Americans Are Eating More Brains as Offal Edges Into the Mainstream
When Mario Batali opened his Italian townhouse restaurant Babbo in 1998 in New York, the menu included an array of attention-getting dishes, such as calf’s brain francobolli (small Tuscan ravioli). It was a dish that mixed the total comfort of a beloved pasta with an eat-on-a-dare kind of filling that has the soft texture of scrambled eggs. It became a mainstay on the menu, a favorite of such regulars as writer Jim Harrison.
Batali was not the first chef in America to feature an innards dish to challenge diners. Italian grandmothers—indeed, grandmothers all over the world—have been cooking with non-muscle meats, from tripe to spleen to heads, for centuries. But Batali was one of offal’s highest-profile champions, and he stocked Babbo’s fine-dining menu with adventurous dishes such as beef cheek ravioli and lambs tongue vinaigrette. You could say he helped open the door for innards.
Batali’s brain ravioli was followed by monumental dishes like the pig’s head special at the Spotted Pig (in honor of British chef Fergus Henderson, pioneer of nose-to-tail eating), and an onslaught of marrow bones that took over French brasserie tables countrywide. Diners in U.S. cities were beginning to nibble around the edge of offal.
Now, if not quite ubiquitous, brain dishes are brightly popping up in many places—and when they do, chefs report they are received with feverish enthusiasm. There’s brain ravioli at Coppa in Boston and a snack called “brains on crack,” at Hojoko, also in Boston. (“We briefly took it off the menu, but it was the No. 1 most requested item from repeat guests,” reports chef/owner Tim Cushman, who has sold close over 900 orders in the last four months.) There’s more brain ravioli at Osteria Mozza, Babbo’s sister restaurant in Los Angeles. Until recently, you could have brain sandwiches at the Israeli spot, Nur, in New York, and you can sample a snack of duck hearts with fermented apricots at Agern in Grand Central Station. In Westchester, there’s a choice of beef tendon chicharones or a doughnut garnished with smoked pigs head at The Cookery.
In the traditionally steak-loving town of Houston, James Beard-winning chef Chris Shepherd is planning to serve duck heart bolognese and an offal-packed terrine at his soon-to-open One Fifth Romance Languages in early September. He explains why: “The times have changed. People are now accustomed to eating chicken liver mousse and foie gras, and our customers are excited to try new things. We sold so many sweetbreads at [Shepherd’s other restaurant] One Fifth Steak because they were delicious.”
Also in vogue are tripe, headcheese (a terrine assembled with boiled pieces of meat from the head of an animal) and scrapple (made by boiling innards, secondary cuts, head, and feet together for hours, then shredding and seasoning the cooked organs).
America’s more adventurous eating habits owe a fair amount to the country’s most popular culinary travelers. Credit the illustrious Tony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown series—in its ninth season—which takes viewers around the world to watch him snack on chicken rice with additional gizzards. Andrew Zimmern travels the globe, too, with his show Bizarre Foods, seeking out such dishes as brain sandwiches. (He found one in St. Louis.) Together, they have made the word “authentic” a powerful force in the food world.
One of offal’s biggest proponents in the U.S. has been Chris Cosentino, author of the appropriately named new cookbook Offal Good (August 2017, Clarkson Potter) and chef at Cockscomb in San Francisco, which he named for an underused part of the bird. Cosentino sets the scene in the book’s intro: “I’ve spent two decades learning about, cooking, and getting creative with offal. It’s become my signature as a chef,” he writes. Indeed, at his former restaurant, Incanto, Cosentino went deep into the “bowels of anatomy,” serving up chicken gizzards and duck testicles.
At Cockscomb, he serves pig’s head, as well as beef heart tartare and pig skin marinara with clams.
Cosentino also credits the public’s increasingly varied travel habits to the popularity of offal. “The more people travel around the world, the more you’ll see an influence of other cultures. When people come back from Japan, they talk about two things: Tsukiji market and meat on a stick—the fact that they ate skewered chicken hearts, and they were delicious. And every part of the eel, the head, the bones. Or they went to Argentina and had cow’s udder. Or to Florence and had a spleen sandwich. They come back and say, ‘Why can’t I have that here?’ They’ve stopped putting their nose up at everything.”
Eater’s Robert Sietsema agrees. “When the Organ Meat Society started almost 20 years ago, finding variety meats required careful research. Now it’s as easy as falling off a log. Not only do mainstream restaurants offer kidneys—or even brains—ethnic restaurants have brought their organ meat specialties here from all over the world. And let’s not forget another factor: One reason offal is popular around the world is its cheaper price, and restaurateurs are cognizant of that, too.”
Surprisingly, Cosentino has mixed feelings about offal’s time in the spotlight. “It’s normal now. Chefs like me, we pushed and pushed. You have to yell at someone to eat something they’re scared of. You don’t have to yell at them to eat a carrot. But now, it’s considered a norm. It’s stopped being so cool.”
Besides Cosentino’s Cockscomb, here are a few other places around the country to experience offal.
Coppa, Cambridge, Mass. Chefs Jamie Bissonette and Ken Oringer offer smoked beef heart and marrow pizza as well as veal brain ravioli at their Italian inoteca. "The beef heart pizza is our third-highest selling pizza. We took it off for August, since it's typically too hot. We'll put it back in the fall. When the veal brain raviolis are on the menu, they outsell any other ravioli. It's amazing."
Hojoko, Boston. At this modern izikaya near Fenway Park, chef Tim Cushman serves a dish he calls “brains on crack.” He deep-fries the calves’ brains, then tops them with XO butter, lemon zest, and green onions and serves them as a snack for $8.
Cultivar, Boston. In Boston (clearly in the forefront of the offal movement), chef Mary Dumont prepares Heritage Headcheese with smoked peaches and lemon verbena-whipped lardo—a traditional dish made from flesh pulled off the head of (traditionally) a pig or cow, then set in aspic (like a terrine or pate), with various herbs and spices.
Red Cat, New York. This summer, chef/owner Jimmy Bradley crafted a ham scrapple sandwich with a fried egg, on toasted brioche. The Philadelphia native grew up on scrapple. “Not many chefs make their own scrapple outside of Pennsylvania; guests tell us they crave it,” says Bradley.
Málà Project, New York. There’s a selection of more than 60 ingredients to create a dry pot, or stir fry, at this popular East Village Chinese spot. Among the meats: pork stomach, beef artery, pig kidney, and chicken gizzard and “rooster xxx” or testicles.
Woodshed Smokehouse, Fort Worth, Tex. Chef Tim Love serves grilled venison heart every time he harvests a deer. “I turn a Dutch oven lid upside down and get it really hot, season the heart, and then sear it on the lid. Then we skewer the heart and serve with grilled chilies, onions, and lime. It is so delicious."
Pusan Jobang Nak Gop Saw, Los Angeles. This Koreatown spot has a compact menu. This dish is a deeply flavored stew of octopus, small intestines, and shrimp in varying levels of heat, cooked tableside on an induction range.