Going Whole Hog (and Cow) at Poste and Palena

Two chefs are offering menus that feature every part of an animal. We checked them out, brains and all.

By: Kate Nerenberg

A group on the lovely patio at Poste; a pig ready to go out to the table. Photographs by Scott Suchman

The food world is obsessed with pork, from chefs sporting pig tattoos to chocolatiers making bacon-studded bars. And offal—organs and innards that used to be thrown away—is now on lots of menus.

Amid this meat frenzy, we thought we’d try the head-to-tail menu at Palena Cafe—seven courses that celebrate the cow—and the Poste Roast, a spit-roasted whole pig, lamb, goat, or salmon at Poste.

At the Italian-inflected Palena, chef Frank Ruta’s head-to-tail dishes rarely change, but sides and garnishes depend on the season. His soups are some of the best in Washington, so it’s no surprise that oxtail-enriched consommé with slivered beef shoulder was lovely—and the pea raviolini in it nearly perfect. Also not surprising: Ruta lets the flavors of the ingredients, not fancy techniques, do the talking. A tomato ragu with oxtail, beef cheek, nutmeg, and cinnamon served over bits of toasted vermicelli was rustic and hearty. Raw tenderloin was diced for a very good crudo, simply adorned with arugula and Parmesan.

The surprise was that the vegetable sides and dessert upstaged the meat. The best dish was a salad of lamb’s quarters (a type of green), thin-sliced watermelon radishes, fennel fronds, and curls of raw asparagus barely dressed with lemon and olive oil. Just as good was a side of roasted turnips tossed in sherry vinegar, which came with slices of dry-aged, grilled rib steak with horseradish cream.

I left with bags of leftovers, a new favorite dessert (divine buttermilk ice cream with balsamic-coated strawberries and house-made shortbread cookies), and the thought that if I could eat vegetables like that every day, maybe I could give up meat.

Whereas lags between courses at Palena translated to a four-hour meal on a Tuesday night, the Poste Roast felt breezy and relaxed, thanks in part to the setting: a long, granite-topped table in chef Rob Weland’s vegetable garden. Here it was the meat that outshone everything else. We went with a whole pig, which Weland brined for 24 hours in garlic, juniper, coriander, and other spices and roasted on an outdoor rotisserie. (To please pork fanatics, the head is presented on a platter, mouth open, teeth bared.) The result was intensely flavorful and moist pulled pork, with shards of crisp bronze skin and a garlicky salsa verde.

The sides felt like an afterthought. Red-pepper-flecked mac and cheese had a taste reminiscent of the boxed variety, bourbon-soaked apples were too boozy, and the sauerkraut needed more acid and less caraway seed.

If Palena’s Ruta nearly convinced me that vegetables could make up an entire diet, Weland brought me back to my meat-eating senses. And it didn’t hurt that the bits of brain pried from the pig’s head were creamy and delicious.

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