For some people, offal (pronounced OAF-uhl) is as cringe-worthy as a slasher film.That's surely why James Porter, chef-owner of Petite Maison, decided two years ago to create a tongue-in-cheek Halloween menu built around animal organs and the occasional odd part. He knows that for the squeamish, livers and kidneys can be seriously spooky stuff.
Now here's the shocker: Porter's first offal dinner, held on Halloween in 2010, was a sold-out hit with adventurous diners who obviously don't think offal is awful at all. Porter made a sequel last year, offering the prix-fixe menu for three days. And this year, he brings us Halloween 3, Season of the Offal, for an entire week, October 25-31. I ate it Thursday night and here's what I thought about it.
The four-course dinner (priced at $60 per person, an additional $15 for paired wines) begins with an amuse bouche of head cheese, served with grilled bread and a smear of whole grain mustard. If you already know and like head cheese -- which looks a bit like a lunch meat mosaic of meaty parts, suspended in a gelatin of meat stock -- you will love Petite's denser, richer version, still chunky but somehow closer to pâté. I could snack on this all day.
Lamb heart tartar -- diced raw lamb heart mixed with white anchovy, preserved lemon, capers and tabasco -- comes topped with a cold poached egg instead of the usual raw one. We spoon bright red meat, made richer by golden egg yolk on toast points of pumpernickel. Yum!
I've never had cockscombs (those pointy red topknots on a chicken's head) or rabbit kidneys, but I loved them both (and together) in the second course. Porter says he braised the cockscombs in chicken stock for hours, making their naturally gelatinous texture more soft and yielding. Mild-tasting with an unctuous quality I like, they're completely compatible with lightly breaded and sauteed rabbit kidneys -- mild, sweet little nodules of goodness. Shaved black truffles add an earthy bottom note while frisee provides crispness and faintly bitter counterpoint.
Although the third course is described as a crepinette (more like a sausage patty), Porter actually changed the dish up, wrapping tongue and veal sweetbreads in phyllo dough and setting a thick slice of it over a bed of garlicky, almost creamy lentils. A triangle of grilled and slightly chewy beef liver (the one thing I'm not keen on and never have been), perched alongside, comes drizzled with rich jus. Liver aside, this one is a favorite. As my partner points out, it's awesome to taste mild, creamy sweetbreads that haven't been fried to a fare-thee-well.
The last course -- brûleed foie gras mousse, garnished with fig and served with Muscat Beaumes de Venise -- is meant to be dessert, but it's so rich and meaty I'd rather have had it as round one or two, without the sugary top. It's worth noting, however, that I haven't had a perfectly brûleed surface like this one -- as thick and brittle as a polar ice cap -- in ages. Nowadays, most restaurants sprinkle a too-thin layer of sugar, torch it 'til it's barely brown and call it a day.
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This dinner -- inherently rich but ultimately very simply prepared -- won't be for everyone. In fact, I'm guessing many people ruled it out without reading past the headline. But for those of you who eat adventurously, Petite's Halloween 3 will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.