’s found in the supermarket chill case. And it’s a waste to use those parts simply for pet feed or fertilizer. Kind of like cutting a 1,000-year-old redwood simply for the sprigs to use for air freshener then turning the rest of the tree into sawdust. Remember that these “other” parts are offal good!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.