When it comes to fresh-from-the-farm fare, Denver’s pork-centric Old Major delectably hogs the stage.
“Farm-to-table” has quickly become an overused term, verging on a mass marketing gimmick at some restaurants. But cynics can find the untainted spirit of the movement at Old Major. It’s a philosophy of cooking and sourcing, central to how exceptionally executed food can really taste. Or, as My Brain Waiting to Eat Bacon explains it, this Highlands eatery is the shrine for devout pork-centric worship.
Justin Brunson (pictured above), owner and executive chef of Old Major— named after the respected elder pig in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm—has racked up numerous culinary awards. He started Denver’s two sensational Masterpiece Delicatessens, and he’ll open another restaurant in May in Denver’s booming Union Station district. “Creating and opening a restaurant is a big adrenaline rush—it’s hard, but I love it,” he says.
Born and raised to a farming family in Iowa, Brunson spent his childhood gardening, hunting and fishing—call it a school of “higher loining.” (Which jokes do pigs like best? The corniest ones!) So Old Major takes him back to his farming youth, what he calls “contemporary farmhouse cuisine.” “Even the building,” he says, noting the somewhat rustic/industrial decor with a wave of his arm, “is a fancy barn.”
The menu, the 13th in two years, changes as the seasons do. When possible, product and ingredients are locally sourced from farmers and fishermen committed to sustainability. Want to get the affable Brunson riled up? Ask him how other restaurants can have corn or tomatoes on their menus in July. “Not possible with Colorado’s growing season,” he says. “We have our own 2,000-square-foot garden, where we grow quirky herbs and flowers and seed pods—4,000 pounds of produce a year. I like getting vegetables with extra dirt on ‘em.”
But while it’s relatively easy to get farm-to-table vegetables, meat regulations are strict. They dictate that animals must be processed (slaughtered, gutted and cleaned) at a U.S.D.A.-approved facility before entering the commercial market. Brunson buys the best animals around ($60,000 in pigs a year from one family), and Old Major’s inhouse, nose-to-tail butchery program makes the most of these heritage-raised meats.
The pigs, 32 of them a week, come in on Tuesday morning, cut in half lengthwise; they can vary in weight as much as 75 lbs. They are butchered in-house, taking two people three hours to break one down into pieces—ribs, front shoulder, belly, loin and ham. Witnessing the artisanal butchery, I thought, “I never sausage a body.” Old Major uses every bit of the animal except the snout, even rendering all the fat to make lard for baking and confit. Old Major also cures in-house—you’ll see the charcuterie chamber in the dining room, systematically placed for prolonged ogling; Brunson claims to have hams that have been hanging in their stockinettes for over three years.
There are two must-dos at Old Major, falling under the aegis of chef de cuisine Kona Bobek. The first is the Old Major Charcuterie Plate—no cheeses on this board. On recent visits, I’ve enjoyed a fennel-based salami (the flavor further enhanced with wine, salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika—when I become pope, it will be the new communion wafer); lardo (fatback cured with herbs and spices, which transforms it into creamy, fragrant slabs) thinly sliced and draped over bruschetta; and face meat rolled up like a classic Italian porchetta di testa and sliced. The latter was a mouthwatering adventure, with different tastes and textures, almost buttery.
The Nose to Tail Plate is the other outstanding dish, stacked with incredible, unforgettable pork. At various times, I’ve consumed a pork meatball with lardo draped over it, braised pork belly, smoked rib (pork rib confit smoked then cooked in their own fat), crispy ears (if my papal candidacy fails, I’d run a movie theater and serve them instead of popcorn), smoked ham, even coppa (the tender and flavorsome pork neck muscle, cooked as a steak). On my last visit, the plate was served with a polenta Sunday gravy (a red marinara sauce with a mixture of meats in it with creamy polenta), broccoli rabe and Parmesan.
So put your palate in the hands of Old Major. This passionate, tight-knit group is fiercely proud of their concepts, from the brunch program to the cocktail program to the wine program. The latter is formidable; wine connoisseur and entrepreneur Ben Parsons from Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem produces the exclusive Old Major red and white wines.
But my heart and stomach belong to Nadine Donovan, the head pastry chef who produces amazing breads and desserts. A signature dish is Ham and Biscuits (pictured above)—the house-smoked ham on her cheddar cheese and chive biscuits, garnished with red pepper jam. She’s also responsible for the complimentary pretzels served with mustard butter, but save room for her truffles, replete with the Old Major logo and typeface on them. I had visions of Oompa Loompas in the back with tiny paintbrushes, but she divulged the process—cocoa butter transfers are printed and added onto chocolate to create the customized edible design.
If you’re not looking to pork out, the rest of Old Major’s menu focuses on a handful of simple, savory dishes, letting the quality of the ingredients and the attention to detail shine through. There’s a selection of sustainable seafood (Iowa boy Brunson can’t wait until walleye season), and I recommend the suitably hearty Rabbit Pappardelle (broad, flat ribbons of pasta with tender braised meat). This ambitious and interesting food––“deformalized fine dining”—doesn’t come cheap. But, hey, if pigs could fly, bacon would go up!
3316 Tejon St.; 720-420-0622; oldmajordenver.com
Gary James is a Boulder-based food and music writer. Read more of his reviews at www.coloradoavidgolfer.com. Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com.