It wasn’t so easy to find a willing accomplice for dinner at Le Petit Cochon, where chef/proprietor Derek Ronspies loves to explore the head-to-toe possibilities of food.
Potential dates would scrutinize the menu online then ask if they would have to eat duck feet or pig face. But the menu at this informal and engaging restaurant overlooking the treetops in the heart of Fremont isn’t all nasty bits. I’d point to the fish and the “Phat Ass” pork chop. OK, they’d say, but no “blood and foie” for me.
That meant more blood sausage and foie gras for moi, or so I thought. Yet two forks ended up competing for the last bite of a meaty blood-rich sausage patty, suggestive of clove, nutmeg and ginger, topped with a sliver of seared foie gras. Tarragon and fennel mustard mingled in the rich juices, small turnips and arugula contributed a slightly bitter earthiness, pickled kumquats a lightening bolt.
Pig-face fritter was a hit, too. Accompanied by pine nuts and red-speckled leaves of Castelfranco radicchio, the fried nugget of pork formed an atoll in a sweet sea of carrot-rutabaga soup, finished with lemon-pepper oil and curry-spiced vadouvan cream.
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The fritter managed to be both melty and crisp, a magic trick Ronspies performs often. He does it with tempura corn bellies — think corn dogs made with pork-belly bites nestled in warm, smokey, caraway-flecked cabbage slaw. He does it with a slice of fried mortadella capping mac and cheese made with ricotta cavatelli (meat, ricotta and noodles, all house-made).
He even does it with duck feet. The difficulty with those (for the squeamish) is that they still look like duck feet, even after they’ve been boiled for hours then deep fried. Gnawing on the bones requires very little work and offers great rewards for fried-fat aficionados. For added toe-dabbling excitement, the chef offers a zingy chili-lime-ginger sauce and cooling cilantro yogurt.
Duck hearts were on the menu one night, too. Grilled and sliced, they lent an agreeably liverish swagger to a strikingly composed salad landscaped with red beet purée, pickled Satsuma, pistachios and leaves of escarole and arugula dressed in mustard-seed vinaigrette.
If there is a signature dish at Le Petit Cochon, it’s the “Phat Ass” pork chop from Olsen Farms, one of a select list of local purveyors that Ronspies relies on. Rightly named on all levels, the 2-inch-thick hunk of meat, ceremoniously presented on a large wooden board, was expertly cooked, palest pink and juicy to the vigorously seasoned bones.
Lately the preparation has been Asian-inspired, with pickled daikon and sesame spinach, black-bean vinaigrette and a Korean-style barbecue sauce. But sometimes the chop keeps company with collard greens and “D Rock’s Pimpin’ Grits.”
I enjoyed those grits with Sooes River steelhead trout. Silky tomato butter pooled in the dimples of creamy cornmeal; brisk bacon vinaigrette moistened the trout’s crackling skin.
Similarly, smoky pork broth put a meaty spin on troll-caught king salmon from Neah Bay, mounted on potato hash. I didn’t care for the mushy topper of minced shrimp, but the slice of fried lemon was a brilliant touch.
Ronspies has a playful side, but he’s a thoughtful cook, careful to balance richness with acid, mindful of texture. No doubt he learned some of this from stints cooking alongside his talented older brother, Dustin Ronspies, at Art of the Table, half a mile away.
The menu remains interesting right up to the end. Powdered pepper bacon and quince paste accented a cheese plate featuring Kurtwood Farms aged Loghouse Tomme.
Heavy foie gras doughnuts with thin, icy “Fudgsicle” ice cream weren’t a success, but chocolate lardo paté was. Improbably delicious, with an almost spreadable texture, its boon companions included crunchy beet streusel, tart cranberries and a cinnamon-dusted chicharon planted in a scoop of vanilla-parsnip ice cream.
Ronspies personalized the ex-Showa space with artifacts and memorabilia from his life and travels. It’s cozy, with a small bar, a mix of high and low tables and, in the way back, an open kitchen, from which Ronspies, or his “right-hand man” Spencer Caplan, frequently emerge to deliver plates themselves, as if to say: See, nothing scary here.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.