The hippest dish among New York City chef dudes at the moment is probably still the pig's ear at the West Village gastropub Spotted Pig, a huge, veiny appendage, carefully deep-fried to a deep bronze, presented naked and sputtering and unadorned on a platter. If you've only experienced pig's ear as the little strips of braised cartilage that sometimes appear on a Taiwanese cold plate or as part of a Thai nam sod, this ear may be a little confusing. Asians tend to prize the ear for its texture, a chewy, crunchy bite that runs closer to sea cucumber than to anything you might associate with pork. Even the spicy Sichuan version is more or less polite. Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield emphasizes the organ's more Rabelaisian side — there's no disguising the carnality of the act. You tear into an entire, freaking ear with a sharp knife and a fork, chomp through crisp bits and bony nubs, shards of skin, pockets of former gristle converted to goo. You are close to the animal, even part of the animal; you're Mike Tyson sinking sharp teeth into Evander Holyfield, a Neanderthal devouring his share of the kill. To eat this dish is to know what it is to be a carnivore.
Phat du jour: The hour of pig has truly arrived in NYC.
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New York City has been a conscious carnivore's playground for several years now, and it has probably never been easier to find a roasted kidney or a slab of braised pork belly. Babbo, the seat of Mario Batali's Italian-restaurant empire, earned its reputation with lamb's tongue salad and lamb's brain francobolli, and Blue Ribbon restaurant, also cherishedby chefs, is beloved for its roasted marrowbones. The better kitchens in town have long been populated with cured-meat hobbyists, who compete among themselves with quantities of house-cured lardo, sausage wrapped in bacon, spicy cured pig's neck, duck prosciutto and ventreche only hinted at in Los Angeles restaurants. Only an amateur in Manhattan would admit to actually buying his guanciale, cured pig cheek, from an outside source — and given the distinctive flavor of the guanciales commercially available, he or she would be caught out in a minute.
But on a quick trip to New York to celebrate a friend's birthday last week, it seemed as if the city's hour of pig was truly at hand. What I'm saying is that I ate 30 different pig preparations in a little less than 48 hours, and it would have been more if I'd gone with the flow.
At the newish Belgian place Resto, in an improbable corner of Murray Hill, there was a dinner of double-cooked pork belly with endive, curried headcheese, a frisee salad tossed with bits of toasted pig's ear instead of bacon, and crispy squares of a kind of fried Belgian pork-jowl scrapple crowned with deviled eggs. Even the mussels came with bacon. In the middle of the first pig extravaganza, a friend speed-dialed Ssam Bar in the East Village until she finally got through, and reserved an entire Korean-style pork shoulder, 12-plus pounds of Heritage meat braised into sweet, caramelized submission, served with a couple of different kimchis, a dozen fresh oysters on the half shell, and a pile of Boston lettuce leaves to wrap into little burritos. (The same dish around here, a Los Angeles Koreatown favorite, usually involves cool braised pork belly, radish kimchi and oysters of less impeccable provenance.)
A museum lunch in Los Angeles usually means a sandwich picked up from one Joachim Splichal franchise or another; at the Bar Room at the Modern, Gabriel Kreuther's elegant brasserie attached to the Museum of Modern Art, it could be an oval of the suavest liverwurst you've ever run across in your life or a square of pork belly braised into almost the consistency of a Jell-O shot.
Angelenos get excited about a great new sushi bar. The talk of New York food circles is the brand-new Bar Boulud, a richly modern restaurant across from Lincoln Center where the pates and terrines, supervised by a disciple of the Parisian master who has been called the Mozart of charcuterie, glisten behind what looks like a sushi counter, and it is already impossible to snag reservations to taste the truffled pork pÃ¢tÃ©, the parsleyed headcheese terrine, and the Lyonnaise salami sometimes called rosette de Lyon— anus of Lyon — for its resemblance to a puckered sphincter. Bar Boulud has not yet caught its stride — none of the charcuterie will blow you away like the first taste of real Parma prosciutto — but it is probably the only place in New York where you can taste boudin blanc done the real Lyonnaise way, which is to say with gobs of heavy cream.
And then there was the pig's foot Milanese at Babbo, which is reason enough to hop on Jet Blue right now.
“I try not to eat meat unless I know the farmer who raised it,” said my friend Robert, a Brooklyn scientist who seems to spend more time thinking about what he might make for dinner than about the physics of clouds, which is his academic specialty. In New York, it goes without saying, he eats a lot of pork.
The Spotted Pig, 314 W. 11th St., New York, (212) 620-0393 or www.thespottedpig.com.
Resto, 111 E. 29th St., New York, (212) 685-5585 or www.restonyc.com.
Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 Second Ave., New York, (212) 254-3500 or www.momofuku.com.
Bar Room at the Modern, 9 W. 53rd St., New York, (212) 333-1200 or www.themodernnyc.com.
Bar Boulud, 1900 Broadway, New York, (212) 595-0303 or www.danielnyc.com/barboulud.
Babbo, 110 Waverly Pl., New York, (212) 777-0303 or www.babbonyc.com.