In Carroll Gardens, there is an Italian lunch counter called Ferdinando’s that has been quietly fueling the neighborhoods with calf’s-spleen sandwiches (called vastedde) for a century. Served on a simple seeded bun, it’s a murky, organy counterpart to the mound of fluffy white ricotta that tops it. Eating it on a Friday afternoon, you are reminded that there are a hundred cities in our city, all hiding in plain sight from one another.
There are also snails: great big black snails, stewed in a spicy, oily tomato-and-onion sauce, at New Combination, a Nigerian restaurant that seems to have been dropped from space onto a dead stretch of fast-food restaurants on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The snail, some four inches of meaty mollusk, is leathery and unctuous at the same time, tasting sour and strong. I am clearly being monitored in a friendly way by the waiter, and I suspect they are taking it easy on me. “I didn’t see the size of the snail you got,” says the chef, Mercy Akode. “Usually, they are like this,” she says, holding up a clenched fist, and I feel that strange mixture of failure and relief when one is patronized to, when one doesn’t get the fist-size snail.
And forget about cuy. Cuy, as you certainly know, is the guinea-pig-like creature that is beloved at the Ecuadoran table and spit-roasted in great number on summer weekends in Flushing Meadows. It is legendary on the Internet, supposedly quasi-legal and difficult to find. Yet not 100 feet from the Jackson Heights stop on the 7 train, I turn in to a friendly little market called Así Es Mi Tierra, and a teenager opens up a freezer full of the little buggers, individually wrapped. It is a strange world in which you can put your head into a freezer of whole frozen rodents the size of small cats— some that look cuddly and asleep, others apparently frozen in the midst of an attempt to angrily eat someone’s face off—and realize that this is all so 1999. It comes to the point where you pass by a restaurant with a sign in the door that says SHEEP BLACK PUDDING AVAILABLE and sigh. Another blood sausage?
The chefs who are writing weird food onto fine-dining menus, though, are chasing more than just thrills.
Andy Nusser, of Casa Mono, first spotted cockscombs in Barcelona and knew he had to serve them. It’s tempting to suspect that they are there for the sake of pure novelty, to lure the army of restless New Yorkers who crave the exotic if only to consume it and transform it into the banal as quickly as possible. But for chefs, says Nusser, it is the buzz of a new ingredient, the same jonesing for new sensation that hooked them on the business in the first place. A cockscomb is, Nusser says, “a gelatinous sponge of meat that will take on any flavor you will add to it, and that’s exciting.” Like many chefs, he faces the challenge of making new foods and flavors accessible without obscuring the ingredient itself. In this case, that means taking advantage of the braised combs’ flavor-sponginess to infuse them with comforting hints of hearty pot roast and a plummy, hoisin sweetness. But the combs still violate a cardinal rule of mainstream American cuisine: that a food not resemble the animal it came from. And there is no mistaking when the dish arrives that you are eating a plate full of rooster-head tops.
Chef Zak Pelaccio of the just-opened 5 Ninth and his pastry chef, Nick Morgenstern, for their part, have been working night and day to create a functioning dessert out of durian, the football-size Asian “king of fruits” that tastes every bit as good as it smells bad (it’s been banned in some Singapore hotels for its room-clearing odor). For Pelaccio, though, the fruit recalls the happy months he cooked in Malaysia, the only white man in the kitchen, gradually coming to love the durian’s superripe floral flavor in spite of its near-rancid funk. Pelaccio and Morgenstern initially tried transforming durian flesh into a sorbet, but are now working on a sort of durian cream pie, the fruit steamed and sugared into a luxurious custard. On first bite, it is a lovely, full-bodied pudding with hints of tropical fruit and then a subtle back beat of lush pungency. The smell is extremely subtle, yes, but it still received a few pinched noses at the private tasting dinner where the treat was auditioned last week.
At Prune, meanwhile, the Fergus Henderson homage/ripoff is humble, Flintstonian even, in its straightforwardness. Calf’s bones are cut and roasted into hot little cups filled with marrow—soft, rich, and packed with reassuring meatiness, each bite a little condensed steak (served in a handy bone bowl). You scoop it out, spread it on toast, top it with roughly cut, lightly dressed leaves of parsley and coarse salt, and consume greedily. Scraping this hidden nourishment from the depths of the beast vanquishes strong vestigial hungers, and feels uncannily familiar the very first time you eat it. Hamilton’s menu, with its decadent monkfish livers, perfect sweetbreads, and other stimulating oddities, is part playful provocation (note the recent Valentine’s Day special of braised veal tongue and octopus, known in the kitchen as “tongue and pussy”) and part fair warning. “If you read the menu, you know what you’re in for,” says Hamilton. “It’s a way of cultivating a clientele that loves you, and you love them because we’re of the same eating mind.” It is an invitation: to cast off taboos and join the cult of the marrow eaters.
As much as i want to sign up, there is one forbidden food that I cannot eat. Where religious taboos have been largely forsaken in most American kitchens, they have been replaced by health taboos—the perception, for example, that organ meats are high in cholesterol, that liver is full of toxins. There is some truth here, but in neither case is moderate consumption perilous, and indeed the sense of danger, however slight, may add to the naughty appeal of these foods. But then there is the fear of the mad cow.