November 14, 2016

Gettin' piggy with it

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Tonight I was invited to attend an event entitled "A Tribute to Pigs".  Held at La Paloma, it was a battle of eight different restaurants - each presenting a different dish using pork as its main ingredient.  The organizer has had some experience putting together a few of these "battles", and I was curious to see what it would be like, so I accepted the invitation to be a "judge".

We were given a score sheet and asked to grade each dish on presentation, taste, juiciness, and creativity.  The group of us - who took up almost half of the restaurant's space - sat right outside the open kitchen... and I gotta say that the smell of good food covered us the entire time...

Crispy "nose to tail" terrine, pigs ear bacon and 'nduja’, by Linguini Fini - this was a winner, right off the bat.  Brined for 6 days before braising for 6 hours, with roasted garlic and oregano, then breaded and fried till crispy.  Served with Brussels sprouts which have been charred to deliver more flavor.  The dressing at the bottom was ranch dressing flavored with 'nduja.

There were small chunks of bacon made from pigs ear, which had been brined and braised like the rest of the terrine, before being smoked and then pressed.  The smoky flavors definitely stood out, as did the crunch from the cartilage.  The small sunny side up quail egg was meant to complete the "bacon and egg" presentation.

This dish was AWESOME.  Aside from the satisfaction of eating something that's covered with a layer of crispy breading, the contents were very, very tender.  Shredded pork jowl has plenty of collagen, so it scored high on juiciness.  A lot of work went into the making of the pigs ear bacon, and I loved it.  The dressing and the Brussels sprouts also worked very well.  Basically, it was tough to find fault with this dish.  It was practically perfect.

Shredded Iberico pork pluma with homemade liver pate, kimchi jam and spring onion sauce on baguette toast, by Hilda Leung - everyone next to me seemed to know Hilda, which leaves me the odd one out - since I don't watch Hong Kong TV and so would have no idea who these 'celebrity' TV chefs are...

There's a layer of pork liver pâté spread onto the slice of baguette, on top of which is shredded ibérico pluma.  Then there's some kimchi and pear jam, and Cantonese minced ginger and spring onion (薑蓉).

I wasn't very impressed with this, and the fact that this was served right after the terrine from Linguini Fini really highlighted the difference in level.  The bitterness of the liver came through, and while we knew there was kimchi here, it was so mild that the ginger practically covered it up.  The biggest surprise, however, was the pluma.  It was the main ingredient, and certainly the most pricy given it's pluma - and from ibérico pork, no less!  Yet aside from the tenderness, there was nothing memorable about the pork itself.

Iberico pork belly karaage, by Okra - this was ibérico pork belly that was marinated in jalapeño miso, breaded and fried to deliver a crispy exterior.  Sliced and served with ume (梅) ketchup - made with salted plum and olive oil.  Our two servings came from drastically different cuts - the first had a lot of fat, which was at times a little chewy.

The other serving looked more like the classic five-layered pork (五花肉).  A lot less fat here, but still tender.

While this was reasonably tasty thanks to the fat and the crispy exterior, it kinda reminded me of the Taiwanese dish of pork with red lees (紅糟肉)... which made this feel somewhat less of a creative dish.  The more usual element of the dish came in the form of the side salad, which was made with mizuna (水菜), celery, and daikon (大根) radish... and came with a spicy dressing.

Okinawa pork knuckle, by Ura - I've been a HUGE fan of pork knuckle since childhood, and it's one of my favorite dishes from mom.  This, however, just didn't do it for me.  Yes, it was tender... but it's not difficult to cook this till the skin and collagen becomes soft.  The problem here is that there's no richness of flavor - which is what I look for in this dish.  The broth was too light, and I didn't get the use of pineapple in the dish at all.  The chiffonade of the chili pepper was a nice touch and provided a hint of a kick, but it was all too subtle.  Finally, we all know that sea grapes (海ぶどう) feature prominently in Okinawan cuisine, but these look like they've been cooked to death.  The individual grapes should be popping in the mouth under pressure from the tongue or teeth, but these were already shrunken.  And flavor-wise, they added nothing to the dish.

Stir fry local black pork in golden nest (琉璃金盞), by Tak Lung (得龍大飯店) - I was really, really looking forward to the dish from Tak Lung, given its reputation for various pork dishes.  But this really underwhelmed.  The crispy nest carried some stir-fried fatty minced pork, with spring onions, chili, and yellow soybeans which looked like they came off sprouts.  Juicy and tender, for sure, but hardly creative.

The steamed bun on the side held a chunk of honey-glazed barbecued pork, but this char siu (叉燒) was slightly dry and on the chewy side - despite the fat.  Totally disappointing.

Pork 'merguez' sausage, bread and onions, by The Fat Pig by Tom Aikens - the sausage was made with almost equal portions of pork shoulder, pork belly, and lamb, mixed with some toasted cumin and other spices.  Served on a slice of delicious sourdough, with roasted onions and peppers.

I love the texture of the sausage, which was tender but firm as a merguez would be.  It was nice and spicy, with plenty of heat.  The peppers were delicious, and delivered their own dose of heat.  Delicious and satisfying.

Porchetta sandwich, by NOM - thin slices of porchetta, served on top of thick focaccia with celery root mayo, Gorgonzola, and pickled cauliflower.  Another dish where a no-brainer disappointed.  What's with the thin slices?  Porchetta would be so much more satisfying if I got to bite into thick chunks of it.  As it stands the ratio of pork to bread was totally wrong.  The other problem was that while I like Gorgonzola, it is far too strong to accompany most ingredients.  In this case, the pork couldn't stand up to the cheese - which wasn't really what I wanted out of this.

Curiously we were also served these potato chips on the side.  They seemed to have been seasoned with little other than seaweed and shrimp powder.  Very mild flavors, but I could still taste the umami.

Cochinillo con papas arrugadas y mojo picon, by La Paloma - marinated overnight with cumin, lemon, and coriander, then cooked sous vide at 60°C for 8 hours.  After de-boning, the suckling pig was placed back into the bag and then flattened.  After 20 minutes in the oven, the crunchy crackling was achieved by pan-frying on the grill.  The two different sauces on the plate were beetroot with vinegar and mojo picon.

Suckling pig is something I find irresistible, and I have to say that the "sandwich" was very, very good.  The meat was tender and the crackling had the requisite crunch.  This was the kind that dish that delivered satisfaction.

What were my top three dishes of the night?  I have to say that the terrine from Linguini Fini never got knocked off the top spot the whole night.  The cochinillo from La Paloma got close, but no cigar.  The merguez from The Fat Pig by Tom Aikens also made me very, very happy.

But the crowd disagreed with me, although not by much.  The consensus put La Paloma in the top spot, followed very closely by Linguini Fini, and Okra took third.  Our little table was surprised to find that the crowd had voted Tak Lung into fourth place, while pretty much all five of us relegated it to the bottom on our list.  Oh well...

We're told that these dishes will be available in the respective restaurants from November 16-23, and three other participating restaurants - 22 Ships, Catalunya, and Rhoda - will also serve a special dish during this period.  I might just have to run up to Linguini Fini during lunch one of these days and order up another terrine!

Many thanks to the Forks and Spoons for this kind invitation.

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