In the rear of Old Major's dark wood dining room — something of a barn meets a barbecue shack meets the hand of an adept interior designer — sits a small, glassed-in room kept at a constant 50 degrees and 70 percent humidity.
After nine months of work co-creating a costly, 140-page Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) document for Denver's Department of Environmental Health, co-owner and executive chef Justin Brunson has just hung his first load of guanciale (pig jowls) in here to dry-cure. It's been followed by copious amounts of coppa (the muscle behind the head, at the shoulder's top), which will occupy real estate in here for three months. Both provide a worthwhile showpiece, something like what's on display in much larger scale at Seattle's famous Salumi Artisan Cured Meat, the Batali family's tourist draw.
In terms of name, Brunson isn't Batali just yet. But he is one of the two guys behind Masterpiece Delicatessen, Westword's Best New Restaurant when it opened in 2008 and Best Sandwich Shop in 2012. A second Masterpiece is set to open in mid-November, following the addition of the Denver Bacon Company retail arm in 2012.
And Old Major — named after the revolutionary Animal Farm character — is only one of Denver's undeniably it restaurants. In August, Bon Appétit named the spot, which had then been open all of six months, among the Top 50 New Restaurants in the nation. This month, 5280 placed it No. 10 on its 25 Best Restaurants list.
The taglines on Old Major's website highlight the concept of nose-to-tail butchery — not unlike what's being done locally by the Meat Locker at the Ivywild School, and on a smaller scale in kitchens like TAPAteria — and in-house curing of heritage-raised Colorado meats. They call it contemporary farmhouse cuisine. And though nearly a third of the menu is actually fresh seafood, we bypass that on account of our single visit to hit the hog.
Maitre d' Paul Attardi, formerly of Fruition ("Radical realization," Appetite, July 29, 2010), is absent this evening, so co-owner Juan Padro (of Highland Tap & Burger) plays front-house maestro. He's the cool confidant who seems truly invested in getting pork into your belly as fast as possible.
But tonight he's somewhat hamstrung by our lost reservation. So Old Major mixologist Courtney Wilson coolly guides us through a complimentary, mini-tasting of three neat pours of different Amaro styles (an Italian digestif) from an extensive in-house program next to a tiny amuse bouche.
It's difficult to pass up the Rhubarbara Walters cocktail on account of its name alone, but Wilson takes us down her iPad menu to the Modern Savage instead. Named in camp fashion for Patrick Swayze's post-apocalyptic "Nomad" character in the 1987 flick Steel Dawn, the drink blends Bulleit Bourbon with grape brandy-based Amaro Nonino, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and house-made, root-beer-like Hello Kitty Bitters.
The slightly sweet, texturally syrupy and herbal mix comes presented with a round lemon slice and an elegant, chainsaw-cut, knife-beveled ice cube that looms nearly an inch above the liquid line. It's classy, captivating and supposedly aimed at a more ideal dilution rate, with ice melting more slowly (though forums have essentially debunked the science).
Post-cocktail, dinner begins with a free, warm twist of house pretzel roll with a fun, football-shaped wedge of mustard butter. A fantastic, multifarious red kuri and butternut squash soup ($9) follows, poured tableside over roasted strips of delicata squash and carrots, cipollini onions, pickled squash bits and fennel fronds.
But because that's not enough, then comes the housemade "seed granola" of ground chia, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds with a bit of oats, curry, molasses and honey. And then a house ricotta salata, made through three days of drying, curing and a double round of smoking.
All that. For a soup.
"My cooks work 12 to 14 hours a day. There's 12 of us in here daily," says Brunson. "It takes a lot of work to do things right. They learn here. They understand that it takes passion, time and energy to do this."
Enter the sausage, which we watch being assembled in a tiny prep area from our table just outside the kitchen. Brunson's crew stuffs the fine-ground meat into Cryovac bags to suck out all the air bubbles and pressurize the marinating process. Aided by a foot-pedal-operated hydraulic stuffer, Brunson says, it makes for a denser, tighter sausage.
The result should be "juicier and creamier," he insists, and we notice. It bears a very clean meat flavor, not burdened by common additives. He sources the old New England breed pork, called Duroc, from a farm in Brush.
"The quality is so awesome, I don't want to over-flavor it with spices," he says. "The true flavor should always be pork."
Well, that and the accompanying Maitake mushrooms flown in from the Northwest, more cipollini onions, Brussels sprouts and a delightful cherry-sage demi-glace.
To accommodate high weekly demand, Old Major's team assembles with other education-hungry city chefs each Wednesday night. They break down around 1,400 pounds of whole animals over a five-hour period. Brunson has an open-kitchen policy and believes "it's our job as chefs to teach the younger generation ... to teach this dying art of butchery.
"I taught myself," he adds. "Usually people don't share their methods ... We'll take seven days to tweak a recipe and make it perfect."
For the Country Pâté ($10), smoked fatback meets chicken liver, olives, spices and sweet, heatless piquillo peppers, then gets molded into a terrine and sees a Cryovac sous-vide bath, again to force flavors. Plated with piquant pickle relish and excellent local, grilled Grateful Bread ciabatta, it's a rich treat.
But for true fatty decadence, the Foie Gras Cro-nut ($18), a Canadian-sourced, buttery ball of sinful liver, comes plated almost as dessert: The trending pastry is backed by sweet elements of cayenne maple pecans, pumpkin purée and both cranberry and maple-apple gastrique.
If you really desire a complex medley, this season's German-inspired Nose to Tail Plate ($29) features five pork parts alongside house-fermented sauerkraut and homemade mustard spaetzle: a fried-crisp pork loin schnitzel; pig ears braised 18 hours then fried to a cracklin' crunch; belly, cured three days then braised overnight; ribs, also cured three days, confited in house-rendered lard, then cold-smoked; and ham made from de-boned leg brined for five days, aged for three more, then smoked. All told, it's as close to the diverse swine splendor I experienced at Bali, Indonesia's famed Ibu Oka pig shack as I've experienced anywhere.
Seeking some veggie mitigation to the meat madness, we fork into a $7 side of braised Rancho Gordo heirloom cannellini beans with braised kale grown nearby at the Infinite Monkey Theorem's urban gardens. Bound into a ragu by San Marzano tomatoes, the simply seasoned (salt, pepper, butter) mash strikes a humble Italian demeanor, perfect for a pork mate.
Minus the lost reso, a couple of long-empty water glasses and long-left-un-bussed cocktail glasses, plus an obsequious invite from our waitress at ordering time to "go on an adventure," Old Major does put in a pretty perfect performance in the realm of pork potential. Evidence of arduous labor is everywhere, suspended in the bustling but cozy atmosphere like so much coppa and guanciale patiently hanging behind the glass.
Today's work, tomorrow's treat. It's a beautiful, pig-led food revolution.