Le Petit Cochon has Big Appeal

As his new restaurant attests, chef Derek Ronspies has more than just a pig up his sleeve.

The last two times I ate at Le Petit Cochon, the small Fremont restaurant was noticeably quiet. Granted, those were some of our coldest nights. Yet considering that chef Derek Ronspies is the brother of the well-regarded Art of the Table’s Dustin Ronspies and honed his cheffing chops alongside him, I expected a crowd.

The lack of one is unfortunate because the meals I’ve had there are some of the best I’ve eaten this fall. I have a theory about why the restaurant, which opened in October, isn’t yet drawing a huge clientele. But first, the food.

Like Art of the Table, Le Petit Cochon does indeed have an adventurous menu (changing weekly, even daily), with items like pig-face fritter, duck feet, blood sausage and pig-snout hash. But there’s far more happening on this menu—and on the plates—than the “throwaway” parts of an animal that may make some squeamish.

When I set out to review LPC, admittedly I wasn’t excited. My mother comes from the poor South, where eating things like brains and gizzards weren’t considered exotic, but simply what one could afford. Growing up, I’d often see her eating what have since become newfangled delicacies and wonder: Why? A year in Asia also brought my palate up close and personal with parts of animals’ bodies I’d never imagined eating. Suffice it to say that while I do find some of these meats appealing, I also find them limiting. But that doesn’t matter, because Ronspies’ wheelhouse is vast, in terms of the ingredients he serves as well as the range of spices he uses and preparations he’s refined. He may like to be known as the offal guy, but he works just as much magic with vegetables and herbs.

A starter of creamy celeriac soup comes topped with a chickpea fritter with a silky-smooth inside, served with a small dollop of cream laced with vadouvan (a masala spice blend with a French twist of shallots and garlic), which brings a wonderful, surprising burst of Indian flavor. To ease the unctuousness of a cream soup, Ronspies smartly lays it atop a Brussels-sprout slaw. A touch of chili oil heightens the array of flavors, which includes a fine almond finish.

Another knock-it-out-of-the-kitchen dish is the meatball dashi: Three incredibly flavorful, chunky meatballs float in a fragrant matsutake broth. Having foraged for matsutakes just last month on a secret Whidbey Island locale with chef Shane Ryan from Matt’s at the Market—and thus hyper-aware of their telltale odor and taste, which the field guide Mushrooms Demystified calls “a provocative compromise between Red Hots and dirty socks”—I was elated when that first spoonful flooded my senses with the complexity of that particular fungi. Ronspies captures the essence of matsutake so purely. A crispy rice cake is a clever cohort in texture, and whole baby turnips lend a subtle bite that helps to cleanse the palate amid such powerful flavors from the pork and the mushrooms. It was, to my taste, a perfect dish.

A staple starter, the housemade blood & foie is not for the faint-hearted, but it too delivers in almost all the right ways. Full disclaimer: My experience with blood sausages had been limited to a couple hole-in-the-wall joints near Shea Stadium back in New York, where my Colombian husband would often order and relish them during Mets games. Not my thing. But determined to taste what our friendly waitress claimed was one of their signature dishes, I went forth. The square of foie is sublime, in that decadent, slippery, salty-sweet way that only bloated duck liver can be. Two large blood sausages are as deeply flavored as they are colored (nearly black)—smoky and redolent of clove. These fatty, flavorful meats lie atop a pecan “Nutella” that is nowhere near as cloyingly sweet as actual Nutella, and small crispy bites of delicata squash and parsnip chips bring desirable crunch. My only beef with this dish: It could use some crusty bread on the side. That much spreadable richness needs it.

Same goes for the snack of Kurtwood Farms’ Loghouse Tomme cheese with red wine redux, membrillo (a quince marmalade), and a tasty mirepoix of parsnips, onions, and duck cracklin’s. Kudos for giving us several large slabs of this provocatively musty cheese and fanciful accompaniments, but we really need more than two tiny crackers as a vehicle to get it all in our mouths.

Moving on to “Supper,” i.e., entr é es. Our duck breast was cooked excellently; the herbed risotto it’s served with is spot-on, something that anyone who’s ever tried to cook risotto at home knows is tough to pull off. It’s creamy without being too watery, the rice itself just al dente. Where the dish goes astray, however, is in Ronspies’ desire to get a lot of tastes onto a plate, something that happens in more than just one dish, and that also seems to be a trend—often not executed well—at many sophisticated restaurants in Seattle. Thing is: The red-wine demi and fig jam don’t make any sense with the duck-gizzard ragù served inside a cabbage and flavored with quatre épices, a pungent Middle Eastern spice mix that has a distinctive taste of pumpkin pie (read: clove, nutmeg, ginger). Don’t get me wrong—the ragù was right-on, as was the duck. But they belong on different plates.

Ditto their Olsen Farms “Phat Ass” pork chop—though let me first point out that this seriously large chop, which so easily could have been overcooked, was refreshingly moist and juicy. One of my fellow diners declared it the best pork chop he’d ever eaten. These small criticisms, therefore, should be read with that in mind. I loved the way they served it, on its own cutting board. (How else should a “Phat Ass” chop come?) Beneath it, grits as good as my mama makes. But, again, while the pork and the kohlrabi slaw (swoon) on top is seasoned with Indian flavors like coriander, the smears of pear butter and dark, grainy mustard on the side don’t complement it. In fact, the mustard against the Eastern flavors was actually unappetizing. Pork and mustard are great companions. Pork and Indian flavors are too. But pick one, please.

Still, I kind of love the abandon Ronspies is working under. While that abandon sometimes gets reckless, more often than not it’s exciting and interesting. Seared scallops with a squash purée, parsley root, treviso (similar to radicchio), a truffle vinaigrette, and Lemon Frito come together admirably. Vinaigrettes—from red grape to black bean—are something Ronspies employs often, and help brighten and balance fats. A dish of foraged mushrooms (hedgehogs, maitakes, black trumpets, and king oysters), for instance, gets a blast of a pine-nut vin—the pine-nut flavor similar to the nuttiness of the mushrooms, yet astringent enough to bring them out of the woods, so to speak. A self-proclaimed dessert snob, I actually loved their Not Your Mama’s Apple Pie, which consists of apple fritters with a true velvety interior (rather than just overly fried dough), served with a tart apple consommé, chunks of cooked apple, and maple-parsnip ice cream with caramel.

In short, this is comfort food conceived and executed in the most elegant of ways.

The interior aims for that same vibe. The space is minimalist but has warm accents—light wooden framed windows with simple white cotton curtains tied back; old, colorful mirror frames hanging from the ceiling; a small, exposed kitchen in the back that feels less like the popular open kitchen as a bold focal point and more like your friend’s cozy one. The music is fun and varied (Pink Floyd, Bowie, Pink Martini), and played loud enough to feel hip, but without drowning out your conversation. What’s a little off-putting is the extremely long-ish nature of the space. There are only a few tables in the area near the kitchen and adjacent to the bar, while the majority are, instead, near the door and feel a little distant and removed from the warmth and chatter—though perhaps with more diners filling those tables, that area too will come to life.

Back to my hunch on why the restaurant isn’t full. Its location, though in the heart of Fremont, is elevated above the street, with an inconspicuous entrance on the side off Fremont Avenue. Also, the restaurant’s name (translation: The Little Pig), the website’s name (Gettin Piggy), and Derek’s claim to be the “local authority on All Things Offal” is perhaps too much focus on branding around a trend that’s getting played out: the preoccupation with all things pork.

And then there are the price points. With most trendy places trying to stay beneath $20 on entrées, in the $12–$13 range on appetizers, $8–$10 on cocktails, and under $10 on desserts, Le Petit Cochon is perhaps dangerously pushing those boundaries. Most of the entrée portions are at $20, starters are typically $14 and up, cocktails $11, and desserts $10. True, the portions are generous (bucking the small-plate trend) and the cocktail pours strong, but whether or not that extra $1–$2 will turn diners away remains to be seen. Based on my experiences, it won’t keep me from coming back.

nsprinkle@seattleweekly.com

LE PETIT COCHON 701 N. 36th St., Suite 200, 829-8943, gettinpiggy.com. 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 5 p.m.–midnight Fri.–Sat.

 
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