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Old Major: People have gone hog wild over Justin Brunson's restaurant

The foie gras is a major hit at Old Major. See also: Behind the scenes at Old Major
The foie gras is a major hit at Old Major. See also: Behind the scenes at Old Major
Mark Manger

Even if they're working in open kitchens, chefs only know part of the story. They know what moves and what doesn't and how to predict how many covers they'll do on a given night so they can manage inventory accordingly. They certainly know what Yelp tells them, plus or minus a grain of salt. But unless they reenact a scene from Undercover Boss or hire servers with excellent hearing and even better memories, there's no way to know just what people are saying in real time about their food. And that's too bad, because Justin Brunson, chef-owner of Old Major, would've loved what was unfolding at the table next to me one night.

Three men, tattooed, bearded and sporting the kind of plaid shirts sold at Bass Pro Shops, were talking about their shared foie gras torchon with as much gusto as SportsCenter anchors counting down the top ten plays of the day. "It's so silky," said one. "And fatty, but in a good way," interjected another. "I wonder how you spell it?" said the third, triggering an impromptu spelling bee. The table fell silent for a moment as everyone ate and drank. Then one of them spoke up again, admitting he wasn't even sure what he was eating. The server "lost me with all the ingredients, but I really like the mystery gel," said the guy with the curliest beard, at which point everyone scraped forks across the gel (aka Lillet gelée).

If he were a different kind of chef, Brunson might find this exchange frustrating. How dare they forget what they're eating! How provincial! But even though he honed his skills at Le Cordon Bleu, helped Alex Seidel open Fruition and spent time at Luca d'Italia and Mizuna, Brunson is still an Iowa boy at heart, one who learned how to hunt, fish and forage long before he learned how to cook. And my hunch is that not only would Brunson not be frustrated, but he'd be delighted that the men spent so much time talking about foie gras, and thrilled that they were comfortable enough in his restaurant — one he's been dreaming about opening since he was in cooking school — to try something new. (Two of them, it seemed, were foie gras virgins.)

Because as much as Old Major is about "seafood, swine and wine," as the restaurant's tagline says, it's also about giving people culinary experiences they might not have had before. "There's a lot of really expensive food like foie gras and truffles and caviar, and I'm trying to figure out how to get it in people's mouths for the first time," Brunson says by phone, with the enthusiasm of someone who loves food and doesn't want the good stuff to be the domain of a lucky few. That's why the menu lists a 21-day dry-aged ribeye ($60) and osetra caviar by the ounce ($160) and by the gram ($12), a fact appreciated by the same plaid-shirted gentlemen next to me, who compared it favorably to the price of pot. It's why the space is largely unadorned, with paneled walls, heavy wood tables and fabric-free chairs in the split-level dining room. And it's also why the menu is short on fancy French terminology, though words like tuile and that gelée occasionally slip in. "We put things in English on the menu," Brunson explains, which is why cornichons are called "baby pickles here. I don't want to make people uncomfortable."

But just because the room and descriptions aren't fancy, don't assume the food is simple. Two or three humanely raised hogs, both the leaner Durocs and fattier heritage Berkshires, are butchered in-house every Wednesday, then turned into pâté, sausage, confit ribs and even guanciale, or "face bacon," as my server said one night as he set it down. Butchery's a skill Brunson picked up from YouTube and practiced at Masterpiece Delicatessen, the highly acclaimed deli he started in 2008, just a few blocks from Old Major. (A second Masterpiece is opening this summer in Uptown.)

The best ways to sample what Brunson has learned are the meat-and-cheese appetizer and the nose-to-tail entree. The first, technically a small plate, is larger than many you'll find around town, with several meats, two cheeses, nuts, olives, fennel salad and roasted tomatoes with piquillo pepper jam. Until the restaurant receives final approval from the health department, the platter can only include cooked charcuterie, so the coppa, lonza and prosciutto will have to wait. But the pork pastrami and fennel-heavy Italian summer sausage were more than adequate place-savers on the plate I shared with a friend. Another night, we enjoyed the heartier nose-to-tail plate, as pork-centric as the name would imply, with a lone radish and a few bits of frisée to cleanse the palate from all that pig: a confit rib; a boneless, thin-cut pork chop; slivers of guanciale as thin and crispy as fried onions; a thick slice of smoked city ham; and, best of all, a slab of pork belly with enough of the fat rendered off to make it crispy without being dry. We rounded out our meal with a side of twice-fried duck-fat fries. If you're in a healthier state of mind, there's always salad. But skip the grilled-romaine-and-kale Caesar, with thick kale stems as fibrous as twigs, and opt for the petite-lettuce salad instead, with quinoa, pistachios and dried cranberries.

Or pair that salad with several small plates for a lighter meal on the patio, where the heat might stifle the appetite on a hot summer night. Don't miss the grilled octopus with fried green tomatoes and marcona-almond purée, or the pork butter, Brunson's low-key name for pork rillettes. Cooked in pork fat, the meat is whipped until it's as easy to spread on toast as, yes, butter. Just as good is the fine-textured Polish sausage with sauerkraut, and the gyro. Made with sausage that's dried for days, cooked in a smoker, then dried again before being sliced and finished on the grill, it's a welcome change to all those gyros made with mystery meat.

Also scratch-made is the sandwich's flatbread wrapper, a product of pastry chef Nadine Donovan. In addition to a fine maple-bacon crème caramel, she bakes pretzel rolls that start off dinner (they're so salty and chewy, it's too bad bread plates are removed after just one), crackers for the meat-and-cheese plate, and cornbread for the new barbecue-themed nose-to-tail plate. (My ode to hog was from the spring menu, which was replaced mid-June and lacked the more copious sides.) Other mains have changed with the season, too: Gone are the rabbit three ways, with a slender roasted carrot adding a whimsical, Bugs Bunny-like touch, and the perfectly cooked scallops with watercress, pickled mushrooms and an edible nasturtium. But if the kitchen cooks, seasons and plates the summery replacements — lamb chop with charred tomato couscous, scallops with pine nuts and spinach purée, etc. — as skillfully as it did their predecessors, you won't be disappointed by the swap.

At Masterpiece, Brunson would see the same people drop by six days a week. He misses that at Old Major, which for now isn't that kind of place, and not only because of price point. The kitchen is inexplicably slow, turning dinners that should last one and a half hours into nearly three-hour affairs — which is great if you're celebrating something, but not so helpful if it's a Thursday and you're just out for a meal. Then again, maybe what Brunson and the rest of his team are trying to do is turn every dinner into a celebration — foie gras, mystery gel and all.

Mark Manger

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