The first surprise of the evening was just how appealing the whole pig’s head looked. It arrived on a wooden platter, the skin roasted in the wood-fired oven to a crispy brown, the snout pointing out toward the dining room in an expression that could only have been read as some sort of piggy pride: It had not died in vain. It hadn’t been butchered in some industrial nightmare of an abattoir, its chops cut out, shrink-wrapped, and shipped to a flood-lit and anonymous supermarket in Peoria, Ill., or Dresher, Pa., the rest of its bits and pieces ground into a nitrite-injected hot dog sweating it out in a dirty-water street cart.
No, this one had been well-loved by Chef Jeff Michaud and his team at Osteria (640 N. Broad St.), its body spit-roasted and treated with the reverence it deserves. And now, in what more and more Philadelphians are seeing as a show of respect to the animal, its head had been braised and then roasted with a beer-spiked agrodolce, plated with quince paste and toasted Italian bread slick with olive oil, and served to a table of very grateful omnivores.
The cheek meat was among the sweetest. But other parts of the head were just as delicious in different ways: The nooks and crannies hidden behind bones and beneath cartilage, single heady bites of meat poking through; the eyeballs with their sexy combination of fatty textures and ever-so-delicately gamy flavors; the tongue, like the best, most dense and thick-cut corned beef (or pig) you’ve ever tasted.
“It’s like a hot commodity now,” Michaud says. He does seven a week, and people have been reserving them in advance to ensure they have a chance to try it. Why?
“I just think that people are becoming more food-savvy, more adventurous eaters,” he explains. “The Food Network’s opening people up, and ... everybody kind of wants to see what the new hot chef is doing, and what they’ve got going on in their kitchen.” He adds, “They’re getting more knowledge about food, they’re traveling more, trying new things.”
And they’re bringing that knowledge and openness back. As a result, parts of the animal that haven’t been traditional facets of the American diet for generations are seeing a comeback, at least among a certain type of eater. Locally, chef David Ansill has made quite a name for himself serving up offal, both at his gone-but-not-forgotten Queen Village spot Ansill and at Ladder 15, where he mans the stoves today. There’s bone marrow on his burger. There’s bone marrow and anchovy mayo on chef Brian Ricci’s burger at Kennett. Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides put roasted baby lamb head on the menu on the run-up to Easter at Kanella (1001 Spruce St.), and it sold out. Chef Michael Solomonov has, at any give time, many adventurous dishes on his menu at Zahav (237 Saint James Place) like grilled rabbit, duck heart, grilled lamb tongue and raw lamb.
Nationally, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, on the Travel Channel, has seen huge success since it first aired. Gabrielle Hamilton, of New York City’s Prune, recently wrote a bestselling book called Blood, Bones, & Butter , and has gotten an abundance of press for some of her more colorful descriptions of whole-roasted lamb parties, trips to the butcher as a kid, where she’d see “carcasses hanging upside down with their tongues flopping out the sides of their bloody mouths and their eyes filmed-over, milky, and bulging, along with disembodied parts: legs, heads, haunches, sides, ribs, looking like something in a Jack London story,” and a particularly painful story of her killing and butchering her own chicken.
Why this sudden fascination with the whole animal, and with the less-overtly-appealing parts that so many of us haven’t had the chance to taste before?
“I think [guests] see you, and you’ve become a respected person [as a chef],” says Matt Levin, chef and owner of Adsum (700 S. Fifth St.), whose pig tails (currently on the menu) and reputation for experimentation are a major draw. “And they see you as somebody that’s notable or whatever, and they begin to trust you, That’s a big part of it, because essentially, if they don’t trust you, it’s [not] something they’re going to put into their body. They have to believe in you enough that it’s going to be safe, that you’re not going to hurt somebody, whether it was handled [properly]. I think that’s a big part of it: And they trust and believe that you have their best interests in mind.”
Another chef Philadelphians are looking up to in this regard is Pierre Calmels of Bibou (1009 S. Eighth St.), who cooks food thoroughly rooted in the hearty classics of his native France. And while most of us probably didn’t grow up on, say, pig’s feet and tripe, he has managed to turn them into a staple at his enchanting BYOB, which he co-owns with his wife Charlotte.
Interestingly, Bibou, for all the occasionally unfamiliar dishes on its menu, doesn’t seem to have a hard time moving them. “I think that we’ve built our reputation on stuff like that,” Charlotte Calmels tells me. “People hear that, hey, if you want to go try pig’s feet, try the one at Bibou. People are becoming a little bit more adventurous, so they’re just giving it a shot.”
At Bibou, they’ve seen the progression of adventurous eating first hand. Charlotte notes that some first-time visitors stick with the classics—soup, steak, etc.—but typically don’t hem themselves in quite as much during subsequent dinners. “I think they come the first time, they check it out, see if they can get the basic foods done right, and then they see the other customers, the regulars, that are taking ‘weird’ stuff,” she continues. “So the second time around, they just give it a shot.”
If a guest tries something for the first time and just doesn’t like it, Charlotte and Pierre are happy to serve them something else. “It’s not all about selling the food here; it’s all about the experience. And if we can get somebody to taste new foods, and hopefully enjoy it, that’s great.”
There have always been venues for more adventurous eating around town. What’s different now is the range of restaurants offering these experiences. From the high-octane spices at Han Dynasty to the whole pig’s head at Osteria, Philadelphia has become a city whose menus are not just studded with delicious offerings, but, more and more often, challenging ones, too. And that benefits all of us, whether we order those foods or not.
Just beneath the shattering surface of the whispy crust, the testicles themselves were milk-toned and dense, and their flavor reminded me of sweetbreads, but in a minor key—more like a delicate mushroom, as opposed to a just-dug-up and funky one. They were transporting.