Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, form of off + fall

1. the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in dressing
2. 5th quarter; bits & bobs; variety meat
3. the bread to Chris Cosentino’s butter

Chef Chris Cosentino Chris Cosentino explaining offal menu to servers

We woke up last Wednesday with an offal hangover. The night before, Chris Cosentino had run us through an innards marathon: a New York version of the “Head to Tail” dinner that he holds yearly at his San Francisco restaurant, Incanto. He’d flown in the weekend before, spent a day scouring the city for bits & bobs, and spent three days braising trotters, tendons, and cockscombs in the sparkling new kitchen of Astor Center.

Head to Tail, as Cosentino envisions it, is a journey through various viscera, focusing not on a single animal (that’s nose to tail), but on many. And it isn’t for the weak-of-heart – raw venison liver and beef heart tartare aside, the sheer enormity of the meal is a force to be reckoned with. Cosentino wants people waving a white flag (“David Chang came [to Incanto]and begged for mercy”), a point made clear to us when a gargantuan lamb neck, basically the 8th course of the evening, arrived at our seats.

But it’s not just about novelty, or gluttony, for that matter. For Cosentino, utilizing every part of a beast is the epitome of sustainability. “Eating everything is sustainable eating. You need to know how to use it – it all has its place.” Cosentino had a seminal moment when he took his cooks to down to Watsonville to slaughter goats for Easter one year. The kids died in his arms and… “Ethically, I couldn’t throw anything away. For Easter we had whole roasted goat with its bits. That was the start of it.” (As Thomas Keller says in his story On the Importance of Rabbits, “It was a simple lesson.”)

Menu from Astor Center Dinner Menu from Head to Tail Dinner at The Astor Center, March 4th 2008

So how to incorporate the nasty bits into a menu? With the possible exception of raw venison liver, Cosentino’s dishes highlighted the versatility and general friendliness of offal. Beef heart tartare was garlicky and delicious, tasting the way beef is meant to taste, with just the slightest bit of offal tang (from the iron) in the aftertaste. Pork heart was salt-cured and shaved innocuously over a crostini with a slice of eight-minute egg. In our favorite dish of the night, beef tendon (braised, congealed and chilled) was shaved paper-thin and tossed with slivers of chili and mint. When topped with duck fat-fried sweetbreads, the tendon warmed and softened to rice noodle-like consistency.

That said, it’s not for every restaurant or every diner. But if you’d like to experiment, Cosentino’s recipes are a good start, as is a trip to Incanto, where an all-organs menu is always available (with two weeks advance notice).

–By Heather Sperling

Offal Fast Facts
Chris Cosentino of Incanto – San Francisco, CA

Favorite offal:
They’re all great in their own way – each one has its own flavor and texture nuance. I do use a lot of heart, because it’s the entry way. It’s kind of like pot.

Most versatile offal:
Beef heart. It’s like a cut of steak. You can roast it, eat it raw, confit it, braise it – you can do anything with it.

Most delicate offal:
Brain. You have to treat it very gently. It’s very pillow-y and rich.

Nose to Tail vs. Head to Tail:
Nose to Tail refers to getting a whole animal and using all of it – from nose to tail. Head-to-Tail uses different animals – it’s about giving people a chance to try things they’ve never had before, and broadening their horizons. It features a bunch of different organ meats from different animals.

Culture with the best offal repertoire:
Probably the Chinese. There are so many people, so little food (haha)… and so many centuries of working with these products.

Favorite fish offal:
There is a lot to work with. I do tuna spine and tuna stomach – tripa de tonno. It’s really rich and delicious; I braise it and serve it with chickpeas. We also do cod sperm at the restaurant. People don’t bat an eye at caviar, but as soon as you say sperm, they freak out. I also do salt-cured tuna heart on pasta, and serve whole tuna heads, split in half in a stew. It’s really gelatinous and rich.

On the menu:
Our #1 appetizer right now is foie gras with pig feet, bacon, and pear. We recently did a calves brain and foie gras terrine that’s breaded and fried; it looks like French toast.

Offal Pictures

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   Published: March 2008