Every so often you find a restaurant that makes you smile every time you hear its name. In my short time so far living in Boston, one such restaurant for me is Craigie on Main. This is a place, in which a chef takes local ingredients and the humblest parts of an animal and transfigures them through virtuous technique and laborious means into soul satisfying dishes that personify rustic & comforting elegance. The list of accolades for Chef Tony Maws and team’s restaurant is bottomless, awards and reviews are found here. Yet, what takes the cake for me is Craigie on Main’s pig’s head for two.
Utah, get me two.
Starters before Craigie’s pig’s head
Before we jump into the pig’s head, I thought it’d be worth highlighting a few eye-opening and noteworthy Craigie on Main appetizers. This is a menu that is forever evolving with the seasons and the years, but I’m certain the philosophies and approaches are timeless. If you have the time and prefer not to share, you can always elect for the all encompassing seasonal tasting menu. The latest seasonal menu can be found here.
As a side note. I used to be all about tasting menus and went bonkers for them. Today, I find them a bit limiting and too orchestrated. I enjoy eating at my own pace with multiple courses but more importantly, I love to get everyone involved and eat family style. Having a few friends together – one for all and all for one – sharing dishes placed in the middle of the table. That’s my jam.
Two fantastic Craigie on Main appetizers pop immediately to mind and they both involve pork. Clearly, Chef Maws has an affinity for his swine and a knack for doing it justice. The first is Crispy Fried Pig’s Tails. A pig’s tail is normally a bit chewy and some work to eat. These fried nuggets were dripping with intense umami flavors thanks to a slightly spicy & syrupy fish sauce (nuoc cham). The exterior batter was delightfully crunchy and housed the tender pig’s tail. Crushed peanuts provided a bit more texture and the cilantro helped cut the dish’s richness. The second dish is Grilled Monkfish Cheeks with Fried Pig’s Ears. As you know, eat the head. The cheeks on a fish are beyond succulent and this was definitely the case with this monkfish dish. The beautifully flavored monkfish cheeks melted in my mouth as the mixture of grilled fish meat and unctuous fatty tendons dissipated away together. The salty and uber crunchy fried pig’s ears played ying and yang and brought a childish fun to the plate. Perfectly cooked root vegetables accompanied the dish, a nice touch given this time of year.
Other pleasing appetizers at Craigie on Main include is refreshing raw oysters with candied lemon mignonette (perhaps the perfect starter to just about any meal), ragout of mushrooms with cock’s comb & farrato with a poached egg on top (which is so New American and a-ok with me), and garganelli pasta with a ragu of suckling pig and hedgehog mushrooms.
The showstopper, the Craigie on Main confit and roasted pig’s head for two
This is no joke and not for the faint of food hearts. The restaurant serves a half pig’s head. All the meat and the eyeball is kept intact and served. Sadly, the brains and tongue must go somewhere else as these spectacular offal don’t make it with the offering. The pig’s head is slowly confit in its own fat, braising in a delicious lardy liquid. Once the pig’s head is soft and moist, the head is then roasted for another 30 mins to an hour in intense heat. This helps the pig’s skin turn out of this world crunchy and crisps up the pig’s ear and snout.
Throw away your utensils, they are no good here. There is only way to dive in and that is with your hands. And yes, the restaurant does serve the pig’s head with tortillas / wraps and side dressings / toppings – but they are not needed whatsoever. The cheek flesh is the best place to start. It is too difficult to describe the sheer joy I have when munching down into a hunk of pig’s head. One bite consisting of incredible depth and a diversity of texture ranging from the crispy salty skin to the chewy layers directly underneath it to the unctuous clumps of hearty and succulent pig meat and fat. It is unreal.
What makes this a urethral dish is the continuity of always getting no bite that was similar to the previous. It is truly like being on a playground as a kid, non-stop fun and excitement. The cartilage of the ear provides crunchy heaven and the snout is a unique mixture of thick skin and gelatinous undertone.
Once you’ve picked your way around the cheeks, jowls (aka the guanciale) , ears, etc – there is only one thing to do. First apologize to the tables and patrons around you, as they may not have the same appreciative culinary withstanding. Then you rip off the rest of the face. What I mean by that is take the skin and meat and separate it from the skull. This allows you to easy eat at the removed chunks of pig’s head and exposes the skull. You can then start tearing away at the even more gelatinous and addicting tendon, fat and meat stuck to the head and found particularly around the eye socket. And of course, you gotta eat the eyeball! Understandably, the pupil itself is a bit glassy/filmsy, but the actual white part of the eyeball is phenomenal.
Just do it, now
To repeat, words cannot describe such experiences as these. It is so rare to have the opportunity to enjoy animals whole. The endless festivity of trying all the different beautiful nooks and crannies of the animal and celebrating the primal instinct of respecting and then tearing into a carcass is beyond my vocabulary. And to be provided this opportunity at an outstanding foodie Mecca in Boston, Craigie on Main, with its full access to other dishes, wine, drinks, and professionalism, is unfathomable.
Do yourself the justice and the pleasure, go eat the confit and roasted milk-fed pig’s head for two, glasses of an old fashioned Old Fashioned, and perhaps a bacon dessert at Craigie on Main.