Play a game with me. I promise it won't take long.
Say you're dying. Say, for comfort's sake, that all the crap you learned in Sunday school or Hebrew school or wherever is true. Your god is a god of love and mercy and forgiveness, but has a wicked sense of humor. And there, on your deathbed, your god presents you with a choice: one restaurant, for all of eternity. It'd be like living in a small town in the Midwest, except that you get to pick the joint.
What would it look like? What would it have behind the bar, on the tables and, most important, on the menu? Remember: This is it for a bajillion years. Consider carefully.
I know the smart answer would be some kind of fantastical French or Spanish cafe with a menu that changes daily, dependent on what the angelic chef can pull from god's garden, poach from his back forty. The wine list would be packed with nothing but the best bottles of history: war-year Lafite, 1945 Cheval Blanc, Rothschild bordeaux. Escoffier should cook, seconded by Loiseau, with Ripert on fish (even though he's not dead) and James Beard handling the mashed potatoes, roasted chicken and cookies. Add a sushi bar in the back, a confiserie in front, plunk the whole thing inside a strip club and you're golden. Every night would start with an icy glass of '99 Perrier-Jouët and end with a brief rain shower of chocolate truffles and a lap dance.
A good answer — and one I might've given out of simple reflex until recently — would be a truck-stop cafe, open all night and staffed by the best egg-and-fryer men in the business, with fresh pie baked every day by the world's greatest grandma, chicken-fried steak and grits, corned beef hash. The waitresses would all be sardonic, hard and faded-rose pretty. The grillman would be wise. There'd be a smoking section, of course. And at night, long after the regulars have gone home, Tom Waits and Mickey Rourke and Bukowski and Elvis would show up for sandwiches and a couple hands of no-limit hold 'em.
But both those answers have problems. In time, I know the French place would get to me and I'd panic for two fingers of cheap whiskey and a hot dog. And within the first thousand years, I'm sure I'd get my dead ass thrown out of the diner for showing up without pants or picking a fight with Mickey Rourke over Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man or, really, any movie he did in the '90s. I'd hit on the wrong waitress and get shanked by the jealous Filipino busboy in the parking lot.
And, in time, I'd grow bored of the food no matter what was on the menu. A man — even a dead man — can only eat so many plates of corned beef hash or sole meuniere before he goes a little wrong in the head, having sweaty dreams of Vietnamese pho and breakfast burritos and cornbread.
But it occurs to me that there's one food, one perfect food, of which I would never grow weary. One miraculous food that lends itself to nearly any presentation and selflessly elevates everything it touches. One food from an animal that I, an atheist, have difficulty reconciling with my godless worldview because it is so perfect and so obviously put here by a wise and generous higher power to make all us hairless monkeys happy forever.
That animal is the pig. That food is pork, in all its glorious incarnations. And now The Berkshire has me seriously reconsidering my notions of dining in the sweet whatever-after.
The Berkshire, which Andy Ganick opened in December in Stapleton, is all about the pig. It's named, of course, after the most famous of the heritage breeds. Its decor is piggish though not cutesy — focusing mainly on the repeated motif of the restaurant's logo, a big, tusked and leaping Berkshire hog. There are quotes from famous thinkers (Churchill, Twain and, yes, Elvis) sketched onto the walls, mostly dealing with eating pig or drinking. Near the door, there's a rotary slicer, polished to a bright sheen and used in full view of the floor to deconstruct the bagged and laced meats hanging nearby into beautiful, thin slices of hog. And the menu?
The menu is like something out of my sickest, most indulgent food fantasies: all pig, all the time. Pig for lunch, pig for brunch (a plate of bacon and a can of Pabst as the house "hangover special"), pig for dinner and a little pig in between. Almost every plate on the menu has pork worked into it somehow, and I think that if he could get away with it, Ganick would even garnish the bar's cocktails with pig: a plug of pork belly shoved into the neck of my Corona in place of a lime, a little twist of pork rind depending precariously from the lip of a martini. As it is, the bar does offer bacon-infused vodka.
My first visit to pig nirvana was almost accidental. I'd thought about going somewhere else, but stumbled across a Berkshire menu and immediately canceled all plans. I called Laura. "Pig restaurant," I said. "Get dressed."
Our lunch started with pulled-pork sliders with barbecue sauce and bread-and-butter pickles. The sandwich wasn't exactly a faithful reproduction of the Carolina classic (what with the good mini boules instead of Piggly Wiggly white bread, and slaw on the side), but it was damn fine, made with nicely smoked shoulder, tender and fork-shredded — three to a plate, four bites each, gone in under two minutes. Next came the most genius idea I've heard in a year: a bacon flight. One giant white plate laid with four strips of high-quality thick-cut bacon, perfectly cooked (meaning soft and fatty and meaty, not burned to a goddamn crisp by some brain-damaged line dog), and then a scattering of sides for assembling custom BLTs: sliced French bread, garlic chèvre, mango salsa (weird...), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, a single almond, some other very artsy stuff. I ignored them all and just ate the bacon. There was a brown-sugar bacon, sweet and sticky as honey; an amazing curried strip, which almost caused a fight at our table over the last bit; a garlic-and-spice mix that was distracting at first bite, then good for the rest; and a strange balsamic-vinegar-dressed strip with herbs that looked like it ought to be the grossest thing in the world but was as delicious as a slice of bacon dragged through a puddle of herbed balsamic vin could be — which, surprisingly, was delicious indeed.
That plate was gone even faster than the sliders.
We also had a bowl of the house-roasted red pepper, tomato, basil and parmesan soup, which was excellent — proof that the galley here has some classical grounding, some talent at the stoves beyond that which a pig can bring out in almost anyone — and more sandwiches. The ham and cheese was actually serrano off the slicer, slabs of fresh mozzarella, shredded romaine and roasted tomatoes dripping with sandwich oil all crushed together on a crusty baguette. The King was exactly what you'd expect: peanut butter, bananas and bacon. The bananas had been caramelized in butter, which they'd sucked up like little sponges; the bacon was piled on with glorious, heart-unhealthy abandon; and the sandwich was grilled just enough to melt everything together into one wonderful, huge dripping mess. In my afterlife, poets will write odes to this sandwich and cardiologists will eat it for breakfast.
The Berkshire lunch menu does offer other, pig-free items: an ahi tuna club, a very good, simple grilled cheese (aged cheddar, American and Swiss, run through a sandwich press), salads and even a tofu Reuben with sauerkraut and pastrami spices.
We went back for dinner and found a nice crowd on the floor. Service is always friendly, and no matter what you ask for, the waitress will tell you that you made the right choice. That's either condescension or the truth: It's tough to go wrong with a mostly-pig board of fare. Laura and I joked about the Tijuana Caesar at the top of the menu; it sounded like the kind of thing you could get for fifty bucks in an alley off the American quarter in TJ if you know the right people to ask. We passed by the seared diver scallops (wrapped in bacon) and the stuffed jalapeños (wrapped in pancetta), the filet mignon (with pancetta marsala) and the honey-mint salmon (no pork at all), and went for the meatloaf (made with pork) and the Berkshire pork belly (made of pork).
"Excellent choices," said our waitress. Of course.
The meatloaf was excellent — dense and flavorful, cooked as an individual small loaf studded with onions and fennel, crowned with a glaze of BBQ ketchup and served with mashed potatoes and the world's ugliest tournée carrots. Seriously, it looked like they'd been done by a serial killer. And the pork belly was pure, indulgent overkill — a huge slab of fat-capped belly, seared crisp and roasted until the fat was meltingly soft and the meat pulled away as soon as I looked at it. The meat was deeply earthy, almost gamey, and tasted of hog, hog and more hog — the purest essence of pig save the trotters. The belly was served mounted sideways on a fried grit cake spiked with white cheddar, decorated with a fall of creamed spinach (the only thing on the plate I didn't like because — believe it or not — it was actually too rich, even for me) and crowned with what the menu called "red onion marmalade" but what were actually pieces of candied red onion. They looked like bits of fried pancetta, but they weren't — which I only discovered after scooping up a big mouthful. For onions, they weren't bad. For pancetta, they were awful.
We skipped dessert (peanut butter truffles with bacon — what else?) simply because we didn't need any. Stuffed with pig, we were already waddling. And while Laura might still go for the greasy chrome diner as her perfect restaurant (or, more likely, a Mexican dive with bottomless tequila bottles and magical chips and salsa), I was already halfway to heaven on the streets of Stapleton, wondering only how long it would be before I could get back to the Berkshire again.