1944 W 4th Avenue
[This report is from an outing from this past fall – it had been sitting in the incomplete queue for a while, various travels led me to leave this aside until now, apologies.]
Putting on special events is something that a restaurant can do to draw some attention to itself and cut through all the clutter of marketing hype and word-of-mouth buzz generated among regular patrons and prospective new customers. With so many ways to do this, I think a lot of them are really lost when it comes to pulling off a creative concept. Refuel, with its strong pedigree from its previous incarnation as Fuel, and the strong reputation of its lead man Rob Belcham, have found a way in recent years to conduct an annual event that has now led to a trio of seatings in a single night to commemorate a pig-fueled anniversary celebration.
This year for the Whole Hog Dinner, they brought in a partner to compliment their set course, family-style meal by adding some cask beer creations from the local R&B Brewing Company. This even involved the participation of some of the brewers themselves who were responsible for concocting the brews that were on hand this particular evening. They were as follows and recommended pairings with each of the three food courses that were served.
1. Lemongreass sungod ale
2. Oaked raven cream ale
3. Bacon stout
The experienced beer drinking fellows in our group had favorable comments on the course one paired lemongrass ale. In fact, many noted they wished they’d just stuck to that for the other two pints they had instead of following the recommendations and falling victim to the curiosity factor. Especially when it came to the bacon stout, which had a hint of the pork product, but frankly felt weak overall. The thoughts on the cream ale were that it wasn’t creamy enough too.
As advertised in the pre-dinner notice which required advanced reservations, guests were all seated at communal tables and shared with their fellow diners, the large platters of nose-to-tail dishes. Qualicum Beach-based Sloping Hill Farm was the chosen supplier for the night’s meal. Reportedly, the breeding stock of this operations is comprised of Landrace, Duroc, and Berkshire pigs. Frankly, I’ve only really heard of and probably eaten this last one in my other pork dining experiences.
With the open, street side kitchen visible from the sidewalk, diners’s eyes were immediately met with the meal’s opening volley, carefully being sliced by Chef Belcham himself. After we were seated, the first sampling of food was quickly brought to the diners, after orders for drinks were taken. It took a bit longer than I thought for the beverages to arrive and things weren’t going as smoothly with the kegs it seemed. Perhaps orders for the featured wines and cocktails were complicating things further for the bar and servers and resulting in more delays.
The Cure’s Charcuterie – lomo, dry cured chorizo, fennel pollen salami, saucisson set:
Now as this was communal dining, it presented some challenges for those tables that were split among folks who didn’t really know each other. As you can see, this one plate was slid across the frontier of two tables. Social concerns like “how much can I take without appearing greedy” and “is there enough for everyone?” came to mind as I scanned around at the other tables.
Despite not really being a fan of licorice and thus fennel, I felt this flavored one was the standout of this lot, along with the thin slices of prosciutto. Each had their own distinct flavor and texture however, and all could be considered delicious. Perhaps our enjoyment of these was heightened by the fact that we’d limited our lunches and were coming into Refuel quite hungry. I know at our table, these quickly disappeared. Luckily, the folks next to us were mainly females and thus we were able to scavenge their “leftovers”; this was a trend that continued throughout the entire meal.
First – aromatic pork shoulder:
This was clearly the best single course of my meal. A lot of it had to do with the fact this was the most meatiest dish we were going to have, although I did not know it at the time. Served with iceberg lettuce and fresh chili, pickles to bolster the hand-made wraps were were directed to create, a myriad of flavors across the spectrum burst onto your taste buds, with the heat of the chili (crucial!) and the sourness of the pickles and the zing of the lime juice. All fresh! It all helped to cut through the richness of the mildly seasoned shredded meat, of which generous spoonfuls made their way to my plate.
Second – boudin noir pie:
Yes, blood sausage it is. But refined a bit with the inclusion of white chanterelles, along with a mixture of caramalized onions and cream. In individual cut up portions, this made the sharing element much easier to manage among our group. Although the numbers didn’t seem to add up, as one extra was sitting on the plate at the very end. Normally, I would not order something like this to eat myself. But I went in with an open mind. Consumed it all, and tried to interpret the flavors that were trying to communicate within my mouth, but alas, I don’t think I got it fully or can appreciate this really traditional sausage. It didn’t excite me much.
As the meal progressed, more drinks were ordered ahead of each course and the mood of the room was entirely joyous and had a positive vibe. The climax happened when it was announced that some pigs heads would be shown in the dining room, for those wanting to snap pictures and learn more about the parts which would be used in our next dish. A rush of people made their way to the table that was set up front and where the two heads were propped up like prisoners about to face the shooting squad. “Gawd, they looked really crispy”, I thought!
Third – confit pig’s head:
Ears and brains folks, mixed with eggplant to make a kind of salad. Along with more fattier areas such as the cheeks, snout and neck areas. Some rosti potatoes, sauteed savoy cabbage and some salsa verde were also part of this serving.
Very rich. Very unhealthy feeling as it slid down my throat into my belly. Some discrepancies with the portions as the plate that reached us was pretty much all fat and gelatinous, while we discovered later that the folks next to us had more meatier portions. Luckily, we were able to trade some, but this only occurred after we had resigned ourselves to eating just fat and had consumed more than we probably should have/wanted to of it. I truly enjoyed the crunchy textures in the salad, I think it came mainly from the bits of ear. I’d been in a pork processing plant a while ago when I saw thousands of ears being boxed and shipped to places in the Caribbean where I was told it was popular, but never expected I’d eat it myself one day.
Sweet – apple and bacon tarte tatin:
This truly felt like something out of Iron Chef. I understand the continuity sought by including some pork product into the dessert, but I was still hesitant. Afterall, this was crackin’ and vanilla ice cream being combined together. Never mind the tatin, which was good, but the chunky ice cream with the bits of fried pork skin had all of my attention.
Hesitant spoonful after spoonful were engaged to conduct my analysis of like/dislike. I tried to picture something like maple syrup coated pancakes and bacon together. The savory and sweet bound together. I can get that breakfast reference, but this one was way over the top. By the end, I was picking it out of the ice cream that was quickly melting onto top of the apple tartin.
As displayed on the t-shirt of the chef, bacon was the star of the show, but frankly it didn’t work for me in the dessert portion. Overall though, I really enjoyed the experience of dining in this manner. Having a large group of people I knew to accompany me helped out a lot. As I did notice a few solo diners who seemed out of place and frankly, lonely. The family-style serving method was not conducive to flying solo here, as getting your fair share would involve some diplomacy and tact. If I had one big wish, it would be for the inclusion of perhaps a fourth, more main-like course in the form of some chops or even ribs. Something truly meaty for the carnivore in me would have been greatly appreciated. I kept thinking as I left, where were all the really good parts of these hogs going on the regular menu (that I have yet to try here at Refuel). Also, I would be curious to know if the other two flights of this dinner were as entertaining and enjoyable for the diners. I can’t say that one time (early or late) would be better. I just wonder if they ever ran out of any food at the end of the third seating.
For those of you considering partaking in this dinner next year, I’d suggest you sign up early and give it a try!