(Photo by Jennifer V. Cole)
Anyone who has read any of my Tales from the Road posts has surely picked up on a theme. From nostalgic musings on bacon grease to recounting a muddy afternoon spent with feisty pigs in a North Carolina pigsty to my ode to Donald Link’s Cochon restaurant–when it comes to pork, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Sometimes I even hear angels.
When I found out that Aaron Deal put a new dish on his lunch menu at Tristan that celebrates pork belly, I had to make a pilgrimage. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but let’s just say I was moved by the porcine spirit.
Chef Deal, a 26-year-old native of Morganton, North Carolina, and a graduate of Johnson & Wales, might be the youngest executive chef in Charleston, South Carolina, a town ripe with culinary talent, but you’d never know it. Lawd have mercy, that boy can cook.
Pork belly with heirloom baked beans–at first glance it seems so simple, like a riff on a backyard barbecue. And yet, as you dig in, you discover a harmonious complexity. The pork belly, cooked for six hours at 250 degrees, is delightfully tender, with a thin ribbon of smile-inducing fat that melts into each bite. The beans, Heirloom Red Brick Beans that date back to the late 18th century, come fresh from the Chef’s Garden (a sustainable farm in Ohio that provides niche and specialty greens and vegetables to discerning chefs across the country). These beans are cooked for eight hours (yes, eight) with orange zest, bacon (giddy up!), shallots, blackstrap molasses, orange juice, and Tristan turnips (a turnip grown by the Chef’s Garden especially for Deal’s restaurant). The result? A mahogany and white medley with a toothsome firmness, almost al dente, that marries a nutty earthiness and a sweet zing, with just enough sauce to encourage you to twirl chunks of pork belly around the bottom of the plate. And it’s all topped off with a drizzle of Blis bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.
Pork belly, bacon, bourbon–three of my favorite things in one dish. It’s almost like this dish was created with me in mind. Did I mention those angels?
Tristan 55 S. Market Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401; (843) 534-2155; www.tristandining.com