Reserve: Suckling Pig Dinner

One day we got an email from Reserve, announcing a very special dinner event with a roasted suckling pig and wine pairings. It didn't take much to convince us that we had to attend, no matter the cost, because (1) we love Reserve, and (2) we love swine. Although we don't aspire to the lofty heights of Anthony Bourdain's obsession with pork, the thought of all that crackling skin was just too tempting to resist...

He Fed:
We venture out onto the sleet-driven roads of Grand Rapids, cruising a few blocks to the parking ramp kitty-corner from Reserve. The ramp is packed with the cars of patrons attending The Nutcracker tonight, so we end up on level 4. A quick huddle through the icy drizzle over the crosswalks and we're finally in the warm foyer of the restaurant. General Manager Chris greets us at the door with a smile, and leads us downstairs to the Vault. (But not before the generous charcuterie counter staff presents us with a bite of creamy, tender Mortadella. Exquisite!)

Down many stairs, the Vault is a truly private room with a view of the wine cellar. The brick walls and heavy steel vault doors have been restored from another part of the building (once a bank and Russian patisserie), and set here to highlight the nicely decorated space. We are offered sparkling water and allowed to choose any of the 8 seats; we, of course, choose the ones closest to the vault.

Assistant General Manager Peter joins us shortly, allowing us to enter the wine vault and peer longingly at each vintage. They have a fantastic, complete collection. He opens a bottle of Juve & Champs Cava Rosé and we sip as we await the rest of the guests. We're soon joined by another couple, but the other 4 people who were scheduled to attend couldn't make it because of the winter storm watch. So it's just the four of us!

Chef Millar welcomes us with the first course, a canape. The oyster with tomato and horseradish gelee is fresh and lip-smacking, redolent of the sea but not salty. It's a refreshing way to enliven the palate. Three Midnight Moon gourgeres filled with creamy chevre sourced locally, mixed with truffle and herb, sit next on the plate. They are delicate pastries that surrender sweetly to the teeth, then linger on the tongue like a comforting memory. After, a fork skewers a chunk of blue cheese, fig and crisp pork rillon; in one bite, it encompasses many textures and seemingly divergent flavors, all of which come together in a symphony of sweet, earthy delight. It's the kind of teaser that leaves you wanting more. Finally, a poached egg yolk, fresh from the farm, is topped with red pepper piperade. I've been encountering this kind of dish more and more lately, it seems, and you'll get no complaints from me. The egg is rich, oozing, and I'm amazed I run out of bread before I can sop up every last dollop.

Our dinner companions -- whose daughter, Carmen, works as a server upstairs -- arrange for a plate of the one-day-only special: Spanish sardines flown in that morning. I have never had a sardine and I'm a little wary of what these might be like. A few moments after we are poured a glass of crisp, steely Austrian 2007 Stadt Krems Gruner Ventliner, the plate arrives. Holy cow, these are whole fish! And no small minnows, either; these are easily 6-8 inches long with fat meat on either side, the tail and head still attached. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I grab one and go at it with a fork. It smells of fish, but it's not off-putting. I try a bite of the crispy skin, seasoned with sea salt, a bit of the oily, fatty meat. It takes a moment but I am digging the texture and, again, the savory reminiscence of oceans, water, the deep...

Before I know it, I've polished off most of the fish. Despite my earlier misgivings, the sardine course is an eye-opener (in a year filled with them). I...I...I think I like fish? The thought is so alien to me, I hardly recognize my own taste buds anymore. It is suddenly liberating to realize I can eat ANYTHING without having serious misgivings. Wheeeeeeeee!

The roller coaster ride doesn't end there. Chef presents us with the next course: pumpkin soup with lemon curd and pumpkin seed oil. The house-made lemon curd sits in the bowl, topped with pumpkin seeds, then the soup is poured around it. I take a bite and am instantly in love. The soup is neither overly spiced nor does it have too much cream. It is just a step above broth, really. But the revelation is the lemon curd. The sweetness plays off the earthy qualities of the pumpkin so very well, and the contrasting crunch of the seeds just makes it fun and addictive to eat. I want more, immediately.

2004 Brunello di Montelcinio (Poggio Salvi) is poured next, as the suckling pig is wheeled out on a cart. Chef asks if anyone has any requests and I shout out, "Jowl!" A parade of sides are delivered as he begins to carve. Celery root mash is creamy and comforting; watercress salad with cheddar, walnut, pear and pickled red onion salad with walnut vinaigrette adds crunch and lively acid; braised brussel sprouts, turnips, carrots and pancetta with saba adds gravitas; and apple sauce with pan drippings imparts a deep sweetness to the affair.

My first plate of piggy is a stack of tender meat and crispy, golden skin. As Chef explained, the preparation was simple brining without much to get in the way of the pork flavor. Mission accomplished! The meat is rich, clean and flavorful with just a hint of saltiness without being overpowering like some pork belly dishes I've had. I am content to mix it all together with the celery root and apple sauce, then crunching on the bits of skin. The jowl is fatty and delicious, but I also really enjoy the darker bits from other cuts as well.

After a second bottle of the Brunello is consumed, we are offered Feist port alongside the dessert for which we have little room: warm apple Charlotte with rum raisin ice cream topped with Blis Elixir. I am not a big fan of apple desserts, but the ice cream looks like it might fill in the cracks a bit. One spoonful and I'm done for; the mix of balsamic and bourbon zaps my appetite back to life. The Charlotte is amazing, crunchy and caramely on the outside, but soft and rich inside. Amazingly, I polish off the whole dish and wash it down with the tawny port.

As we say our goodbyes and thank the generous staff, we can only look at each other and marvel how a restaurant this unique could have ever found a home in Grand Rapids. Ten years ago, places like this would never have been conceived. Now, it gives foodies hope of more varied cuisine and broader adventures. I cannot wait to see what Chef Millar and the fine folks at Reserve have planned next.
She Fed:
We arrive a few minutes early and are shown to the private dining room downstairs. Assistant Manager Peter gives us a little tour of the adjacent wine cellar/former bank vault and we joke about getting locked in or picking the lock. He's probably heard similar lame jokes a million times, but never lets on. The staff at Reserve is consistently wonderful and hospitable.

Due to a winter storm, it's going to be dinner for four not 12, with just one other couple joining us. I worry this might be strained or awkward, but as we quickly learn, these two are fun, interesting, and share a love of good food and wine. The evening is relaxed and filled with laughter. I hope our paths will cross again.

Our canape arrives with four selections to enjoy. The oyster on the half-shell with tomato and horseradish gelee is briny and biting. The three gourgere with chevre and truffles are lush with warm cheese seeping out after each bite. A petite fork spears a pork rillion with a fig and blue cheese and the one-bite wonder is salty, sweet and astringent all at once. A perfectly poached egg yolk is dotted with piperade and waiting to be impaled with the charred bread. I can only imagine how wonderful dinner will be.

The soup arrives and Chef Matt announces it's pumpkin with lemon curd, toasted pumpkin seeds, and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil. There is talk about pumpkin seed oil and toasting seeds, but my brain is stuck on the lemon curd. First of all, who the hell ever thought to put a sexy little dollop of lemon curd in pumpkin soup? Second, the curd is exactly like my mother's lemon meringue pie. Exactly. Not "a little bit like" or "kinda sorta", but exactly. You have to understand, my all-time favorite dessert is mother's lemon meringue pie. I refuse to order it out as no one makes the filling as well. This pie is the thing of family gatherings and celebrations; report cards and new jobs; wedding showers and baby showers. When I would come home from college for the weekend there was always lemon meringue pie and somewhere in the recesses of my mind I equate the taste of this pie with the scent of laundry drying from those college visits. So to taste my mother's homemade pie filling in this pumpkin soup is a jolt to my senses. The clincher is, the lemon curd is a fantastic addition to the soup.

Chef and crew bring out the suckling pig and let it rest on the table as we finish our soup. They begin to carve and the pork is falling, no...sliding off the bone as platter after platter of accompaniments arrive. I've always believed the sides are more important than the meat and I have a compulsion to clap as they keep coming.

I'm intimidated by celery root and have yet to cook it. It seems like an angry, unapproachable veggie when I see it in the market. But I'm excited to taste the celery root mash, which looks like whipped potatoes but has a much brighter almost "clean" flavor. And it's as comforting as regular mashed. The watercress salad with white cheddar, walnuts, pears and the housemade pickled red onions is gorgeous with its holiday colors. I always find eating watercress to be a battle, those big floppy leaves and stiff unyielding stems fighting with my fork. But it's worth the effort here with the bitter watercress, sharp cheddar, tannic walnuts, sweet pears and acidic pickled onion all uniting for one flavorsome bite. I despised Brussel sprouts as a kid and now I find myself craving them quite regularly during the colder months. The platter of braised Brussel sprouts, turnips and carrots is lovely and the color of the braising liquid is a burnished velvety brown. The carrots and turnips are teeny tiny little nubs with roots still intact and the caramelized sprouts are the best I've ever had.

But my favorite accompaniment by far is the housemade applesauce infused with pan drippings. I know some people think applesauce is slightly pedestrian, but they have not had my Grandmother Wava's applesauce. Good applesauce is an artform. People mistake the simpilcity and purity of it for ease. And they mistake good applesauce with jars sold in their local markets. Good applesauce is made by people with Foley Foodmills, not factories and pressure cookers. It's sad, but nobody makes applesauce from scratch anymore and I've been anticipating Reserve's for weeks. Now if anyone could appreciate suckling pig drippings added to applesauce it would have been Wava. She would approve, she would ask for the recipe and she would request a "to go" container, which I regret not doing. I take seconds and thirds of the applesauce, knowing I have no room left, but hoping as family friend Joel would say, "to fill in the cracks."

The pork, by the way, is everything Chef promised and more. It's tender and flavorful. The skin...oh the skin is so very crispy. The meat is well-marbled and succulent. Like the best roast pork you've ever had, only a hell of a whole lot better. I have no qualms about digging into an animal that was bottle fed and butchered young. Not a one. (I should also share that all week Jeremy has been giddy with excitement over the prospect of the suckling pig. I've caught him giggling like a schoolgirl.)

I'm ready to slip into a wine and pork induced coma when dessert arrives: warm apple charlotte with rum raisin gelato drizzled with Blis "Elixir". I've seen Elixir at a few local stores and I've been meaning to try it. It's vinegar aged in bourbon barrels right after maple syrup was aged in said barrels. (Whoever thought of the bourbon+maple syrup+vinegar schedule is clearly a genius.) The Elixer is slightly boozy and sweet with a nice tang at the end. And it tastes a bit like "burning" but in a good way, reminiscent of burnt brown sugar frosting. The charlotte is muffin-like, but filled with perfect cubes of apple, while its edges are crispy and caramelized. The gelato is Palazzolo's, which we all know is Italian for "amazing". By the second bite, I'm plotting my trip to Kingma's to buy a bottle of Elixir. Bite three and I'm thinking about how many ways I can use it and by bite four I'm beginning to harbor impure thoughts.

None of us is able to finish dessert, but we are all in the mood for a final cocktail. We head upstairs for a final round and end up chatting for another hour about work, food, and the Grand Rapids scene. It's nice, conversation not at all forced. as is sometimes the case with new acquaintances. I would like to stay for another round, but I am full, tired and sleepy. It's time to go home and slip into that coma.

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