Of all the culinary traditions around the world, there isn't one more decadent than the pig roast. As a foodie, I've always wanted to attend one of these celebrations of all things porcine, and I finally got my chance recently at The Pantry Restaurant on Rodney Parham Road. Organized by local blogger Kevin Shalin and The Pantry's owner (and self-proclaimed "food evangelist") Tomas Bohm, the event saw a diverse group of doctors, lawyers, salesmen, news anchors, and table-top game enthusiasts all brought together by one unifying force: the promise of feasting on a tender roast suckling pig.
As the group gathered in the Pantry's waiting area, introductions were made and the excitement was palpable. The friendly waitstaff ushered us into a back room where we were greeted by plates holding a single unctuous bite of pate de campagne nestled on a crouton with just a touch of stone-ground mustard and a bit of cornichon. I've talked before about my love for this pate, and this lovely bit of the stuff made for the perfect amuse bouche. As our group settled in with our wine, beer, and cocktails, we were brought a small flask of a butternut squash soup that melded the sweet flavor of winter squash with a firm foundation of smoky bacon essence in away that was both refreshing and quite bracing, especially given the cold weather outside. These small openers were just a little taste of what was to come, however, as soon our main course arrived.
First, dishes of thick potato salad appeared, followed quickly by platters of red cabbage and sauerkraut. The mayo-based potato salad was rich at first taste, but the copious amount of fresh herbs atop the tender potatoes did a lot to add an excellent freshness to the affair. The red cabbage was a good mix of sweet and tangy, and I knew at first bite that it was going to be the perfect addition to roast pork. The Pantry's kraut is good, although the sweeter preparation with caraway seeds isn't my personal favorite. We passed around the dishes, family-style, moving past the opening "so what do you do?" type of conversation to more important issues: roasting versus braising, the relative merits and drawbacks of the maple-bacon doughnut, and whether or not manly men should order a cocktail on the menu called "Rhuby Sparkles" (for the record: yes, the artisanal rhubarb liqueur is fantastic).
Finally, our main course was upon us, presented with flair by Bohm and Pantry Chef Titus Holly. The pig weighed in at around 30 pounds, and the immediate aroma of roasted pork filled the room and had our mouths watering. Bohm began carving from the head, passing around plates of some of the lesser-eaten parts of the pig: the eye socket, the cheek, the tongue, and the brain. Of all these, the eye socket and cheek were big hits, as these small, flavorful muscles provided a delicate flavor along with good texture. The tongue was also quite good, milder in flavor than a beef tongue, yet still with just a touch of wildness to the taste. As for the brain, there were only a few of us brave enough to try it, and one bite of the gamey, iron-rich organ proved to me yet again that the flavor benefits of eating brain are nowhere near the risks associated with it.
Moving away from the head, we began to get into the really good stuff: the pork shoulder and ribs. In this part of the world, these parts of the animal are normally used in barbecue, but I found this roasted preparation to be quite good, especially with the ribs. Each bite was moist and tender, wrapped in bites of crispy skin and falling from the bone. The ribs were particularly good, with just the smallest amount of fat present to flavor the meat, and each bite just hammered home my distaste for ribs that are smothered in barbecue sauce to the point where the meat is entirely covered up. Plate after plate went around our table, sometimes in multiple directions, and the pleased sounds around the table began to turn into sighs of satiety and groans of over-indulgence. It was at about that point when we heard the announcement: "Ok, here comes the ham!"
This ham was unlike any other I've ever eaten, roasted and carved from the bone instead of the cured and smoked version that's most commonly found. The richness of the meat was still present, but the oily nature of the meat had been rendered and changed into something close in texture to the shoulder but with a deeper, fuller flavor. Most of the ham wound up going home with the lot of us, though, and made a great addition to the pot of navy beans I made the next day. Judging by some of the other leftover pictures I saw, the rest of the group was equally as pleased with what they took.
If there's one thing that Dan and I want to stress through our writing, it's that food is the great equalizer, the thing that brings people of all races, classes, and creeds together. As we sat around that table, we were all a part of the meal at hand, beyond differences of opinion on the mundane matters of the day. In addition, it's always fun to see some of our Little Rock area culinary masters at work, and the Pantry's staff succeeded beyond our best expectations.
The Pantry is located at 11401 Rodney Parham in Little Rock. They have a full menu, and you can call (501) 353 - 1875 to book your own special event.