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Dining review: Torchon Bistro is made for meat lovers

Don't let the decor fool you. The predominance of white surfaces, sparkly lights and pastel abstracts is pretty, but Torchon's food appeals to a primitive and visceral craving: meat. And not just any meat. This is meat at Fashion Week in Manhattan. It's beautiful and transcends mere aesthetics; chef Shana Whitlock adds literal brushstrokes of inspiration in the form of imaginative sauces and reductions.

Merely reading the menu involved a Q&A period before we could order: "Pig ear tendril -- is that a real part of the pig?" "Does charred horseradish 'paper' have calories?" "What does foamed pickling brine taste like?" And there is no good answer for the last question. That's the fun of Torchon; you have to take a risk and find out for yourself.

Chef Whitlock also took a risk when she crafted this menu. Alaskans love meat, especially the variety that she offers (elk, rib-eye, lamb), but they are definitely wary of preciosity, which may come through in some of the descriptions. And yet our spirit of adventure is strong. Both nights that I went in (a Friday and a Tuesday) were hopping. I could tell that people were really studying the menu and fortunately, the staff is knowledgeable and happy to answer questions.

The first night, I ordered the lamb with black rice ($35) on our server Erica's recommendation and my husband went for his standby, a rib-eye ($35). I always make it my policy to ask the server for a favorite dish because it hasn't failed me yet; the lamb was outstanding. I had to cast back in recent memory to recall the last time I'd had lamb so tender and flavorful (I hadn't). Truffle honey and shards of hazelnut highlighted the meat in a totally unexpected and complementary way.

My husband's grass-fed rib-eye seemed only merely good by comparison. It just didn't have the verve and invention of my meal, although I'm sure it would have been perfectly acceptable if I hadn't tasted the lamb first.

My friend's fried chicken ($29), however, exhibited Torchon's penchant for playfulness. The chicken itself was solidly done, but the highlight was the waffle cone filled with a kale and Brussels sprout slaw with cherry vinaigrette. When just the very bottom of the cone was left, I filled it with bits of fried chicken skin and and created a savory, crunchy concoction that I hope to see offered as an appetizer soon.

My next visit was with a group of friends who have worked in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years -- the type of people who not only want to order the Torchon taster ($16), but insist that we order two.

The taster is a pork lollapalooza: pork jowl and head cheese torchon, bacon with dark chocolate and Alaska spruce tips, a single pork rind with fleur de sel, pulled pork with mango, truffled cracklin's, a heritage hog spare rib, pork belly confit and the aforementioned soy-cured pig ear tendril. All the curing and smoking is done in-house, and Alaska ingredients are used whenever possible (this is true of the entire menu).

Not every component was a hit (I'm looking at you, pig ear tendril and too-chewy spareribs) but it was overall a love letter to pork that I felt comfortable signing as well. The pulled pork was on the world's tiniest biscuit and somehow still managed to impress. A surprising favorite was the beautiful carrot and turnip slaw that accompanied the head cheese, redolent with paprika and cumin. The meat is certainly the main focus, but the sides and vegetables are also lavished with attention.

My elk "tomahawk" chop ($38) came out looking just as impressive as its moniker. I had worried about over-cooking and gaminess; the chop was ruby red throughout and lacquered with a root beer molasses that underscored the succulent earthiness of the meat. This dish, like the lamb, was freshly spun and perfectly executed.

Complimentary amuse bouches, interesting desserts and educated staff make the experience enjoyable, but it is chef Whitlock's enthusiasm for her craft that will have me coming back for more.

Torchon Bistro

Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Options: Dine-in and takeout

Location: 1921 W. Dimond Blvd.

Phone: 563-8888, torchonbistro.com

$$$-$$$$

****1/2

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