Perfect pairings: Finding the right combination of food, drinks, and personalities during Restaurant Week

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Braised lamb shank at Caffe Bocce. Photo: Elli Williams Braised lamb shank at Caffe Bocce. Photo: Elli Williams

Ask restaurateurs about the conceit known as Restaurant Week, and you’ll get a variety of responses—some of which they want off the record, some of which would be unfit to print if they allowed it.

Owners typically love the idea; chefs typically bitch about it. Because one thing is true across the board—it’s the busiest week of the year for almost every place involved. Restaurants that might serve 40 people a night all of a sudden have 100 people walk in and out their doors. Chefs used to putting out a dozen specials might have to make three times that many. Busboys that step out back for a “break” once or twice might be too stoned to see by the end of the night.

With demand that high, restaurants aren’t the only ones that have to prepare for Restaurant Week. Consumers also need a game plan. Should you go with a tried-and-true standard, or maybe try an up-and-comer? Should you stick with cuisine you know or go for something more exotic?

To help you set your strategy, we’ve paired off 16 of this year’s 33 participants in a tongue-tingling tete-a-tete. At the table with chefs and owners across the city, we’ve explored how similar restaurants treat the ingredients they prize most, and how similar business models make their restaurant experience the most inviting. Now all you have to do is make your reservation, and you can be the next person to get a seat at one of those tables.

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The Pigs

Brookville Restaurant and Pasture

Brookville Chef Harrison Keevil and Pasture Chef Jason Alley are like two sides of the same personality. Alley is talkative, brash. Keevil is soft-spoken, careful. Alley’s the type of guy you’d like to slam beers with all night; Keevil just wants to “cook for y’all.” But the two Southern boys’ restaurants and outlook on food are so similar, it’s almost like they share a brain.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re both pretty pork infatuated,” Alley said, seated across from a rapidly nodding Keevil at a table in at Pasture. “Pork has been a mainstay of the South for a long time. You can use the entire thing, and it preserves well.”

Using the entire pig is a focus for both Southern-influenced chefs, who credit the meteoric rise of pork in the past decade to the increased focus on fatty heritage breed pigs and, as Keevil puts it, “getting away from the pink pig.” Nose to tail cooking forces a chef to think outside the box and make sure nothing is wasted, Alley and Keevil agree. One of Keevil’s favorite dishes is deep-fried pigtails, which only hit his menu a couple of times a year because of their scarcity.

“I dig the stuff that takes a long time to cook,” he said. “[Pigtails are] all about timing, getting the temperature correct so they’re not falling apart but tender, then frying them correctly to avoid the gelatin that forms. It’s like the best chicken wing you could ever eat.”

Keevil thinks there’s one distinct difference in the way Pasture and Brookville handle their pork. Where he tends to cook Southern food by drawing on European and contemporary techniques, Alley looks to the way things have been done in the South historically.

“We are very concerned with the Southern conversation. How do we respect it and keep it moving forward?” Alley said. “And we also look even further south, into Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Central America. That’s a large part of our service staff, and it’s important for us to feel like they’re part of it.”

The Southern tradition has recently pushed Alley toward several unique takes on in-house curing. Because his restaurants have limited space and he can buy quality country ham from his vendors, he’s been breaking the pig leg down into its three constituent muscles to create small city hams. He expects to start introducing the house-ham in his pimento cheese in time for Restaurant Week. The technique has also given him a way to solve the rib conundrum he’s long felt at Pasture. He loves a good “gobby” rib, but that dish is best suited for sitting at a picnic table with rolls of paper towels on hand. So he’s curing the ribs individually in ham-like fashion, smoking them, roasting them, deep frying them, and serving them with an Alabama white sauce.

As Alley describes the dish, Keevil is still nodding across the table: “So good.”