It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment New York’s fascination with pork turned into a fascination with pigs. Though similar, the difference between pig and pork is vast. It’s the difference between life and death. Pigs are undead pork. Pork is a former pig.
Nevertheless, in recent years the object of the food scene’s affection has undeniably shifted from post- to pre-mortem. Once we contented ourselves with the worship of pork belly, the Omniscient Meat Xenu, and to ape Roman indulgence with gout-inducing meatopias.
But even in our most fervent bacchanal, the focus was on the animal after he had crossed the threshold from life unto death, from a breathing being to an eaten thing. But these days, mere meat isn’t real enough. Chase it back up to the gates of the abattoir. Undead it. It’s pig we’re after.
Pigs and New York, of course, have had a long and rich history. The New York Police Department was formed in 1845 … Kidding. I’m kidding. Hogs famously roamed the city’s squalid streets up until the mid-19th century. “Pigs were,” writes Henrick Hartog in his seminal text Pigs and Positivism, “an ordinary part of the American urban landscape.”
Until around 2002, however, pork was not present on the menus of “the right crowd.” The first pork fetishist of the modern era is a matter of some debate. Some say it was David Chang at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, others say the honor belongs to Zak Pelaccio at Chickenbone Café in Brooklyn. April Bloomfield certainly had something to do with it. Lady loves a good sow.
Unlike chicken tenders, which have been on menus since time immemorial yet have failed to ignite an ardent passion among foodies, pork in the modern age started a meatwave. Photographs of chefs posing with dead pigs became a meme. Chang did it. So did Bloomfield. Andrew Carmellini draped a pig across his shoulder as he rode a bicycle. Seamus Mullen held his pig, eyes closed sweetly, a little piggie smile fixed in death on its snout. Call it the Abu Ghraib moment of food porn.
For pork, unlike chicken, beef and certainly fish, has developed around it an ineffable sexiness. Eating trotters and nibbling on a crispy pig ear has become a debauch, the a table equivalent of finger-cuffs. There’s a reason Babe was a pig and not, say, turbot.
Two new restaurants illustrate the breadth of this fascination. Swine, a pig-and-wine bar in the West Village; and Pig and Khao, a Thai/Indonesian restaurant in the Lower East Side.
These new pig temples share an aggressively proletarian spirit, even as they charge bourgeois prices. Both also contain some element of word play in their names. Perhaps coincidentally—but I suspect there is a correlation—the quality of each restaurant is directly proportional to the quality of the pun in its moniker. Swine, which is properly written with a minuscule s and majuscule W, is the best in show. Pig and Khao—khao is a Thai for rice and sounds vaguely like English for “cow”—places a distant second.
Swine occupies the old bi-level space in the WestVillage that used to be Ruby Foo’s. (Pan-Asiatics are the latest victims of rampaging pigs.) The insides are all beat-up ersatz dive bar. The plaster has been painstakingly aged by Jason Volenec, who also designed Tertulia, into a scuffed palimpsest of manufactured past. Posters for rock concerts you haven’t been to hang on the wall. Sure, it’s all fake, but what past isn’t mitigated by what we wanted it to be?
John McNulty, who owns the restaurant along with an entertainment lawyer from Oklahoma named Cris Criswell, told me, “I’ve always wanted to have a dive bar with a great wine list.” He finally has his dream.
The word “swine,” he said, does double duty. It connotes a certain uncouthness, and it indicates how seriously the place takes its charcuterie. Another indicator of seriousness is the Berkel meat slicer in the open kitchen downstairs—a slightly quieter retreat from the jauntily chaotic main dining room. “It’s the Ferrari of meat slicers,” Mr. McNulty boasted.
The chef manning the slicer is Phil Conlon, formerly chef de cuisine of nearby Cafe Cluny. This might explain why so delicate a hand is manifest in the cooking, despite the rough milieu. The pork rillettes are tremendously porky without being aggressive. They are served, in an indication of thoughtfulness, with apricot mustard. The pork belly, in which crispness and unguent fat exist in perfect proportion, is accompanied by sweet chili glaze and offset by spicy pickled cabbage, a five-point-palm exploding heart technique of flavor. And the burger—a bone marrow and brisket outlier in a local burger landscape dominated by aged ground beef—proves Mr. Conlon’s touch isn’t confined to swine.
The food, in short, is familiar yet delightful. The service, however, is familiar to the point of impertinent. The first thing the server, a scruffy man with a lip piercing named Steven, said as he approached us—my wife, who was drinking a glass of grenache, one of the four wines on tap; a friend named Karl who drank a Bronx Ale and me, sipping a perfectly round and lightly oaky pinot noir—was “Hey, where’s the nursing convention?”
I was confused, since St. Vincents had closed. Karl thought he was alluding to breast-feeding, the topic of conversation at the moment. (We’re into it.) Only my wife had the wherewithal to realize Steven was obliquely criticizing the rate at which we were drinking. “People grow to like me?” said Steve, with doubt-tinged hopefulness.
As for Pig and Khao, perhaps the less said the better. The chef there, Leah Cohen, the former Top Chef contestant who partnered with the Fatty Crew, has become so enamored by the idea of extreme pig preparation she’s forgotten to make good food. Like Euripides’s Agave, who in her Dionysian derangement slaughters her own son, Pentheus, Ms. Cohen is so deranged with idea of pig slaughter, she winds up doing a real hatchet job on what she purports to love most.
The menu boasts pig face, which arrives sizzling with liver and a waiter bearing an egg. The egg, cracked upon a skillet tablesideand mixed in, is the best part. The menu also boasts grilled pig jowls, small inedible discs of pure gelatinous fat pared with overly salty chicharon and watermelon. And the pièce de résistance is a crispy pata, chunks of pork leg fried so excessively they could be just about anything—Werner Herzog’s shoe, deadstock Ho-Hos, tubes of lip balm—and it would taste the same. There are other similarly ill-considered items on the menu. Quail adobo, for instance, in which the bone-to-flesh ratio is so high as to render the labor-to-enjoyment ratio infinitesimal.
The error isn’t so much in the execution here, or the unbalanced flavor profiles, but in the perverted vision of what and why we serve pig.
I suspect that the pork-to-pig movement was a well-founded reaction against both commodity meat and fussy dining that resulted in a renewed focus on the whole hog (as opposed to endless plastic-wrapped tenderloins). Initially, it was couched in the language of sustainable farming and championed by chefs like Fergus Henderson at London’s St. John. But at a certain hazy point, this laudable aim began to mutate into an unseemly fascination with offal and off-cuts, couched in the language of machismo.
First there were The Spotted Pig and Momofuku. Then there were Traif and Fette Sau. Then Swine. Pig and Khao is the end game, the reductio ad absurdum. The object of macho disregard was once the pork, but now it’s the pig—as if being cavalier about the life of a pig is somehow honoring the animal’s spirit.
I eagerly await the arrival of boutique slaughterhouses, where discerning locavores can spend a Friday night trying their hand at hacking through the carotid arteries of pasture-raised piglets. They’ll let the animals bleed out all over their Alden boots and pretty No.6 clogs, then repair to the dining room to devour their handiwork, high-fiving and smugly tweeting: #Squeal