Pork bellies have long had a place on the commodities market. But now they're showing up on more menus. Patina just debuted a new dish that marries pork belly with lobster. Spago offers pork belly about once a week. Jar, the year-old American restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, features it as an appetizer.
And chef-restaurateur Tim Goodell likes pork bellies so much that he uses them at his four Orange County restaurants, as well as Santa Monica's Whist, where he serves as executive chef.
Pork belly is basically uncured, unsmoked bacon. Unlike bacon however, it is generally served in thick slabs or generous cubes rather than skinny slices. It also has a very different texture than bacon.
"When it's cooked right," says Eric Greenspan, executive chef at Patina, "it's probably the mushiest and moistest and most tender part of the pig. It's 'melty, melty.' " (That'd be the fat factor.)
Goodell likens eating pork belly to "the experience of eating foie gras. Unlike a piece of beef fat that's gristly, this is a smooth, buttery piece of fat." He got started with pork belly one day when curing bacon. "I thought, there must be something different we can do. I ended up braising it."
Each of Goodell's restaurants goes through at least 60 pounds a week. At Aubergine in Newport Beach, the pork belly is slow-braised and served with asparagus tips, morel cream and braising jus. At Troquet in Costa Mesa, it is crisped up and, along with sauteed greens and poached prunes, accompanies pork tenderloin. At Red Pearl Kitchen in Huntington Beach, it is fried, sliced, served over mustard greens and finished with a chile caramel. At the Lodge in Costa Mesa, it shows up in a redux of old-fashioned pork and beans. And at Whist, it is seared and served with black-eyed peas and polenta.
Chefs also like it for its cost -- compared to other meats, it is relatively inexpensive.
Of course, pork bellies aren't for everybody; some diners are a little apprehensive of something with the word "belly."
"The staff has to do a pretty good job of describing it," Jar chef Suzanne Tracht says of her braised pork belly appetizer with apple cider and black kale.
Even then, it can be a hard sell. That's why when Tracht recently got a nice belly with the spareribs attached -- which she wanted to feature as an entree special -- she took a little liberty in the naming.
"I went ahead and called it a 'country-style pork rib,' " she says. "I wanted to make it sound more attractive." It sold and people loved it, she says.
The belly ballyhoo isn't limited to the Southland. Thomas Keller, chef at Yountville's famed French Laundry, has been serving pork belly in a number of "all-day baked" and "all-day braised" preparations. And Petrus in London offers braised pork belly with pan-fried foie gras, spinach, shallots, baby leeks and braising jus, a combination surely meriting some kind of over-the-top award.