No surprise here, I’d been waiting a long time for the whole hog dinner at Sycamore. Anyone who’s dabbled in cooking and curing meat – especially pork – longs to try it done by people with the time, talent and expertise to do it right. Done not just well, but done right. And so I found myself in the vestibule outside Sycamore. Mrs. SMEs and I rolled into the special event about five minutes early and joined my parents at the bar. She snagged a red and I a glass of white.
As I was sipping my Gewurtztraminer, a tall woman in red grabbed my arm. It was Rita Newman, half of the guest-of-honor couple for the night. I’d been to their pork weekend last summer and was perhaps the only person in the room they knew. We quickly snagged a table and were joined by a few other friends, filling the table.
We were welcomed with appetizers. One platter held triangles of pate de campagne of pork liver and pistachios, skewered to cornichons. These were thrilling. Another passed tray held dozens of hickory-smoked spareribs, which were robustly-seasoned but ranged from tender to tough, as spareribs are wont to do. Later came fried pigs ears, which Chef Mike Odette had braised for a few hours before lightly breading and dropping in the fryer. These were fun – chewy and crunchy, I wouldn’t want to eat them all day…but well-done. Then came grilled fennel sausages, which were passed around and around and around. They were magnificent. Enough heat to hold your interest; no more fennel than necessary.
It was at roughly this point where I realized I was in trouble. That had been a lot of food and we were a fifth of the way down the menu. “Pace yourself,” I said, pouring a little more gewurtzraminer. I had no idea.
Next, out came plates of a terrine of shanks and trotters. Each had been braised, chopped and molded with minced cornichons, carrots and spices. The menu says it was accompanied by a sherry gastrique and parsley, but we didn’t notice. Punchy pork, a good bite of pickles, it was amazing…one of our tablemates said something about it being akin to the world’s best tuna fish salad. Apt, really.
We poured more wine, spun the cap off of a jug of Broadway Brewery stout and absorbed a few of Mark Newman’s horror stories. One involved the process off “cleaning” pork intestines he witnessed in China. With my mom seated in the chair to Mark’s right, I readied the smelling salts, but then needed to use the men’s room. When I got back, Mark was – I kid you not – wrapping up a story involving black pudding:
“And then she reaches WAAAAY down in this bucket of blood…” Mark was saying.
Christ. Mom’s never coming to one of these with me again. Hell, Amber just nudged me.
Not a moment too soon, more food arrived: a slice of meltingly tender, smoky roasted pork belly served over smoked navy beans with molasses. It was better than anything my attempts have resulted in…fantastic. This was perhaps my favorite of the night. And at this point I was full. Really should have stopped.
A couple of pleasing courses followed. First, a mixed green salad with croutons, pancetta and an impeccably-undercooked hardboiled egg. Just a bit of runniness in each egg – on every plate at the table. Excellence. Then a scallopine alla milanese with lemon and capers. Served over mashed potatoes, the pork had been pounded thin and fried crisp, but was fork-tender on the inside. At this point serious overfeedage was setting in. We – every single person at the table – were ready to run up the flag. Four courses remained.
Mark Newman to the rescue.
“So I get this call from a guy in Memphis. We sell a lot of pork there, mostly to Andrew-Michael and the Peabody. But this guy calls up and asks ‘ Is this where I get the kosher pork?'”
We all laugh, mostly because Mark Newman is funny as hell. But also because we’re nervous about fitting into our respective vehicles.
Out comes a blessedly small serving of (utterly delicious) pork loin, wrapped in thin-sliced bacon and served over peppery, fennel-scented spinach. We poured a little more wine and steeled ourselves for the next course: braised shoulder sugo over polenta.
Sugo, which is basically ragu but using guanciale (cured pork jowl) as the base, was served over some very nice, very coarse-ground grits from Anson Mills in South Carolina. I won’t say these are better than those from the Old Mill of Guilford in NC, or even our very own College of the Ozarks. But they were different – robust, hearty and course. Very coarse, very corny. They were also very, very good. For the record I tasted no guanciale in the sugo, but my taste buds by this point had been so brutalized I couldn’t have picked up habanero in the sauce.
The celery sorbet – not bad in theory – was pretty bad. Either not peeled or passed through a chinois, the sorbet was oppressively fibery. Everyone acknowleged this and we moved on to the next (next!) dessert. I am told the apple tart was really good, but honestly I have no idea. It wasn’t the booze, which was generously served but given no quarter – at least in this stomach – but rather the inability of my body to enjoy flavor any longer. Chef Odette and his staff took questions after dinner.
My favorite question – and answer, it would turn out – was “How many pigs did it take to make this meal?”
“One,” Mike Odette said, “with four shoulders, 45 ears and six feet.”
For a reasonable $85 we’d been well-fed (criminally overfed, actually), generously plied with wine and beer, and enjoyed the company of great friends old and new. We’d also help fund a Slow Food Katy Trail project at Lee Elementary.
Thank you Mark and Rita. Thank you Mike, Sanford and the rest of the Sycamore crew. This was a truly special night.