Justin Santellana at work in the kitchen.
A few weeks ago I received an invitation from the Informal Supper Club, a pop-up founded by Jason Seo, the general manager of Kris Bistro and a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and Culinary Institute LeNôtre. The menu had not been fully fleshed out, but he told me that it would be an all-pork evening. I needed no more encouragement. I love pigs, and love to cook pork, in all of its forms. I marked the date on my calendar and looked forward to the evening.
The day arrived, and so did the finalized menu, which was promising. It included some “fait maison” head cheese, pork belly with an Asian-inspired slaw, and pork cheeks. Five courses, each one including pork, cooked by Justin Wayne Santillana and Nina Wilhite and their team.
The dinner was held at Kris Bistro, and about 40 guests attended, a mix of young and old, groups of friends and couples on dates. We took our seats and waited for the first course, a charcuterie “line” that included summer sausage and ham, plus plates of that head cheese, which was as good as any I have had in France. It was bit looser in consistency than most head cheese I have eaten, but it held together, and that softness was a good attribute. I spread it liberally on the warm piece of baguette and the meal began well, the course paired with a Dogfish Head Namaste, a Belgian-style wit.
The second course – “Crispy Chicharron Crusted Asian Braised Pork Belly served with Carrot, Cabbage, Cucumber, Korean Pear, Cilantro, Plum Composed Slaw With a Plum-Demi Glace Reduction” – was paired with Crabbies Scottish Ginger Beer. The beer was a hit at my table, and the flavor of the belly and slaw was rich and satisfying, though the promised crispiness was missing from the belly’s skin.
The next beer – Trinity Belgian-style tripel ale from Community Beer Co. – was brought around, and the third course was served. Many at the table said it was their favorite dish of the evening, and while my vote goes to the head cheese, the pork cheeks were very good. They were cooked sous vide for 12 hours, and served in a bowl with an arrabbiata sauce, handmade gnocchi, Kalamata olives, and tomatoes. Parmigiana Reggiano was shaved over the top, adding some umami.
Next came a palate cleanser, a lemon/lime sorbet, which I could have done without. These things interfere with my wine (or in this case, beer), so I sampled it and left the rest. It was bright and fresh and would be a great treat to enjoy on a hot summer day.
The final savory course was a beauty: a cold-smoked pork chop with a Bulleit Bourbon glaze. The chops, which were huge, had been brined, and they were tender and grilled perfectly. On the plate was a succotash-type creation that was one of the best tastes of the evening; corn, bell pepper, and onion, seasoned to an outsized richness. The beer pairing was a Ranger Creek Texas Bourbon Barrel Imperial Brown, an ale that certainly stood up to the brawn of the chops. The table was at its most silent during this course, the occupants fully involved with the contents of their plates.
An éclair. How long has it been since you have had an éclair for dessert? That’s what Informal Supper Club served for the final course. It was round in shape, and filled with a not-too-sweet pastry cream, all topped with chocolate-covered candied bacon. Excess? Perhaps. I ate half of mine, fondest of the bacon. We drank a Lakewood Temptress milk stout with dessert, and it was a bit voluptuous and a bit warming (9.10 percent alcohol by volume).
I look forward to the next outing by this supper club, and hope that the team takes on lamb.