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How will history remember David Burke? Culinary innovator? Postmodern trickster? I couldn’t help but wonder this last week as a miniature Radio Flyer wagon filled with foie gras–flavored rillettes (meant to mimic sand, I think) rolled across my table at Burke’s five-year-old flagship restaurant. I usually avoid restaurants that lean heavily on nostalgia and elaborate tableware, but I’ve always had genuine fun eating Burke’s unabashedly “why not?” food, which is the closest thing one can come, I imagine, to eating like a Dr. Seuss character. Occasionally it’s revitalizing to eat a diorama; on this visit it was a marzipan snowman standing next to a spun-sugar park bench.
But I hadn’t visited davidburke & donatella to bite off Frosty’s almond-flavored head or invigorate my palate with atomized bacon. I’d come to try one of the three acorn-fed Berkshire pigs Burke has purchased from La Quercia, an excellent, state-of-the-art pork-processing plant (E.S.O.A.P.P.P.) near Des Moines. The plant’s owner, Herb Eckhouse, had tipped me off about the “Acorn Edition” program when I visited the plant last fall. Over the course of 18 months, Eckhouse metes the pork out to Burke and a roster of other great chefs. The fresh cuts (tenderloins, ribs, fresh sausage, offal) come first, followed by an assortment of cured treats: prosciutto, pancetta, lardo, coppa and La Quercia’s amazing guanciale. (As we mentioned in our December issue: For around $3,000, you can purchase your own whole hog from La Quercia.)
In a practice I categorically oppose, Burke has named his three not-so-little (at 300-plus pounds each) pigs: BlackJack, Applesauce and Big Al. (Burke also owns a Black Angus bull named Prime 207L, which he uses to sire steers.) I’m not sure which pig I was eating last week (neither did Burke; I asked), but its meat was sublime. In his typical restless fashion, Burke presented his pork in a quintuplet of preparations: braised shoulder wrapped in a black truffle-flavored cannoli, crispy baby back ribs with a black bean and foie gras sauce, pork mousse wrapped in a quail egg–topped dough casing (to mimic a marrow bone, I think), charred tenderloin with vanilla-infused pineapples and La Quercia’s amazing pork sausage with romesco and piquillo peppers. Compared to the rest of his menu, Burke’s Pig 5 Ways was restrained and focused and it accomplished what I hoped it would: to let the pig speak for itself.