A 5th grade Warhol homage announces your arrival at SloPig 2014.
Yes, there are participants from Milwaukee and Chicago, but at its heart, the SloPig food and drink festival (exhibition? open house?) is really a Madison event, and you can learn a lot about Madison just by walking the three floors of the Madison Club after the crowd starts to file in.
You can learn about Madison's casual, welcome-all-types vibe. SloPig attendees, younger and older, wear jeans and sneakers, slacks and polos, and even an evening gown or suit and tie. No one looks particularly out of place, even in a formal, posh environment like this. No two look alike -- except for the stylish young woman who happened to be wearing an outfit almost identical to my wife's, including a literally identical sweater. They made fast friends, and said hi more than once as paths crossed. But other than that, the crowd is diverse.
You can learn about Madison's eclectic nature, taking in an event that includes uneven signage, no map or program, and whose layout makes little to no damn sense. If you're the type who, like me, wants to plot out a plan of attack, this event will stymie your inner field general. Conquer one floor's offering, move on to the next -- that's as precise as you'll get.
But most importantly, you can learn about the zeal with which some of Madison's best kitchens -- and yes, also those from Milwaukee and Chicago -- will break down a pig and put it to delicious ends. You'll learn how southern Wisconsin's best mixologists stack up against perhaps the very best the Midwest has to offer. And you'll learn just how much rich food and boozy drink you can fit in your belly in three hours.
This was the fourth SloPig feast, but my first time attending. General admission is $100, and the draw is two-fold: tasting portions of pig-centric dishes from restaurants like L'Etoile, Sanford, A Pig in a Fur Coat, Bavette, and more, plus punch cocktails from some of the same restaurants and more, including heavy-hitter The Aviary, the Chicago bar project from world-class chef Grant Achatz. There are also high-end food and drink suppliers like Sassy Cow, Ale Asylum , and Kickapoo Coffee. All of this is ostensibly all-you-can-eat, though all-you-should-eat is a better guideline to follow.
SloPig is spearheaded by chef Dan Fox, now of Heritage Tavern, but longer of Fox Heritage Farms, supplier of pig to a number of chefs in the area. A little oddly, in my opinion, he doesn't serve any of his own cooking at the event. I saw him around, but more as patron than presenter. (His hogs, however, are among the artisan breeds used by the other chefs.)
The Madison chefs, closest to their home kitchens, served up the most dishes per table. Offerings from chef Dan Bonnano of A Pig in a Fur Coat included a nice sausage and peppers-type sandwich, a little soup, a slightly spicy chocolate-filled profiterole -- and no obvious printed descriptions of any of it. Hard to take notes when you're loaded down with paper plates and boats and a punch cup.
Tory Miller of L'Etoile and Graze chose instead to preview the menu for his forthcoming third restaurant, Sujeo, which he expects to open by July in the Constellation building on East Washington Avenue. Street food-esque, Miller's dishes were less pretty than they were portable: a banh mi, a little cup of excellent dan dan noodles, Filipino pork belly, and a Korean BBQ pork ssäm lettuce wrap that I probably could have eaten three of, if I didn't have so much else to sample.
That preview was something to behold, but Milwaukee's Sanford Restaurant and its Beard-contending chef, Justin Aprahamian, really brought game. (He also brought a nice, detailed printed menu.) A chestnut and spare rib-stuffed pork loin and roast sausage with pickled shellfish, exceptional as they were, were bested by a crisp fried wedge of head cheese with chickpea ragu and fennel aioli. Sanford was my vote on the ballot for best restaurant overall -- but it was close.
Punches were uniformly impressive, from the absinthe milk punch with tapioca pearls from Hastings Cameron to the grilled, pureed pineapple and mezcal number from Graze's Ruben Mendez. The Aviary put Chicago's legendary Jeppson's Malört liqueur to work in a citrusy, herbal iced punch that I'd drink on the daily during the summer months, but L'Etoile got my vote for its complex and articulate white whiskey/honey/sriracha concoction.
As one would hope, there weren't too many clunkers in the mix; I only needed one bite to know the bacon "biscuits" from Buckley's in Milwaukee were more like superballs and critically low on bacon, but other than that, the biggest sin of SloPig was an inexcusable lack of high-top tables. People on all floors were camping out over bussing stations, and even with the crowds there really was plenty of space for more tables.
Okay, one other complaint. How about a little female representation above secondary bartender level?
Other eats worth mentioning: the porchetta from The Bristol of Chicago, the bulgogi meatball from Buckley's, and some really tasty cheddar-infused bacon sausage from Chicago's Big Fork Brands (look for it at Metcalfe's and other purveyors of gourmet foods in Madison). And big, big props for Sassy Cow, which went above and beyond the call of duty, serving a massive spread of meaty toppings on its ice cream sundae bar. Ham and cheese crumbles, ethereal candied bacon, prosciutto and melon compote, pork blood and beet chocolate fudge? The Cow was in my overall top three for food, with Justin Aprahamian and Tory Miller.
The unfamiliar might balk at the ticket price. I'm more or less inclined to agree with that sticker shock; $85 feels better, but consider six different punch cocktails plus all that food, from a wide geographic area, and $100 definitely becomes more reasonable. There's room for SloPig to improve, but it's a heck of a passion project. Just a minor increase in organization would take it to the level of "premier regional food event."