Large Format Feast at Resto

Monday, August 27, 2012

There's an episode of Top Chef All Stars that always comes to mind when I hear the words "nose-to-tail cooking." In this episode, Fil-Am chef Dale Talde's reaction to a nose-to-tail challenge bordered on bored. "My family was doing nose-to-tail cooking before it was cool," he said in a tone that could be construed as cocky, until he explained that because they were poor when he was growing up, his mom would get all the parts that the butcher couldn't sell, like the pig's ears and knuckles, and take these home to cook for their family.

The nose-to-tail approach has long been prevalent in Filipino cuisine, regardless of social strata. Filipinos have always used sliced pig ears in their tokwa't baboy, and have never in the least bit been squeamish about munching on crunchy tuyo fish heads. When I left the motherland to join the diaspora, I did so knowing that these funky parts I'd grown up eating would be making rare appearances on my plate moving forward. So it's been a surprising yet welcome development that these days, utilizing every part of the animal is not just gaining acceptance but becoming quite fashionable—so fashionable, in fact, that I found myself staring at pig heads two days in a row without having to leave New York.

I spent my Saturday devouring balut and sampling Brooklyn-roasted Cebu-style lechon at Dekalb Market. When I didn't keel over from that little adventure, I thought I'd tempt fate on Sunday by joining my friends Jay and Linda in celebrating our Big Buddha's birthday with a large format, nose-to-tail feast at Resto. This Belgian restaurant is pretty much what I imagine heaven is like: equipped with a magical kitchen that can churn out a whole hog feast, as well as a bar that can drown me in Tripel Karmeliet. I mean, seriously, can I just move in? Resto's large format feast is tailored to a minimum of eight people and starts with the selection of an animal: pig, lamb, goat, veal, alligator (yup, that's happened)—basically, if they can source it, you can feast on it.

Our animal of choice was the pig, so the meal started with a selection of charcuterie that included headcheese and chicken liver paté on toast with Dijon and sweet mustard, plus some crisp cornichons on the side (the inclusion of another animal, while confusing, was ultimately still delicious and thus, welcome). The headcheese was yummy enough that even the non-offal-enthused among our party dug in and enjoyed it. I've been grappling with how to describe the taste of this much maligned delicacy for the non-headcheese eaters out there, and I think I've finally got it: it tastes like a cross between paté and hardboiled egg yolk, with the weight of something substantial, like meatloaf. As much as I loved it, I have to admit that its inclusion in the feast burst my bubble. Conceptually, the feast is supposed to be made with this one mythical pig that we selected. But later in the meal, the full head of the pig (with brain intact), was presented to us, so clearly the head cheese was not part of that one mythical pig. Oh well. As long as the end result is delicious, double servings of piggie heads ultimately do not bother me.

The second set of plates were my favorite part of the meal. There were some succulent ribs dripping in jus and left with some crispy skin on, and then a second platter of ribs coated in an Asian-style glaze with hint of spice. And of course, there were chunks of succulent pork belly crowned with crisp cracklings. Together with these wonderful plates came a beautiful salad of sweet heirloom tomatoes and briny feta, and another simple side of parsnips and greens with just the right amount of bitterness to offset the fatty pork.

After the rainfall of pork goodness came a peculiarly long drought. We sat there for awhile wondering if the meal was over. Consequently, our tummies sent the message to our brains that we were actually quite full. So when the final onslaught of pork came, we were a tad unprepared. I managed to have some of the pork shoulder rubbed with coriander, which was falling off the bone tender and paired with strips of grilled squash and zucchini. A pork loin with a side of young potatoes was served up, though the potatoes were raved about more than the pork (granted, we could have simply been suffering from pork fatigue, at this point). A tender leg was also served up on a bed of creamed corn but I only had the wherewithal to eat the corn—mostly because I wanted to use up the last of my stomach space on choice pieces of meat from the pig's head, which was served roasted.

After giving it the kiss of death, I went to town on that pig head, carving out soft chunks of flesh from the cheeks and neck. And then, Caroline and I managed to carve out the pig's brain by ourselves, much to the horror of the rest of our party. If you've never had pig brain, it surprisingly tastes quite similar to balut (which I realize is not an entirely helpful description, despite its accuracy).

After the pork overload, a plate of Belgian waffles-turned-ice-cream sandwiches was sent out with a birthday candle for Buddha, capping off our amazing meal. The dinner cost a pretty penny, but it was an experience worth every last cent and one I won't soon forget.

Resto is located at 111 East 29th Street (near Lexington Avenue), New York, New York.
For reservations, phone 212-685-5585.

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