Foraged Eatery uses local ingredients in a menu that’s both adventurous and approachable

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Foraged Eatery opened in Hampden in late December.

How do you feel about pig parts?

It’s entirely likely that this is a question you’ve never asked yourself, but it’s something dinner at Foraged Eatery will force you to consider.

Foraged, which opened in December in the tiny Hampden space that formerly housed Aromes, dedicates an entire section of its menu strictly to “pig parts and pickles.” And we’re not talking about pork chops, either. Foraged’s list includes everything from heart to snout.

If that makes your mouth water, you can pause your reading to make a reservation for dinner right now–you’re going to like the place.

But even if the thought of snacking on pig tongue or cheeks or ears makes you wrinkle your nose, you should still give Foraged a shot. Not only is the menu as a whole quite approachable, but the pig parts in question are not nearly as scary as they sound.

Foraged is the brainchild of chef Chris Amendola, who worked at several local spots, including Waterfront Kitchen and Fleet Street Kitchen, before going out on his own.

The restaurant takes its name from one of Amendola’s hobbies, foraging for wild food. And when the restaurant advertises itself as “hyper-seasonal,” it’s not because he’s just glommed on to a current buzzword. Amendola is a chef’s chef, the kind of professional who has earned respect from Baltimore’s top culinarians for his commitment to local ingredients and his skill cooking with them. All of that talent is on display at Foraged.

During a late February visit, that meant heavy, savory dishes garnished with root vegetables, mushrooms and rich sauces.

The menu is compact: In addition to the pig parts, it included eight small or mid-sized dishes and five entrees. That list includes several vegetarian options; herbivores will be happy to hear that Amendola cooks vegetables with as much care and creativity as meat-centric dishes.

But back to those pig parts. From the list of eight different parts available during our visit, we chose two: tongue and “kewl ranch” pig ears. They arrived together, looking pretty on a speckled pottery plate, garnished with the pickles of the day (apple and fennel) and a small pot of creamy sauce.

Pig tongue and crispy pig ears are two of the items on Foraged’s “pig parts & pickles” list.

In the spirit of full disclosure: my husband (and dinner partner) loves the unfamiliar textures of less popular cuts of pig, but the chewier or more gelatinous parts aren’t typically my favorites. So it was with some trepidation that I bit into one of the ears, which had been sliced thin and coated with spices, then fried until crispy.

I shouldn’t have worried. The ears were terrific. More crispy than chewy and a lot of fun to eat.

Our waiter–a knowledgeable guy who competently juggled all the tables in the small restaurant–explained that other than the ears, all the pig parts are prepared the same way: first cooked sous vide, then seared in a cast iron pan to finish. That approach certainly worked for the tongue, which arrived sliced into small bites and was exceedingly tender.

The pork plate started the meal off right and the rest of dinner followed in the same vein.

From the small plates list, a rectangle of blood sausage was a treat. The sausage’s texture was finer than blood sausage often is, making it more elegant than we expected, and its accoutrements–spicy Dijon mustard, more fennel and apple pickles, and a trio of steam buns–were also a nice surprise. Using the buns to create little sausage sandwiches, we were impressed by how well those pickles paired with the sausage and the tongue.

A slightly larger plate of sunchokes with goat cheese and chopped hazelnuts was a vegetarian-friendly study in subtle contrasts. The flavors in the dish were mild–the tang of the cheese complemented the sunchoke’s slight sweetness–and the crunch of the nuts neatly countered the soft, boiled potato-like consistency of the ‘chokes.

Our favorite dish of the evening was a lovely braised lamb neck sauced with lamb jus and served with carrot puree and hunks of glazed yellow carrots that were tender and sweet and just earthy enough that they tricked us for a minute into thinking they were golden beets.

Duck confit arrived over purple potato gnocchi, cabbage and apples. The dish was mostly terrific, with the acidity of the cabbage and apples cutting the fattiness of the duck. But it wasn’t quite as well turned out as the lamb: The duck’s skin could’ve been a little crispier and the gnocchi was on the dense side. But those are minor complaints–I’d order the dish again, just as it was.

Our only other criticism of the meal wasn’t even about the food; it was about the garnishes. While the layer of microgreens scattered across many of Foraged’s dishes looked pretty and added a welcome burst of color to the golds and browns common to mid-winter meals, they didn’t add much in the way of texture or flavor, so they seemed like a waste.

Those greens grow in the hydroponic system that occupies a significant part of one of Foraged’s exposed brick walls. In theory, seeing the greens on the plate is a nice reminder that Amendola practices what he preaches: his food is truly local. They didn’t detract from our meal, but they didn’t enhance it, either.

For its first month or so in business, foraged was BYOB only; in mid-February, the restaurant acquired a license to sell beer and wine. Both the beer and wine lists are brief and smart; the beer list is local, too. We opted for the Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone, a nicely-balanced red that, at $12 a glass, was one of the more expensive choices on the very reasonably priced list.

Though we didn’t miss liquor drinks, exactly, it would be interesting to see what kinds of cocktails a strong bar program might pair with the food. That’s probably not in the cards, though. Chef Amendola said he plans to stick with beer and wine only, since the small space doesn’t leave much room for a bar operation.

Amendola’s commitment to seasonality extends to the dessert menu. During our visit, we opted for a piece of crumbly walnut cake topped with a smooth dollop of coffee crème anglaise and a handful of candied walnuts. The dessert had a rustic look that was consistent with the rest of the meal and it was more hearty than sweet, which we appreciated.

Even a few days after our visit, Foraged’s menu had already changed; its evolution will continue with the seasons. But the pig parts will stick around–and so will Amendola’s commitment to cooking with what’s in season locally and his skill with those ingredients.

Foraged Eatery, 3520 Chestnut St., (410) 235-0035.

Final Grade: A-

Bottom Line: Both the menu and the space are compact at Foraged, where chef Chris Amendola’s “hyper-seasonal” food manages to be both adventurous and approachable. I’ve already started telling friends to make reservations. You should book one, too.

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