Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Be Bizarre

I just read an article about culinary adventurers who search their city’s restaurants for the weirdest, wildest, most off-putting fare imaginable: seafood that’s still wriggling when it goes in the mouth, pig brains, bugs and duck embryos. In New York City they’ve formed a club, calling themselves Gastronauts, and their quest for unlikely foods takes them way beyond the organ meats and animal parts that scare off most ordinary diners.

I have no doubt that Cleveland chefs would have a hard time finding an audience for foods that exist at the extreme edges of edibility. But some are determined to get us to push our boundaries at least a little.

Brian Okin is one of them. At Verve, his restaurant on Carnegie Avenue, the reigning idea is to reinvent American comfort food, updating it with contemporary style and international flavors. He knows that our grandmothers used every anatomical bit a critter offered from gizzards to feet and it inspires him. I recently had dinner there and sampled two dishes rooted in this tradition.

For his cleverly named “Pigs in a Blanket” appetizer Okin makes fried croquettes from slow cooked trotter meat pulled from the bony foot and ankle that he coats in panko breading. The meat was moist but not fatty like the pork belly that’s showing up on menus everywhere, and some mostarda and pecorina chief set it off nicely. In “Liver and Onions” he plays with this old fashioned workingman’s staple by pairing slices of veal liver, which had the rich butteryness of fois, with scallions and rosemary mustard vinaigrette. I liked them both very much.
Next time I go, I’m planning on trying the Offal and Eggs: veal sweetbreads with a mushroom and sweet potato frittata. Or if it’s lunchtime I’ll go with the Offal burger, which stacks those same sweetbreads on a bun with speck, talleggio, and a smear of cinnamon aioli.

None of these would get those NYC Gastronauts excited — they hunger for much stranger stuff. But for a dining public that favors steaks and chops, a meal at Verve can be a deliciously dangerous walk on the wild side.

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