All words: Jeb Gavin
All photos: Brandon Weight
I was looking up at the Capitol from the patio of Art and Soul Wednesday evening when I first realized, I am to oyster eating what ultra-marathoners are to running; given enough time and resources I would never have to stop. To that end, the restaurant has taken to having a weekly pig and oyster roast out front, starting at $35 a plate for all the sausage and ribs and oysters you can eat. More interesting to me, what they refer to as the kitchen cuts are only five dollars more.
The roast pigs in question were actually broken down in the kitchen, so each part could be finished properly on the grill. Tray after tray of pork belly stacked next to chunks of reddened sausage hit the table and were immediately cleared by the crowd. The belly, this perfect juxtaposition of sopping meat, quivering pork fat, and crunchy skin was spot on- a sort of essence of all things great about roast pork. I was disappointed to see how many folks still skip over the cracklin and left it on their plates. The sausage was some kind of kielbasa, flavored with garlic and peppers, sparingly studded with either fennel or caraway. It was even better topped with the fresh beer mustard, but I kept looking for a Portuguese roll so I could make a few proper sandwiches instead of walking around like a heathen eating chunks of it off the end of a knife, as though cutting it into pieces and using a fork were too much of a hassle.
Other cuts were tasty, though the repeated cooking and trip from kitchen to patio grill to plate left some in need of sauce. The loin managed to stay very moist even left out on the table, but later pork steaks dried quickly in the evening air. The ribs were covered in a 16 spice blend to which I was not privy (apparently a house secret, though I’d wager it has some healthy measure of smoked chile powder in it.) They were good but slightly dry; the meat separated from the bone easily, though it wasn’t mushy as is often the case when someone describes rib meat as “falling off the bone.” After trying one rib on its own, the addition of the vinegar BBQ sauce perked them up immeasurably. I nearly ate a whole side of dressed ribs myself.
The cuts I’m most fond of though are the a la carte items- the ones often referred to as everything but the squeal. Initially the cooks had placed the whole roast head out on the serving table in case anyone needed reminding this was a pig roast. During a lull in the action, I asked one of the chefs offhand when we’d get to dig into the cheeks and jowls. He chef said they’d get on it, even giving me a heads up as it were. Of course I was somewhere off in a corner gorging on oysters when they pulled the head, sliced it and served it up on platters. Before I realized what had happened, people ate nearly the whole thing, probably thinking they were serving somehow even more tender bits of pork belly. I should’ve asked for an ear or a trotter, or even the tail stuffed with oysters and butter. No mistaking them.
The Rappahannock Oyster Company provided the unlimited oysters for the evening, their Old Salts living up to the name. Most were served raw on the half shell, and needed only a touch of mignonette to add sweetness and bitterness to the salt and brine. Every so often one of the chefs would grab a dozen from behind the oyster shucking table, pop them open, top them with a Meyer lemon and garlic-chive compound butter, and roast them in shell. You could (and I did) eat them without further modification, but a few drops of the nuclear orange house-made smoked pimento cocktail sauce mixed with the butter and oyster liquor added some indescribably spiritual depth to each roast oyster. Would that I could take communion in the form of butter and hot sauce slathered bivalves, I’d prove quickly I am both Southern and a heathen- but mostly harmless left to my own vices, and full of almost good ideas.
The bartender had beer and wine available, but he was also dipping up a fresh punch he’d made of cherry blossom tea, the house sour mix, ginger ale, and rum. It was good and refreshing, but I kept expecting it to knock me on my ass after a glass or two. I think my expectations for summer punch are too high. By the end of the night I was ready for something sweet, perhaps one of the house-made creamsicles on the menu, though there were none to be found. Guess that’s just one more reason I’ll have to come back next Wednesday.