A co-worker stopped me yesterday to inform me that he was finally making his way over to Longfellow Square to Pai Men Miyake for dinner.
"Pork Belly Buns" were my first words to him.
"Pork Belly buns, check."
"Oh and the Miso ramen."
Today, as soon as his eyes fell on me, he started to smile.
"Pai Men, man. Wow." You know my co-worker, he's probably served you a drink or two at one of his other jobs around town, and he is a man who knows and loves his food. For the next ten minutes or so he went on about his meal.
"Brussel sprouts were ridiculous," he started. Then, there was talk of dumplings of unremembered origin, pork belly buns, kimchi ramen, broccoli rabe and crispy pig tail.
"Pig tail?" I asked, eyes fighting to stay in my head.
"Pig tail. It was crispy and sweet. It had this amazing--I can't even describe it--sauce on it."
"Pig tail?" I asked again, obviously fixated. For all that I've eaten of the pig, I've only missed out on the nose and tail parts of "nose to tail" eating. This was not to be missed.
So, at 9am, I sent a text to the Missus to make our dinner plans. I had, without luck, tried to coordinate a date with her a few weeks ago and this would be a nice second go at it.
"Pigtail @ Pai Men. Can we go?"
"We just have to keep it cheap. So, no pork belly buns." To be honest, I said this because we always have to have two orders(because one ISN'T enough) and that was going to take up what limited money I had put aside for dining out.
For the rest of the day I thought about pig tail.
How would it be served?
Would it be curly?
Would they serve more than one?
Now, at work, my eating habits and obsessions are pretty well known. My co-workers, the vast majority of them, are former restaurant workers and culinary school graduates. Food is not only something we live for, but how we make our living. So, discussions about food at work are basically a given. That, sports and music. For the past week co-workers have inquired about how the duck prosciutto, the one currently hanging in the Missus' unused office, is coming along (more on that next week) or when my curing Canadian bacon was going to be finished. So, my becoming ridiculously giddy about pig tail hardly phased anyone and they humored me by tolerating my ramblings.
Then, joyously, it was 5:30pm and the Missus was waiting for our date. By 6pm, we were tucked into a tall table at Pai Men fretting over our menu options.
But, before we get into the food, the service deserves it's own mention tonight. The two front of house staff--one male, one female--were on top of everything from the moment we sat down. The restaurant was, at 6pm, a third full which seemed just enough to keep them busy without seeming overstretched or under stimulated. The female, sporting a labret piercing, has waited on me before and it was nice to see a familiar face behind the bar. The guy, who may be one of the most attractive men this side of Ben Harper, was a wealth of information when I finally had the chance to ask about the pig tail dish. When we debated about whether or not to order two dishes--because we're apparently gluttons who cannot share with each other--he actually talked us out of it and explained that many make the mistake of over ordering, getting too full too fast and ruining a good meal. He was right. After a few minutes of negotiating a few dishes to split, we were ready to order.
Squash dumplings with rinkson vinegar, brown butter and cauliflower.
This was one of my choices from the menu. Truthfully, I wanted some sort of vegetable represented--even if it sat in a small pool of brown butter--and I'm a sucker for cauliflower. Roasted, it's nuttiness was played on nicely by the brown butter. Those two together highlighted the lightness of the dumpling, which was presented as a lighter interpretation of a sweet potato gnocchi.
Salt Cod Fritters with Sweet Mustard Sauce
Fried fish balls. I have to say that I don't really have anything in depth to tell you about this dish. There was something really familiar about it...perhaps the cod fish cakes my mother made when I was growing up, but a lot better(no disrespect to mom). They were the only dish I didn't mull over the flavors or textures on, nor did I think it was one of those dishes that required you to do anything more than to just enjoy it's simplicity. I did notice, however, the presentation was a little wink to fried fish cakes being served in those red baskets at fried clam shacks.
Beef Negimaki Style with Diakon, Scallion and Teriyaki
Our server helped us with understanding what Negimaki was and then immediately told us that Pai Men's version was nothing like it. He was right. There was no grilled beef, as their version was raw, and scallions were a bit hard to find in the dish (I couldn't find any, to be honest). In fact, not only did it seem like it was a very loose interpretation of Negimaki but it also seemed like it was a loose interpretation of the ingredients listed on the menu. Teriyaki and Beef were obviously there on the plate but there was, as seen above, a good number of jalapenos and some unidentifiable non-strictly teriyaki sauce.
But, I do not want you think for a moment that any of this is a complaint. In fact, the scallions and diakon could be a part of the aforementioned sauce and we just missed it. There were so many flavors and textures in that dish that it danced a fine line between pleasant and overload. Every single bite presented sweet, salt, mineral and heat to the palette. But, the dish--whatever its components were that sat in front of us--was absolutely solid. The beef was sliced slightly thicker than the paper the menu was printed on and the portion was generous (and worth every penny of the price). I can't get away from the cliche, "melts in your mouth" but that's how tender the slices were. Easily in my top five for the year so far.
Crispy Pig Tail with Apricot Sweet and Sour Glaze and Jalapeno
Then came the dish of the evening. I don't believe in getting your expectations up, especially when it comes to food, because it usually ends up where the fantasy, and how deeply you romanticized a dish in your head, gets dashed upon first bite. I worried so much that this dish would fall victim to that. Out of everything, I worried about the texture. I have gotten through brains, chitterlings and trotters and, though I did struggle a bit with the chewiness of the chitterlings, I made it through them unscathed. This fear was quickly dissolved the second the aroma of the dish drifted up from our table. I didn't care what the texture was because it smelled amazing.
For as much as my friend raved about this dish and as much I raved about the dish while we were eating it, I know anything I were to write about the flavors that were there would do it absolutely no justice. It is, without question, the most remarkable sweet and sour sauce I have ever had in my entire life. In fact, I would like a teleporter to take me back to every time I had something labeled with 'sweet and sour sauce' just so that I can smack my former self and say to me, as I dump the nuclear red sauce on the floor, "Lies! This IS NOT sweet and sour sauce. Don't eat their lies! The future will show you a true sweet and sour sauce!!"
When the waitress came over to fill out our water glasses she asked if it tasted as good as it smelled. It did, I told her and she needed to get herself some that evening. Her nose scrunched a bit and I told her that it was very reminiscent to a well done pork belly and I wasn't lying to her. The texture wasn't chewy, it was velvet and near falling off what little bones were hidden in the cut segments on the plate. Until the Missus pulled out an obviously tail shaped piece it was exactly how the waiter said it would be, unidentifiable as the back end piece of pig, but full of so much tasty pig goodness.
For good measure, to lighten things up at the end of the meal, we added on the crunchy tuna roll. But, in a restaurant whose main draw is to be the ramen, nary a bowl crossed our paths as we became to engrossed in the more interesting starters to even consider making room for the dense soup.