As diners have gotten more adventurous over the years, so too have the dishes at many restaurants around town. What was once a niche dining option, head-to-tail dining, is now borderline mainstream, with offal dishes and lesser-used animal parts commonplace at restaurants like The Red Hen in Bloomingdale, Silver Spring's new Urban Butcher and The Pig in Logan Circle (where they have an entire dinner series devoted to the subject).
But for some, dining on nose or tail just isn't enough. Sometimes, they want the whole entire thing.
"I love roasting pigs," Poste Executive Chef Dennis Marron tells Eater. "I get to stand up there and tend the fire all day. It usually makes for a long day, but it's fun."
Marron is talking about his time manning the spit during The Poste Roast, a special dining party featuring a whole-animal roast in the Penn Quarter restaurant's courtyard. Diners can choose from several animals including lamb, goat and beef, but Marron's — and the diner's — favorite is pig. Marron says it's ordered about 90 percent of the time.
It all depends on the size of the group, but Marron prefers to cook 30 to 40 pound pigs. "I think that's the perfect size with a good amount of fat," he explains. "If they're too young, they don't have the muscle development, they don't have the fat and their skin doesn't get as crispy."
Along with the pig, the Poste Roast includes salad, a selection of three sides and dessert (the roasts average about $85 per person, depending on amounts and items ordered). The main course itself consists of the whole pig, obviously, which is served with peach butter and sauce charcuterie, but Marron also likes to send out what he calls a "surprise freebie" middle course.
"After it comes off the spit, I'll take the head off the pig and split it," he says. Once he's got the head in two, Marron goes to town, taking the cheek meat, brains, tongue, skin, jowl meat and fat and mixing it up along with with mayonnaise, bread crumbs, parmesan and garlic for a filling. When that's done, he stuffs it all back in the head, bakes it and then sends it out to the table.
"People are like 'Oh my God, there's a whole head,'" Marron says. "And once they get into it, they love it."
Along with Marron, another D.C. chef well aware of the public's affinity for swine head is Red Apron's Nathan Anda, whose new restaurant, The Partisan, has the dish featured prominently on its dinner menu ($75).
"The head has a ton of good stuff going on in it, between the crispy skin, the face, the meat-to-fat ratio and how the muscle breaks down when it cooks for such a long period of time and gets nice and tender" Anda says. "A lot of people get excited about that."
But before Partisan diners can dive into all that crispy and tender goodness, there's a lengthy amount of prep that must take place first. To start, the heads are cooked for around 13 hours at a low heat, allowing them to break down and for the fat to render out. They rest a bit before the cheeks are scored and then, at the beginning of the service, they're placed in the convection oven at about 125 degrees. Once an order is placed, they're blasted at 450-500 degrees "so it'll crisp the skin and get all hot and good on the inside," says Anda.
The ears, however, go through their own special preparation. After they're removed from the head, they get braised, pressed and then julienned. While the pig is in the oven getting ready to come to the table, the ear slivers are then fried up and tossed with arugula, lemon and olive oil. The resulting pig ear salad surrounds the head on a roasting pan along with salsa verde, pickled peppers and some house bread. And then one final step before it reaches the table: a slit above the cheekbone which allows the server to peel back the jowl and reveal all the meat.
Anda says the plan is for diners to build little sandwiches with it all but sometimes, they want a little more. "It's nuts. You'll have some people doing research before they come and get it," he says. "There's a very tender piece behind the eye and you'll have people flip [the head] over, take a spoon and pop out the eye so they can get that meat."
But Anda's favorite part of it all doesn't require any eye scooping.
"The cheek is the best," he raves. "The way that thing cooks, basically it just slow cooks so it stays completely intact. When you pull that jowl out, the cheek is just sitting there for the taking."
Poste's Marron, on the other hand, finds it hard to pick a favorite, "Ear...skin...cheek...and neck. Is that too many? I like it all."
While The Partisan's pig head is available any night on the regular menu, those interested in The Poste Roast need to plan the pork party in advance; Marron needs at least 72 hours notice so he can contact his farmers about the pig. And if people would rather whole-hog it up on their own turf, Arlington's Green Pig Bistro will take the show on the road for roasts in diners' own backyards.
Editor's Note: Palena used to do a whole-animal roast as well, but according to a rep, the dinner is no longer available.
· Poste Roast [Official Site]