The two halves of an Ossabaw Island hog are splayed across the wooden kitchen counter of Arlington, Virginia’s Green Pig Bistro. Chef-owner Scot Harlan looks over the American heritage breed pig and breaks it down verbally.
“I’m going to make two hams, bacon, and Canadian bacon,” he says. “I’ll cook the tenderloins for the staff, the bones will go to stock, and the ribs will be cured. Then I’ll make scrapple with the head and country terrine with the shoulder. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the liver. And we’ll have a ton of fatback to play around with.”
Though Harlan’s restaurant has only been open since early April, it has already earned a reputation for its highly creative snout-to-tail cuisine. The menu showcases such offal-oriented dishes as ox heart Reuben sandwiches, Kung Pao lamb sweetbreads, pig ear tacos, Southern-style chopped chicken livers glazed with maple and bourbon, steak frites with marrow butter, and poutine topped with foie gras and cubes of duck liver. A menu like this proves that you can go snout-to-tail with pretty much any animal—pig, cow, lamb, or fowl.
All across the country—from Portland, Oregon’s Country Cat Dinner House and Bar, Los Angeles’ Animal, and San Francisco’s Incanto to Philadelphia’s Alla Spina and New York City’s Sauce—whole-beast-focused restaurants are proving they’re a cut above the rest. The primal philosophy has found a home in international eateries as well, including St. John in London, which is led by snout-to-tail standard-bearer Fergus Henderson, and The Black Hoof and Parts & Labour, both in Toronto.
Overcoming the fear factor
Convincing diners to try off-cuts can be a tough job for a chef. There’s a fear factor associated with parts like the brain, cheek, and trotters (feet), which are not commonly served in many mainstream American restaurants. What will it taste like? Will the texture be weird? Does it smell funny? Is it unhealthy to consume vital organs or bone?
Jennifer McLagan, author of Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, believes this hesitance mostly comes from unfamiliarity. “We’ve lost touch with where our food comes from, and how a cow isn’t just steaks and chops,” she says. “It’s got a head, feet, a tail, a heart, a liver, lungs, and all these other parts.”
Harlan thinks that the key to winning over diners to offal is putting it in the right context. “Put it in a dish that doesn’t scare them,” he says. “You do poached ox heart salad and you’re not going to sell any. But if you put Thousand Island dressing, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on most things, it’ll taste like a Reuben.”
McLagan confirms that the love of a familiar dish can overcome the hesitance to try a new ingredient. “You don’t fry up the brains or serve them a crispy testicle salad,” she says. “Instead, try heart ground up into a burger; brain ravioli; put tongue in a pasta sauce; or make blood ice cream.”
Yes, you read that correctly: Blood ice cream. This sanguine sweet is already popular at restaurants like The Pig in Washington, D.C., which serves a chocolate-blood ice cream in its Sundae Bloody Sundae topped with brandied cherries, bacon-peanut brittle, and gingery whipped cream. It goes to show that offal can even be used for the dessert course—if a creative approach is taken.
On this year’s Cochon 555 tour—a porcine competition celebrating snout-to-tail philosophy—some of founder Brady Lowe’s favorite dishes were the sweet finales. He was particularly impressed with Naomi Pomeroy’s porky chocolate blood pudding topped with cinnamony chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and a dollop of whipped vanilla bean lardo for Portland, Oregon’s Beast. He also liked Kelly English’s doughnut ball filled with blood chocolate ganache, for Memphis, Tennessee’s Restaurant Iris.
For Lowe, creating memorable flavors and winning dishes simply comes down to technique. “It’s the chef’s job to maximize textures, flavors, and products that consumers will enjoy,” he says.
Sometimes, incorporating unfamiliar cuts into familiar dishes isn’t enough. Mark Estee, the chef-owner of Reno, Nevada’s Campo believes chefs need to ease first-time diners into the offal experience.
“Introduce it in small portions at a small price,” he says. “Let people try it and get excited about it.” One of the easiest ways he does this is by offering a board of house-made charcuterie that might include salami, mortadella (cured pork sausage flecked with fat cubes), terrines (coarse pâté), and rillettes (a style of pâté). Off-cuts are also unobtrusively ground into the hamburger patties and meatballs, and incorporated into the slow-cooked sugo (pasta sauce often made with pork cheeks).
Estee cautions that there can be offal overkill. “I can’t put 11 different off-cuts on the menu at once,” he admits. “That would freak people out.”
There’s also the matter of language. “I know one chef in New York who makes amazing head cheese, but he couldn’t get anyone to eat it,” says Marissa Guggiana, author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers. “Then he changed the name to pâté, and suddenly it was getting ordered every night. I’m not advocating being shady, but sometimes giving it a great name helps.”
At Green Pig Bistro, you won’t see any mention of pig ears in the description for the tacos—they’re just crispy pig tacos. “There have been plenty of people who have had them and were told afterwards,” Harlan says. “I don’t feel bad about that. No one has freaked out.”
There’s also a practical reason for his description. “My ambiguity is also so that I can put in pork belly if I’m out of ears,” he says. “That way they’re still crispy pig tacos.”