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The life span of a trend in the restaurant world is about as long as that of a trend in the fashion world. Which is to say, not long at all. The poor fruit fly lives longer.
Remember when sous-vide was all the rage? What was that, nine months ago?
But “local, regional, seasonal”—a virtual mantra among chefs these days—has proven so durable, it’s probably time to regard it as more than a trend. So thoroughly have its assumptions and attitudes saturated the scene that the question to ask of any ambitious new place is not whether it has embraced the principles but to what degree.
Credit the phrase’s durability in part to its malleability. Just when you think “local, regional, seasonal” is on the verge of irrelevance, along comes a subgenre to revive the form. The latest mutation was identified not long ago by a friend who walked into Green Pig Bistro and asked, “What’s this supposed to be, some kind of hipster farmhouse?”
If farm-to-table has helped contextualize local, regional, and seasonal, “hipster farmhouse” is its logical, big-city extension. Think of it as its unruly offspring, a brash kid who flexes his tattooed bicep but also demonstrates such regard for his forebears that you can’t help but feel affection for him, even when he screws up.
To a greater degree than such recent DC arrivals as District Kitchen, Boundary Road, and Mintwood Place, Green Pig Bistro defines the subgenre. The low-slung room looks like a basement as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: cool, clean lines, a pervasive gray that feels like the absence of color, and tall, uncurtained windows that let the neighborhood in.
A corridor leading to the dining room is pasted with old recipes, a detail meant to impart the down-home sensibility of Sunday supper but done so immaculately that it’s hard not to see the guiding hand of a design firm. A long table dividing the dining room showcases a collection of casserole crocks piled just so. Napkins are dishtowels.
Now the hipster influence: Instead of well-heeled preppies kicking back in Dockers, populate the scene with the hard-drinking denizens of DC’s H Street, Northeast, and crank up the Curtis Mayfield. That dude with the mohawk and baroque tattoos? That’s the sous chef. Can’t remember the name of the black-T-shirted waiter who took your drink order? When he deposits your excellent Port City Porter, from the Alexandria brewer, or your fine Cab Franc from Michael Shaps’s Virginia Wineworks, it might be inked on his wrist.
And then there’s pig, as obligatory an item as an oven and a stove, and in the end probably more important than either.
On the way to dinner one night, I said to a friend, “I hope you like pig.”
“You mean pork?”
“No,” I said. “Pig.”
He thought I was making an unnecessary distinction—until the first of chef Scot Harlan’s courses arrived: a taco piled with strips of pig ear fried and salted to resemble crunchy potato matchsticks, topped off with a dab of guacamole; a mini-Reuben in which dainty squares of buttered rye enclosed a plank of corned ox heart; and best of all, a surf-and-turf that paired Korean-glazed pork ribs with sweet, salty clams and gently steamed bok choy.
Once upon a time, chefs wanted you to appreciate how much detail went into their plates—the repeated strainings it took to produce a consommé, the precision of the knife work in the brunoise. The hipster-farmhouse chef wants you to think he just whipped something up on a moment’s notice and to revel in his witty synthesis of high and low.
Harlan is an artisan—he sources his meats and vegetables locally and does his own butchering and pickling—and the cleanness of his style is proof of his technical facility, but he clearly seems obsessed with the unvarnished pleasures of pub grub and junk food. The quality of his raw materials and the accuracy of his aim enable him to turn out dishes that are lighter and more complex than the originals: pork ribs in the style of Buffalo wings; lamb sweetbreads in the style of Kung Pao chicken; pig’s feet in the style of tater tots; French fries in the style of poutine; gnocchi in the style of stuffed potato skins.
These are fun ideas, but the quality varies. The ribs were fantastic, the hot sauce and blue-cheese sauce as luxurious as an elegant wine reduction, the ribbons of celery providing just the right bitterness. The gnocchi, however, were overrich, and the sweetbreads arrived overcooked, lacking the custardy consistency that would sharpen the contrast with their crunchy, KFC-like exterior.
At times you wonder whether Harlan thinks merely evoking the junk-food original is sufficient, as if constructing a dish around ingredients few people would have ordered a decade ago was itself an accomplishment. Management reinforces this notion. “How is everything?” a GM asked more than once. Then, pointing to one of the chef’s remastered dishes: “Pretty awesome, huh?”
A little guidance from the staff when it comes to ordering would be a good thing. Creating balance in a meal can be a challenge when even the veggies, such as an excellent plate of asparagus (topped with hollandaise and a poached egg), don’t provide respite from the richness. That one of the lightest dishes is country-style pâté with vinegared frisée is a commentary both on Harlan’s precise handling and on how gut-busting many of the dishes are.
One of the ironies of the menu is that many of the best plates are the simplest, such as a cheeseburger that is—surprise—not made with pig innards. It’s just a very good burger, with well-seasoned beef from, as my waiter put it “a happy local cow.” (Note to staff: Personification is not appetizing.)
The steak, too, came from a “happy cow,” though its meat was chewy and needed all of its marrow butter to keep things interesting. Better was a plate that appeared almost out of place: juicy roast Cornish hen with cornbread dressing and ham-studded greens. No offal, no cleverness. Simple, sublime. Spring for the irresistible Parker House rolls or cornbread to go with it.
Harlan was previously the pastry chef at Inox in Tysons Corner, a high-profile restaurant with a comet-like trajectory. He has reprised that role here. Green Pig Bistro is a less ambitious place, but many of his sweets bear the marks of fine dining, including superb Key-lime pie for two, perfect butterscotch pudding, and banana cake that tastes more intensely of banana than a banana. The cleanness of his style helps lessen the impact of all those calories if not actually reducing their number.
I suppose it’s possible that one day we’ll see the advent of “health nut farmhouse,” though in the midst of this pork-centric age, it’s hard to imagine. I certainly can’t see Harlan and his tatted-up crew getting behind it.
This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.