Dining Out: A whole pig, to go, from Phuket Royal
713 Somerset St W., 613-235-3134, phuketroyal.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Prices: Most curries and stir-fries from $10 to $15, roasted whole pigs to go from $200 to $240
Access: no steps to front door or washrooms
“I’m glad I didn’t see that before I ate,” the woman shuddered to her lunch date.
A guest at the Chinatown restaurant Phuket Royal earlier this summer, she was watching chef and co-owner Chhay Hung Ngo lug my meal — a whole, roasted and deeply bronzed pig, smelling of lemongrass and packed snugly in a box — out of the kitchen to my waiting car on Somerset Street West.
I get that she and many others might be revulsed by eating food with a face on it. It made me a little sad too, to be confronted with the unequivocal fact that this animal, which a few days had been alive and as happy as a pig in Navan, had died. But isn’t it a little hypocritical not to wince as well because of a nicely seared cut of pork tenderloin on a plate, prettied up with sauce and garnishes?
I overcame any misgivings because I wanted to try some made-in-Ottawa lechon, the Filipino-style whole roasted pig preparation that no less than well-traveled TV chef Anthony Bourdain has proclaimed “the best in the world.” The flashing sign in Phuket Royal’s window said it served lechon, although it took an inquiry to learn that the restaurant only roasts whole pigs to go.
For the most part, Phuket Royal is a Thai restaurant, as per its Thai island namesake. Whole pigs aside, it’s pretty much the only Thai restaurant in Chinatown and an attractive one at that. With its dark brown banquettes and upholstered chairs, as well as its spaciousness, the ambience at this converted grocery store tops the settings at neighbouring, more modest eateries.
In a corner of its kitchen, the restaurant, which opened in the spring of 2014, has an immense oven, almost like a walk-in furnace. There, whole pigs from 10 to 30 pounds can be hung for roasting at temperatures so fiercely hot that they can be cooked in as little as two hours.
Ngo roasts several a week, usually for celebrations in Ottawa’s Filipino community, with demand multiplying for major holidays. Ngo left me with the impression that a Filipino feast wouldn’t be complete without a whole pig.
Phuket Royal’s lechon will please locavores. The pigs come from Lavergne Western Beef meat shop in Navan. They must be ordered a week in advance, so that, for example, a pig served at a weekend party would be butchered the previous Tuesday, delivered, trimmed and seasoned on Wednesday and then hung in a fridge to dry for a few days before being cooked the day of the party.
Just before roasting, Ngo pricks the pig’s skin hundreds of times with a tool studded with heavy needles to help the subcutaneous fat entirely render. It’s clear that achieving uniformly crunchy, evenly coloured skin is a priority, and the chef said that if the skin for some reason doesn’t turn out right, he can be angry for the rest of the day.
Traditionally, lechon is slow-roasted on a spit rather than in Phuket Royal’s relatively fast, high-heat treatment. It likely followed then that Phuket Royal’s whole pig had more chew to it than an animal cooked “low and slow.” I haven’t had lechon on its home turf, but now I’m fondly recalling the supremely moist, shredded kalua pig I had last summer at a luau in Hawaii, which had been cooked in an underground pit, essentially buried over fire-heated rocks and left for six to eight hours.
But while Phuket Royal’s pig didn’t melt in the mouth, it was moist and had good flavour. Ngo made it for me two ways, and said he can season a whole pig any way a customer wants. After the pig was opened up length-wise, one half was seasoned in the Filipino style, principally with lemongrass, while the other half was made at Ngo’s intriguing suggestion with chili and cumin, bringing Northern Chinese seasoning to mind. When my voracious newsroom colleagues expressed a preference, it was for the lemongrass pork.
As for Phuket Royal’s usual a la carte fare, what I’ve sampled has been tasty, accessible and reasonably priced Thai fare, speedily prepared and brought to the table, but sometimes tasting a bit simplified.
Complementary lemongrass tea was a nice way to start dinner. Then came chicken satay that was lightly crispy and tender, served with a sauce that balanced peanut with sweetness and a bit of curry. Tom yum soup had good, bracing sourness to it.
More often than not, stir-fries and curries satisfied with fine, dovetailing flavours, properly cooked, thinly sliced proteins and strong herbal notes. A beef stir-fry got its mix of light, lemongrass-based tartness and saltiness right. We were happy to see and eat a punchy stir-fry that featured moist slices of duck breast and plenty of Thai basil. Red curry with chicken, while a little oily, was a crowd-pleaser and had lots of kaffir lime leaf-based zing.
The menu appends chili symbols next to some dishes, and when a server neglected to ask us just how hot we wanted some food, the food was pleasantly hot a slightly sweat-inducing. On other visits, I’ve asked for, and received, amped-up lap (minced chicken salad) and peanutty panang curry.
Pad Thai was the only let down, because it was overly sweet and ho hum, lacking other layers of flavour.
Several desserts, either various Asian-themed ice creams or starch-meets-coconut milk dishes were available, but all that we craved was Thai ice coffee, which differed slightly flavour-wise from the Vietnamese coffees elsewhere on Somerset Street West.
With Phuket Royal you can opt for some reliable, approachable Thai fare in pleasant surroundings or go whole hog with the whole hog, which will please and stuff you along with a horde of your friends, but may also make you wonder if the ultimate lechon is still waiting for you, somewhere in the Philippines, maybe even with an apple in its mouth.