Photos By Clarissa Villondo, Words By Logan Hollers
I don’t like coffee. I don’t like pastries. Hipsters kind of weird me out. So what the hell was I doing at Big Bear Café on a recent Monday night?
That’s what I was doing at Big Bear Café. This little piggy went to market. And he was goddamn delicious.
Big Bear, Bloomingdale’s neighborhood coffee shop / mobile office / place to take a first Tinder date so you don’t freak her out with, like, tons of booze or a two-hour dinner commitment or something, is also a restaurant. The restaurant side of Big Bear recently kicked off a series of monthly family-style dinners called “Wine and Swine.” $85 gets you five courses (more, really) with paired beverages for each.
The dinners focus on Chef Quinten Frye’s in-house craft butchery program, highlighting some of the best products from local farms and artisans who supply the restaurant. The setup’s gorgeous; a long communal table forces you to get to know your dining companions (worked out well for my photographer and I – shout-out to the dude who had not only heard of, but had actually lived in South Dakota!) and makes for a truly communal experience.
As you might imagine from the title, the event is focused on delicious paired wines and pork, pork, and pork. Each event will be a little different (naturally), depending on the pig Chef Frye gets in and the products his producers bring him. Potentially branching out into other proteins is also on his radar, the Chef said.
But us? We went whole hog. (#sorrynotsorry)
The event start with an almost cocktail-party vibe; an immense butcher block is set up with snacks to encourage everyone to get up, interact. An outstanding start: chicharrones. Crispy puffed pig skins dusted with chili were awesome on their own – I mean, it’s fried pork skin, of course it’s delicious. Even better was the accompanying dip, a pitch-black squid ink hummus, nutty and creamy. A glass of cava, crisp and dry, helped rinse out some of the fatty friedness of the pork skin.
Once you’re primed for pig, the onslaught commences. Wave after wave of charcuterie emerges, each a representation of the Chef’s butchery and commitment to nose-to-tail cookery.
My family is all from Minnesota and Wisconsin – hog country. Ham was a staple at every major holiday. I’ve never liked it; it’s cold, it’s too hard and overcooked, it’s too salty… Chef Frye’s ham singlehandedly changed my mind. Cold-smoked, sliced thin, and layered with sautéed peaches, this actually tasted like pork. Tender flesh, melting fat, the faintest hits of smoke – this tiny slice of ham was actually one of my favorite bites of the night, and a great pair with the pig tail katsu. Katsu, which Chef Frye affectionately refers to as “Japanese barbecue,” has a mild sweetness, perfect with the crunch of a bunch of shredded pig parts that had been breaded and fried.
More charcuterie follows: tasso ham toast, coarsely ground pork sausage (super minerally – if you don’t like liver and / or blood, you might not love this one) with pickled okra, and what was listed as “simple rillons.” They were anything but. Crunchy cubes of roasted pork belly, macerated raspberry…definitely grabbed at least six of these. Simple, delicious.
Here’s what’s called a compliment sandwich! The beer pairing with the first course was spot-on – a crisp, spicy gastro ale from Spain with discernible hits of honey and rosemary. That said, these meals are $85 and that second course is a lot of different bites…a three ounce pour isn’t really enough to get you through the different charcuterie. That said part two, the servers couldn’t have been cooler; thoughtful and far from pretentious, they were quick with refills and, I’m quite certain, would be happy to top you off if needed.
A grilled chorizo and watermelon salad poured summer onto the table. Crispy pig’s ears, ripe watermelon, and pickled watermelon rinds made for a busy dish with outstanding textural contrasts, but the glue was the fresh herbs dumped into the salad. Fistfuls of parsley (leaves and stems) and chives lend a brightness that keeps you returning to the dish. And they’re, like, super healthy, so kind of offset the meatballs of grilled chorizo you’re wolfing down, right? Sure. The Argentinian torrontés was the wine of the night: high acidity, clean finish, and a blast of ripe citrus and banana, tailor-made for the salad’s cantaloupe vinaigrette.
And then the main event. A whole sucking pig, gutted and deboned, then stuffed and rolled back into a porchetta. Clear the way when the chef brings this guy out to carve – could get trampled by the stampede of photographers fighting for the shot. Slabs of pork are brought to the table, family-style. Like crispy skin? There’s pieces of that. Rendered fat more your thing? There’s that, too. Light meat? Dark meat? All there – the genius of porchetta. To make sure you don’t OD on pig, take time to dip into the sides. Garlic confit with golf ball-sized red potatoes basted in pork fat; roasted baby eggplant; sous vide baby rainbow carrots with carrot butter. All worthy second players to the piglet, and all paired well with a robust, full-bodied cab franc.
And, of course, dessert. You know the drill. Smoked blackberry pie with leaf lard crust. The smoke flavor? Loved it. The pie? Not for me. Other people were digging it, obviously. I did, however, really enjoy the black pepper ice cream. Just not as much as the port we were served with dessert. That’s sweet enough for me. And gets you drunk.
Next monthly dinner is Monday, September 21st. Scrounge up $85, put on your big boy pants, and get ready to eat ‘til you squeal. (OK, yes, I am sorry for that one.)