At 510 Westport Road (on the northeast corner of Westport Road and Mill Street), practically hidden inside Bridger’s Bottle Shop, is Preservation Market, the latest installment in the culinary rebirth of Westport. Alex Pope of Local Pig and Pigwich fame has brought his tasty philosophy to a once-blighted area. Together with the assistance of on-site Preservation Market chef Devin Campbell, they show us that not only do they know how to skillfully disassemble a pig, goat, lamb, chicken or cow, but that they also understand what to do with the odd bits that are left over. Better yet, they know how to perfectly pair them with handmade preserves and condiments.
I would be remiss to review a restaurant based on preservation techniques without addressing the philosophical, practical and pleasurable aspects of pickles and other preserved foods. What is the purpose of preserved foods in modern society where we can have fresh foods, regardless of season or location, 365 days a year? No longer a necessity for survival, the principal reason for preserving foods today is flavor. We do it because it tastes good. A transformation takes place in the process of preservation, and flavors like sweet, spicy, salty, smoky and/or pungent are conferred upon preserved items.
Are you missing an opportunity to use “fresh” ingredients at the height of their season when they taste their best? Possibly, but what a great time to preserve them—when they taste great and are inexpensive due to abundance. And yes, it does extend the season for the modern chef, and it allows one to serve local products in the bleak times of the year when fewer ingredients are available. Following that thought, Preservation Market, being situated inside Bridger’s Bottle Shop, also makes a certain kind of sense. Beer, after all, was originally a natural solution for preserving potable water and grain. The alcohol, a product of the grain’s fermentation, kept the water safe from pathogens that would otherwise procreate with abandon in water. The alcoholic buzz is just a lucky byproduct. So the cuisine here, whether by accident or choice, has a natural affinity for beer.
The food at Preservation Market is straightforward—a few salads, a few sandwiches, and the Preservation Plate. The hundreds of beers (and ciders, and a little wine and a few non-alcoholic things) are enticing, and the $9 lunch special is super wallet friendly and an awesome deal considering the quality of ingredients. But the Plate is my primary reason to visit Preservation Market.
The Preservation Plate, a gorgeous assortment of their cured meats, vegetables, and fascinating condiments, is many things. It could be a generous lunch for two, a happy-hourish restorative for three (or more), or an appetizer for a group of precocious carnivores. The assortment changes almost daily and features housemade cooked charcuterie (see note*), local and other artisan farmhouse cheeses, pickles, and housemade preserves. The daily changes provide the perfect reason to return for more. While I am certain there are individuals who could tackle this platter alone and—survive—I wouldn’t suggest it. And although it doesn’t seem necessary to discuss every offering on this ever-changing canvas, I’m going to, just because it was so much fun to experience.
The “platter” is a large, white, enameled dish, reminiscent of grandma’s kitchen, but much more hip than you, painted with slices, schmears, chunks, dribbles and dollops of Pope’s and Campbell’s preserved flavors of the moment. I began my exploration with a country pâté studded with mushrooms, next to a golden pickle (golden beet or a butternut squash?). A quenelle of bacon jam (available by the quart in the deli cooler) grabbed my attention next. Then a vibrant and smoky peach paprika head cheese drew my consideration. I knew I liked head cheese, but now I know I love head cheese. On another visit it was a more simple, yet robust, country-style head cheese, one that you might find in any old European village where they have pigs and a thrifty butcher. I think I could eat that gutsy but humble version at every meal: in a hash with a soft-cooked egg for breakfast, in a sandwich with some piquant greens and grainy mustard for lunch, or as a part of a composed salad with a robust glass of wine (or beer) for dinner. Lamb rillettes with preserved lemon were a selection on one visit, although I must admit that I couldn’t really identify the lamb or the preserved lemon. One staple was a chorizo terrine, a molded composition of spicy chorizo topped with an elegant corn-studded aspic (one of the servers referred to it aptly as the chorizo cupcake). Perhaps my favorite flavor memory of any visit was one version of their pork liver mousse. What made it so memorable was a beautiful smoky quality (smoked salt?) that saturated every taste without overwhelming the palate. It rested atop a tiny mound of whipped lardo (cured pork fat, a specialty of Tuscany). I have sampled a respectable quantity of lardo in my life, and this one paled in comparison to the other components of the platter. I prefer lardo in its natural state, sliced paper thin, draped over a warm piece of bread, perhaps drizzled with fine olive oil and a grind of fresh pepper. Another memorable slice was the tasso, a spicy, very lightly cured and hot-smoked pork shoulder, replaced on another visit with Irish bacon (pork loin with some fat still attached—more lean but still big and rich), both served with a lovely pickled mustard seed.
The cheese portion of the platter seems to change with less frequency, and based on the quality of the selection sampled, that’s okay. The cheeses during our visits were all from quantitatively small but qualitatively huge producers. I was completely unfamiliar with Carmody, a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese from a small but semi-famous dairy, the family-run Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County, California. The Carmody allowed the natural flavors of butter, milk and cream to really shine and made the cheese a pleasing foil to the other complex flavors on the platter. The Beemster, another golden cow’s-milk cheese, this time from the Netherlands, was another personal discovery and fun to pair with the different preserves on the Plate. The Midwest was represented by Hooks 3 Year Cheddar and Hooks Blue Paradise from Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The sharp, lightly acidic cheddar was full-flavored and appropriately accompanied by a sweet, coarse mustard. The blue, a mild double-cream, would please those normally leery of strong-flavored blue cheeses, yet still had the complexity blue-cheese lovers adore. The local cheese representative was Goatsbeard Farm in Harrisburg. A few crumbly wedges of their fresh, goat-milk herb round, an aromatic cheese coated in dried Herbes de Provence (tarragon, thyme, rosemary, basil, savory, lavender flowers and fennel seed), gave me yet another reason to be proud of our local food producers.
Scattered equitably about the plate are the chefs’ pickles and preserves. Although too numerous to mention, I have a few to share. One of my favorites was the tumeric-yellow crunchy cauliflower florets, and the sweet-and-spicy yellow-squash refrigerator pickles are possibly the only yellow squash I have ever liked in my life. Mustards and relishes abound, a little barbecue-esqe schmear, some bread-and-butter pickle business there. Loved it all, and loved asking my fellow diners and even the service staff what their favorite combinations were. Everyone had an opinion.
Here is my only complaint about the Preservation Plate: I found the accompanying bread, that although perfect for their sandwiches (more about that later), unable to stand up to the flavorful charcuterie and cheeses. When performing solo, those tasty bites need a loaf with a little more character, a bread with a substantive crumb whose flavors accompany and support the meats and cheeses rather than simply provide a starchy vehicle on which to spread them. By the way, items on the menu are numbered. The Plate is #10. I think it should be #1.
For those less interested in exploration and more interested in a delicious quick meal, look into the salads and sandwiches. My favorite salad was the No. 2, an ample and tasty combination of earthy beets, pulled pork with crispy edges, sweet-corn relish, Brussels-sprouts slaw, and chipotle-rosemary vinaigrette. There was a wonderful balance between sweetness and acidity, with vegetables and dressing playing laudable supporting roles. For a light lunch, take a friend and share a salad. They’re generously portioned, and sharing leaves more room for another beer and a platter of cookies for dessert.
For the sandwich-minded, there are choices for every taste. Bold flavors abound, complex but not overwhelming. Our favorite was the No. 8, lamb meatballs with marinated feta, bread-and-butter pickles, bitter-orange preserves, and cilantro. The sandwich had a pleasant richness and a great spicy kick. Looking at the sandwich sliced in half was like looking at a little meat mosaic, with the bright greens and yellows swirled around the meatballs. It also revealed a lovely thoughtfulness in regards to the bread. The center had been torn from the baguette giving a much nicer ratio of bread to filling. This time, the bread was the perfect vehicle, proving that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Both salads and sandwiches come with a choice of side. The choices include a refreshing barley salad (I love grain salads, served cool or at room temperature dressed with oil, vinegar and flavoring ingredients of your choice), a GF cornbread muffin (GF=gluten free), and potato chips. (To see the chips being made, take a little trip to the Pigwich trailer a little before lunch and watch the cooks feed potatoes into a crazy homemade contraption that appears to be a Frankensteinian cross between a power drill and an apple peeler.)
I hope Alex Pope’s Midtown outpost of handmade charcuterie and preserves intrigues you. Think of it as our own hip little Brooklyn outpost right here in Westport. And though pickles and sausage may not be your idea of refined cuisine, this food is as deserving of a white tablecloth as it is a picnic blanket.