Hungry Like the (Big Bad) Wolf
When I told friends that this month’s Dish-Off challenge was “pork belly and beyond,” the confused looks amazed me. Doesn’t everyone know pork belly? More amazing were the endless looks of disbelief and disgust from people who happily eat hot dogs along with pork and beans. These obviously are not my foodie friends.
Luckily, Seattle restaurants still revel in the pork belly craze. There was no need to huff and puff my way in. Three restaurants—Chez Shea, Brasa, and Crush—invited me into their houses, proud to prepare pig in ways they hoped would earn my praise.
Pork belly can be the best of both worlds for people who can’t decide if they like their bacon crisp or pliant. I like crackle, but don’t shortchange me the melt-in-your-mouth fat that many deny loving. In this regard, Brasa’s pork belly is the best of the bunch, particularly in an apricot and braised lentil dish. The top of the belly is perfectly crisped, while there’s lots of fat imparting flavor to the lentils, making this a sophisticated sort of pork and beans—with the apricots offering a colorful and captivating counterpoint.
I also like Brasa’s pork belly with cauliflower puree and apples, though this dish proved a bit too rich in the end. That just might be because Chef Tamara Murphy ultimately overwhelmed me (not a complaint!) with pig dishes. The pork rillette (eye candy and tongue candy), pizzetta with proscuitto, and beet and spinach salads with house-cured bacon strips all delighted me. I’m feeling stuffed as a pig even before being served the Whistling Train roasted pig, presented with a hot smoked paprika sauce that is intoxicating. The paella is one of the better versions I’ve had locally, and along with the roasted pig provides me with leftovers the next day.
The pork belly appetizer leads off at Chez Shea, above Pike Place Market where a window seat allows you to enjoy the changing light both inside and outside as the sun sets over Elliott Bay. The braised belly, while not as crisp and fatty as Brasa’s, teams nicely with shaved fennel and thinly sliced apples.
I get the crispiness I crave from confit of Muscovy duck leg, the skin creating a crackling sound that’s spectacular in the otherwise sedate dining room. But back to the pork. The Kurobuta loin chop, with its prized marbling, is juicy and tender; the accompanying braised greens offer a bitter contrast I appreciate. Perhaps reflecting Chef Mutsuko Soma’s Japanese background, Kurobuta pork also appears in the pate appetizer, though the mixed-in Roquefort is a miss for me. The non-meat items are also pleasing, including an asparagus soup with tomato oil and basil chiffonade, and a roasted golden beet and Bosc pear salad which is the dark horse dish that wins “best of meal.”
Crush serves up pork belly creations that rival Brasa’s. The pork itself could have been crisper, but conceptually the overall dishes stimulate the senses—opening my eyes and my mind, tantalizing my taste buds. First is grilled Berkshire pork belly and sautéed octopus that startles with its softness, making for an intriguing match both in tenderness and smokiness. Second is a spin-off of the restaurant’s popular “Three Little Pigs” dish; paired with lacquered pork belly on a bed of kale is pork tenderloin with black truffle potato hash. A trail of bacon puree connects the two, demonstrating Chef Jason Wilson’s creativity. He designs dishes as he designed the house: with great intention and innovation. Nothing is distracting. The white furniture, modern tableware, instrumental music, and other elements create an atmosphere that is smart and sophisticated, putting focus where it belongs: on the food.
And focus you should. The food is full of special surprises. Chef Wilson topped my aforementioned pork tenderloin with fermented black garlic he found in San Francisco. (Good enough to eat on its own, the garlic’s sweet, pungent, molasses-like taste gives great depth and dimension to the dish.) Specially sourced, and superb, Alaskan sea salt enhances hamachi crudo, while foie gras mousse adds appeal to the accompanying ahi tuna tartare. And as if the head-turning dessert sampler (while the playful smores are a sentimental favorite, the blood orange mousse and curd suits my more grown-up taste) isn’t enough, a piece of smoked bacon chocolate puts an appropriate exclamation point at the end of this pork-fest.
As this Dish-Off challenge draws to a close, my stuffed stomach has me huffing and puffing. This big bad wolf is simply big from devouring so much good food. I’d gladly return to any of these restaurants. Chez Shea is ideal for a quiet, romantic evening. Brasa is a best bet for the boisterous Belltown scene, especially if you want to pig out on pig. But most captivating is Crush. It’s comfortable and yet cutting-edge. A house of wit and whimsy that makes me think about my food, admit what I don’t know, want to learn more, and come back to find out what’s cooking next—pork belly and beyond.