A Cold Chill Coming from Sou’Wester
The Sou'Wester pork jowl BLT sounded too mouthwatering to pass up, even if we were way past tomato season, but at $7 per sandwich, I had to ask our waiter how large the lunch-time portion was. He indicated that the sammie was small, perhaps the size of my hand, and that depending on my appetite, I might need a side or two to supplement it. I appreciated his frankness.
Turns out that size wasn't a problem. Flavor was. Texture was. Presentation was. If you had sat that sandwich on a table, without informing me of its place of origin, I would have thought it came from Potbelly or Cosi or maybe even a government cafeteria, not a Mandarin Oriental restaurant under the watchful eye of Eric Ziebold. (Well, I guess the fatty, gelatinous jowl meat immediately places the sandwich under the trendy nose-to-tail banner, and therefore renders it gourmet, but trust me, the meat alone couldn't save this sucker.)
The bread was hard and crackly despite no apparent turn on the griddle or in a pan (was this oven baked?). The ingredients, including a sad single round of tomato on one half of the sandwich, were thrown together between the hardened bread slices with little concern for balance or appearance. The sandwich's flavor was mostly provided by the double wallop of fatty pork and fatty mayonnaise. It had all the subtlety of Marion Barry.
I had hoped the side dish of pickled vegetables would help cut the fat parade, so I popped a pink floret of cauliflower into my mouth. I almost spit it out. Wanting to check my palate, I asked my tablemate to sample the pickled veggie. She took a bite of the cauliflower and immediately made a face. We agreed on one thing: Ziebold and chef de cuisine Rachael Harriman need to jettison the caraway seeds in the pickling liquid. The anise overtones just don't work.
Our entire lunch wasn't a bust, however. My friend's fried chicken ($13) boasted a crispy, well-seasoned coating, which was moist and flavorful despite its long dunk in the fryer oil. My friend kept poking her finger into the leg meat to show me the puddle of grease on it. It didn't bother me as much as it did her.
The best part of the meal, by far, was the appetizer of crab fritters ($12), which was actually closer in spirit to Frank Ruta's famous fry plate at Palena Cafe. The dish was loaded with delicate, browned nuggets of moist crab meat as well as toothsome rounds of lightly fried onion bulbs and sunny circles of lemon slices, all ready for dipping in the accompanying green goddess dressing.
Unfortunately, by the time I pretended to eat my pork jowl BLT, and its sad side of pickled veggies, the memory of that appetizer had faded far away. All I was left with was one unavoidable thought: This was not the kind of food I was hoping for after attending the Sou'Wester opening in September.