This post is part of a larger series titled Bryan's Birthday Weekend Extravaganza detailing restaurants visited on Bryan's birthday weekend back in October. Other posts in this series include Shabu & Mein and Toro.
Nose to tail cooking is a philosophy that encourages using as much of an animal as possible in an effort to avoid waste. It embraces recipes that use animal parts that most people throw out, such as offal (hearts, livers, and other internal organs), feet, heads, and (quite literally), noses and tails. It's something the Chinese have been doing all along, so in some ways, I'm more used to it because I grew up eating half of this stuff.
Tony Maws from Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter, has long been a proponent of this type of cooking and is not afraid to put unusual animal parts on his menu. Examples of some of his more well-known dishes include his Crispy Fried Pig Tails, Grilled Salmon Head, and offaly items from his Road Less Traveled Dinner, like cock's combs, monkfish liver, and cod milt (aka . . ahem, cod sperm sac).
One of his most well-known "nose to tail" dishes is the Confit and Roasted Milk Fed Pig's Head for Two at Craigie on Main. It's half a young pig's head, confit in its own fat and then baked at super high temperatures to form a gorgeous, crispy skin. The head is served with wrappers, pickled vegetables, and a modified hoisin sauce - a nod to the style of Peking duck.
Bryan has been wanting to try this forever. We had already tried Craigie's Whole Roasted Misty Knoll Chicken for Two (which was fantastic, by the way), the Ultimate Craigie Experience, brunch, and the famous Burger.
So for his birthday weekend, we booked a late seating at Craigie on Main and scored the ringside seats, giving us the best front row views to the open kitchen.
Before I continue, if you are squeamish about seeing animal parts, especially a pig's face being eaten, I would advise that you don't click on the "more" link to see the rest of this post. Otherwise, click on to see the meal that we had!
The Pig's Head for Two counts as two entrees on the a la carte menu. We decided to order a few starters as well before we dug into the pig's head. I started with a cold soup: an Heirlook Tomato and Crab Gazpacho which I absolutely loved. The flavors of the bright, end-of-summer tomatoes were beautiful, just lightly "creamed" up with a bit of bread. A finishing olive oil completed the delectable soup.
We also loved the House Made Squid Ink Rigatoni, which was served with Countneck clams, preserved lemon, sugar kelp, sea beans, broccoli, and spicy bread crumbs. The texture of the pasta was perfect - al dente and wonderfully fragrant with the oceany clams, umami-laden seaweed, and bright lemon essence. The crunchy croutons added a lovely textural element to the whole dish.
We also couldn't resist trying the Early Fall Corn Velouté, a sweet and velvety rich corn soup served with fennel sausage, oyster mushrooms, and garbanzo beans. I have loved Chef Maws's corn soup ever since I first tried it at Craigie Street Bistrot years ago, and this was no exception. His method of preparation is painstaking, involving scraping corn cobs to collect corn "milk", simmering cobs with aromatics to make a corn stock, and then blending in batches of corn.
It was cooked a perfect golden brown, with a very crispy skin (and ears!).
Hoisin Boudin Noir Sauce, a sauce made with pig's blood and thus having "liver-like" flavors.
Finally, as a nod to the autumn seasonal ingredients, there was Butternut Squash Som Tam (a Thai pounded salad typically made with green papayas).
The meat inside was insanely tender, probably due to both the confit cooking method and the young, milk-fed pig. The skin was beautifully crispy, and the fat layer in between was thick. Unlike in a Peking duck, where the fat is mostly rendered out, these bites were fatty, juicy, and crunchy all at the same time.
Bryan loves fatty meat (he still thinks about that perfectly marbled Wagyu beef in Japan), and therefore loved this dish. I enjoyed the crunchy bits and the super tender meat, though the fat got to me after awhile. It's definitely not something you want to eat daily!
To make a wrap, add hoisin sauce, som tam, and top with some meat plus skin.
Roll it up. It's easy to be greedy and fill it too full. Less is more in this case. You don't want your wrap to explode and fall apart. You can always get more extra wraps if needed (we asked for a second helping!).
It was quite a feat eating the entire half head. Digging through it is interesting because you encounter so many different textures and flavors. Growing up Taiwanese, I have always loved pig's ears, so I had no problem digging into the ears. They are crunchy and mostly cartilage. There are also some nice soft tendon parts, which I personally enjoyed a lot. The cheeks are very tender, though there's quite a bit of fat in that area.
The tongue and brains are removed, so don't worry about having to eat those if that would freak you out.
Bryan was brave and ate the eye ball, which was the size of a golf ball! I must say I was feeling a bit squeamish about that and couldn't bring myself to do it.
When I asked him what it tasted like, he said.
Ewwwww . . . I think if I get over the squeamishness I would probably really like it.
I couldn't believe it, but we ate the whole head. I think seeing the teeth was the most difficult part for me (in terms of squeamishness). Otherwise, it wasn't too bad. I'm not sure if I'd personally volunteer to eat this again, seeing that I'm more of a vegetable and seafood lover (and I don't really like fatty meat). However, it was perfect for Bryan and he really enjoyed it. In fact, we both agreed he probably ate about 80% of the head, which is even crazier.
The restaurant does a phenomenal job of creating a piece of meat that's super crispy on the outside yet meltingly tender on the inside. All squeamishness aside, it's quite a masterpiece. The execution is flawless. The accompaniments, on the other hand, I found to be average. I personally think som tam works a lot better with green papayas than butternut squash, and I didn't care for the offal-y flavors of the hoisin sauce. Traditional Peking duck accompaniments are already pretty perfect and are hard to improve. I appreciate the effort to incorporate offal and use seasonal ingredients. I just didn't love the flavors.
Nevertheless, the meat itself is still phenomenal. You will enjoy the meal just fine even if you just dig into the pig's head alone. It's still excellent (and in my mind, better), by itself.
If you're the type of person who loves digging into a lobster whole, exploring all its nooks and crannies AND you're not squeamish about heads and such, then I think this pig's head just may be the perfect dish for you.