WALK INTO THE pretty new Madrona restaurant June, all dainty in its spring greens and floral still-lifes, and somewhere on the menu between the beef tongue sliders and the braised lamb neck pasta you’ll see stuffed rabbit leg. Order it and you’ll get the butterflied meat, stuffed and wrapped in caul fat—the lacy membrane encasing an animal’s internal organs.
Also on the plate are a grilled Frenched rack of rabbit and rich chunks of seared rabbit liver, heart, and kidney. You are eating the entire beast. “Except its front legs,” corrects June owner and chef Vuong Loc. “Those we confit and make into an appetizer of rabbit rillette.”
For some time the classically trained Loc has been buying whole animals direct, making stocks from saddles of lamb for his Queen Anne French restaurant Portage and frying pigs’ ears into crispy bar nibbles at his late Greenwood pub, the Pig ’n’ Whistle.
Of course, pioneers like Le Gourmand ’s Bruce Naftaly and The Herbfarm ’s Ron Zimmerman have long been transforming the organs, intestines, and extremities known as offal into charcuterie and tender braised embellishments. (“Everything but the squeal!” Naftaly cries.) Only now, emboldened perhaps by celebrity gut connoisseurs like Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, a new generation of chefs is joining in. At his just-opened Staple and Fancy, Ethan Stowell works everything from sweetbreads to veal cheeks to lamb tongue to pig’s face into his menus. Pub grub has evolved to include marrow bones at Quinn’s, deep-fried pigs’ tails at Re:public.
Matt Dillon’s Sitka and Spruce, in its light-flooded perch in the foodie’s paradise of Melrose Market, so embodies the new openness around offal it puts it under glass. Strolling the indoor market, one can peek through a window into Dillon’s walk-in refrigerator, where at any given moment a side of some critter might be suspended. “I’ve made the commitment to buying whole animals—lambs, goats, a few birds,” says Dillon. “We’ll do pates with the kidneys, hearts, and livers; thin-slice hearts and livers into chanterelles, that kind of thing.” He’s not rushing to showcase this, mind you—“I don’t feel the need to explain it”—which may come as a relief to those diners who don’t exactly feel the need to know it.
All the diner knows is how unfathomably rich a dish tastes, how exponentially…meaty. By all means, shimmy that dense moist meat off the lamb’s neck bone at June; mix it in with the noodles. But the dish isn’t complete until you crack open the bone, then coax its oxblood marrow into the stew, letting its potency deepen the dish to its hearty ideal.
Whole animal cooking enriches. “It’s a conscious, close-to-the-earth way of eating,” Dillon says. He credits Ron Zimmerman—his former mentor at the Herbfarm who raises his own animals—as a model. Zimmerman regularly brings in European experts to train Herbfarm cooks in butchering pigs to yield a minimum of waste; sometimes as little as two quarts per animal.
That’s sustainability at its finest, not to mention thrifty resource management for lean times. It’s also something else. “When you raise an animal you realize the value of its life,” Zimmerman reflects. “You’re not going to throw part of it away. You’ve got to honor it. The whole thing.”
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