Last Halloween, Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, offered to serve as guest chef at an underground dinner party hosted by his friend Kara Masi at her apartment in Fort Greene. Tasked with cooking for 12 devoted gourmands, Mr. Gold, an accomplished if not professional cook, swung for the fences, dreaming up a truly frightening dish called “Zombie’s Delight”: pan-fried calves’ brains. He bought the raw organs—four half-brains—at Ottomanelli & Sons on Bleecker, and then, in Ms. Masi’s kitchen, proceeded to “blanch ’em in cold water, then poach ’em, then take off all the little blood clots and membranes, and then dredge it in flour and pan-fry it in a nice peanut oil until it’s golden brown, then let it drain” (all while dressed as a pirate). Brains “are easily just the grossest raw ingredient you’ll work with,” Mr. Gold told The Observer with evident glee. But they had a “soft, creamy consistency,” almost like a flan, and “a musty, visceral flavor.” At least 10 out of the 12 attendees tried them, and while none asked for the recipe, Mr. Gold considered the dish a success. “Most people were just like, ‘Oh wow, this didn’t make me vomit, hooray!’”
It’s a sentiment increasingly familiar to New York diners. In the past few years, offal—the animal parts that fall off the butcher table, like the entrails, head and feet—has progressed from a rare delicacy at risk-taking restaurants like Babbo, Prune and Michael White’s now-defunct Fiamma to a ubiquity of near–pork-belly proportions. Prime beef? Hopelessly minor league, not to mention kind of unenlightened. Call yourself a chef? Let’s see what you can do with a whole (locally raised, hormone-free, of course) carcass. Let’s see you braise a kidney.
Meanwhile, butcher shops like the Meat Hook in Williamsburg and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market sell ambitious amateurs everything from headcheese to chorizo-stuffed duck hearts. A blog called Nose to Tail at Home chronicles the Julie Powell–like adventures of a young foodie named Ryan Adams (not the singer) attempting to cook from the British chef Fergus Henderson’s seminal 2004 offal bible, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. And last summer’s inevitable nationally televised offal street-food competition occurred not on Fear Factor but Top Chef Masters, with Chicago’s Rick Bayless’ tongue tacos triumphing.
“It shows a level of skill and also a care and concern,” said Seamus Mullen, chef at Boqueria in Soho and on 19th Street, who regularly serves pan-roasted sweetbreads, pork liver terrines, lamb kidneys and rabbit organs. Mr. Mullen said that the dishes, while not yet blockbusters, sell well, especially when he puts them in small, cheaper appetizer portions—less of a commitment. There is an obvious spirit of daring to the entrail enterprise. “When we first opened L’Artusi and even Dell’anima, all I wanted on the menu was funky, weird shit,” said Gabe Thompson, chef at the two West Village Italian restaurants, where he cooks sweetbreads and livers and has considered adding brains. “Cooks like to eat funky, weird shit, and cooks like to send other cooks out funky, weird shit.”
High on the Hog
Cesare Casella is currently serving plenty of guanciale and Sloppy Guisseppe (a sloppy Joe made of leftover parts like oxtail and bone marrow) at Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto on the Upper West Side. He served a veal brains special at the now-shuttered Maremma, along with Granelli—“otherwise known as Rocky Mountain Oysters or cow’s balls,” Mr. Casella said, but “brains were so much harder to sell than testicles. … For some reason, diners were more comfortable with the idea of eating balls.”
Mr. Batali, the primary auteur of fine dining’s current offalmania, has had better luck with his lamb’s brain “francobolli,” a staple since he put it on Babbo’s opening menu in 1998. “I used it because it was an inexpensive way to profit,” he told The Observer, “but also because it served to distinguish my restaurants from the rest of the Italian restaurants that pretty much had veal Milanese and ricotta ravioli with tomato sauce.” He also cites “philosophical responsibility.”
For all the balls-out (sorry) nature of offal, chefs offering it still tend to traffic in euphemism. A handy glossary: guanciale (pork jowl), trotters (pig’s feet), cod milt (cod sperm, once offered at the now-shuttered John Dory on 10th Avenue), tripe (stomach, though it sounds more like a mild white fish, which perhaps helps account for its popularity), Orielles de Christ (pig skin, available at the Vanderbilt in Brooklyn) and, of course, so-called sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas, available everywhere from Babbo to Prune to Little Italy). Some offal is more straightforward in name, such as fatback (literally, back fat) and caul fat (a fatty membrane surrounding pig intestines). And organs like the liver, kidney and brains have largely evaded semantic cover, though they also sometimes escape mention in terrines around town, where they add depth of flavor if not commercial appeal.
At the new Breslin at the Ace Hotel, April Bloomfield, a Brit and offal’s reigning high priestess, has dispensed with the niceties and is serving “Stuffed Pig’s Foot (for 2),” which Times critic Sam Sifton described as “the size of a toddler’s leg.” And possibly piggybacking (sorry again) on the favor for British cooking cultivated by Ms. Bloomfield, a new Scottish gastropub in the West Village called the Highlands has begun tempting/repulsing customers with haggis, the traditional Scottish delicacy involving boiling intestines in a sheep’s stomach. Mr. Thompson said the civilian clientele for offal consists of two distinct groups: “All these people who are 20 being like, ‘I eat everything!’; and people who are 60 saying, ‘I haven’t eaten sweetbreads since I was a little kid!’” At the Spotted Pig, where crispy pig’s ear is the sixth best-selling dish, owner Ken Friedman recently observed, “These people come in, mostly older English people, and they eat [chef Bloomfield’s] liver and onions and bacon, and they like have tears in their eyes.”
Sumptuous when cooked right and revolting when botched, offal is the perfect medium for showing off. “It’s all about stimulus,” said Saul Bolton, who is currently cooking real French andouille sausage—i.e., pork stomach blanched and slow-cooked and glued together with “hog gel” before being stuffed into pork large intestine, cold-smoked and poached—at the Vanderbilt. “It’s like TV: The textures are more varied, the flavors more varied, it’s a much more interesting eating experience all-around. If you allow yourself to spend the time to really get to know feet, tail and head, they’re so much tastier than any other part!”
Undoubtedly, some chefs relish offal’s aloofness and lack of appeal to the city’s growing vegetarian, allergenic population: David Chang, for one, an innards enthusiast who once famously excised his only vegetarian dish from the menu after being chastised for being insensitive to meat-avoiders; and Gabrielle Hamilton, who has served sweetbreads and bone marrow at Prune since 1999 (she also serves veal hearts and monkfish liver, and calves’ brains every Valentine’s Day). “It was this very efficient kind of mutual interview for a date,” she said of her offal. “Like, here’s my menu and it’s very plain what’s available here. It weeded out a clientele.”
But though the snob appeal of challenging organ meats cannot be denied, “people who say we’re an elitist movement are ignoring entire cultures that are based off lesser cuts,” said Patrick Martins, owner of Heritage Foods USA, which supplies pork from small farms to Mr. Batali, Mr. Chang, Ms. Bloomfield and Daniel Boulud, among others. In certain enclaves of the city, offal isn’t back so much as it never went anywhere; it’s a staple of, say, traditional Italian, Spanish, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Greek cuisines. Mr. Mullen of Boqueria describes having Dominican tripe that, touted as a hangover cure, “really tastes like cow gut,” on the Lower East Side; Mr. Gold, the author, often treks to Yakitori Totto, in midtown, for “chicken parts”—i.e., “hearts, livers, gizzards, bones, cartilage, the tail, crispy chicken tails, which are amazing crunchy little nuggets.” (He called this restaurant his “happy place.”)
A quick glance at a Gourmet cookbook first released in 1950 reveals the extent to which we’ve become squeamish eaters in a single generation: The book boasted 51 recipes for offal, most French; the most recent Gourmet cookbook, released in 2009, had two. Ms. Hamilton grew up eating a wide variety of organs cooked by her French mother in rural New Jersey; Mr. Batali was raised in Seattle on liver slathered in ketchup. “When I landed in New York City in ’92, I thought, ‘Wow, what an interesting place filled with a lot of steaks and tuna and chicken!’” he said.
Only in Manhattan could we pay premium prices for something once considered a culinary castoff. Farmers and purveyors used to send innards in bags attached to the carcasses for free, but offal has become a specialty item that is, in some cases, more expensive than filet mignon. “The stuff’s doubled,” said Pat LaFrieda, the famed third-generation meat man who keeps 600 of Manhattan’s best restaurants stocked. Mr. LaFrieda estimates that offal currently makes up 10 percent of his business, up from 5 percent five years ago and 2 percent 10 years ago. “I’m constantly speaking to the packers when I call and ask for offal, and they say, ‘What are you guys doing with it?’” said Mr. LaFrieda, who estimated that “lamb’s brains have gone from $2.50 to $5 a pound, veal cheeks have gone from $5 to $10 a pound in the last five years; pork livers are maybe up 50 percent.” (Filet mignon, meanwhile, goes for $7 or $8 a pound.) Calf livers are up about 30 percent in the past five years, Mr. LaFrieda added, and other veal items are the same price they were 20 years ago.
The rise of guts is good news for small farmers who once gave the stuff away, but it has decreased chefs’ margins on dishes that were once moneymakers. “These used to be the ones that might buy me a Mercedes-Benz, but now I’m definitely going to be in a Volkswagen forever,” bemoaned Ms. Hamilton, who now pays upward of $8 a pound for sweetbreads and anywhere from $9 to $19 a pound for monkfish liver, an expensive delicacy in Japan.
Still, Mr. LaFrieda said that offal’s limited regional appeal (currently, the revival has not spread beyond New York and a few other urban culinary centers) means that prices will only rise so much, because the supply of animals with organs to give is “not tapped out.”
In which case: Will we eventually tire of seeing hooves and intestines alongside salt cod and rib-eyes? Cheek is hot right now, but after that, what next? What is left to eat? Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl recently predicted via Twitter that “lamb necks might be the pork belly of 2010.” Mr. LaFrieda, for his part, is burning through 200 pounds of veal tongue a week and has been fielding requests for cock’s combs—currently on the menu at Michael White’s Alto. Mr. Martins of Heritage Foods admitted to selling the “bunghole”—that’s exactly what it sounds like—to a chef in Virginia, who uses it to make sausage casing. He also said that Mr. Batali has been recently begging him for pig’s bladder, currently banned by the U.S.D.A.
“He’s like, ‘I’ll pay you anything for pig’s bladder,’” said Mr. Martins. “I think he wants to cook stuff in it.” Ms. Hamilton, meanwhile, one of the original harbingers of the trend, is moving on, in her mind if not yet on her menu, from the modern obsession with cooking things “for the sake of being outlandish,” an attitude she described as “‘Hey, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put pork snout on top of pork belly and then I’m going to fry it, man.’” What will she do instead? Perhaps “a little crab salad and a half an avocado and a glass of Lillet,” she said.