I have a strange interest in some of the world’s more unique foods, which is simply to say, I’m not a steak and potatoes guy. When we go out for a restaurant meal, I’m drawn to the more unusual items on the menu – and of course, when I cook for myself, I have a weakness for the more exotic. This is not to say that I’ll eat anything – I’ve spent enough time in Mexico, and seen enough of Bourdain and Zimmern on the Travel Channel to know that there are MANY things eaten regularly which I have no intent to ever even trying.
On a recent trip into Portland (Oregon), I had the opportunity to do dinner at a new spot for us – Le Pigeon , which is on the east side of Burnside, not far from the river. Before I tell you of the non-ordinary dish I had there, I want to describe how the restaurant itself is also a bit unusual.
Le Pigeon is not large, and fits into a mold of other restaurants which are apparently so self assured that they assume that their guests will accept some degree of discomfort in the interest of getting to dine on some exceptional food – I speak specifically of the fact that there are only a few regular size tables, and what there are are tucked into little corners and narrowly across the front windows – the rest of the room is filled with several very large and long tables where most of Le Pigeon’s guests sit communally during their dining experience.
I really don’t mind this setup, but I know from experience that the pleasure of the evening’s meal is pretty much dependent on how open and gracious are the folks sitting around you – your experience may, for instance, be quite awful if everyone near you completely ignores you during the meal – of course, that fact may have something to do with you too. But then, our evening at Le Pigeon witnessed no such behavior at the big tables, in fact, it looked like everyone knew everyone else already, as the level of the talking and laughing was so raucous as to mimic an office Christmas party. I’d be willing to bet that Le Pigeon draws just the kind of dinner guest who thrives on this kind of environment.
However, the night we went, I was much more interested in sitting at the dining counter than a table – a table can be reserved, but not so a seat at the dining counter, where you have a front row seat to all the cooking action – it is literally, cooking as entertainment. Actually, I’m still not sure this policy reflects a sense that these seats are prime, or simply overflow – and I don’t care either. I have no idea what kind of commercial operation this space was prior to Le Pigeon, but it reminds me of the old style restaurants that had both tables and a counter, and I would not be surprised to learn that’s true and that Le Pigeon’s principals simply decided to leave it just as they found it.
Whatever – I knew of the ‘first come’ counter policy and was quite willing to go and wait until two seats opened at the counter, but luck was with us and just as we got there, two guests immediately overlooking the two cooks on the ranges that night were leaving – no one waiting – the seats were ours!
We were also on the end of the counter row and therefore in the immediate proximity of the kitchen ‘nerve center’ – I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t engage either of the cooks in conversation -their response was limited to gestures and single words, if that- but the guy who was in charge of organizing orders was quite willing to carry on long conversations while at the same time keeping the wait staff and the kitchen in sync.
If you wish, there’s a lot to learn when you sit at the dining counter – some you’d just as soon not learn. For instance, there’s a great deal of food that sits partially cooked, waiting to be incorporated into a finished dish. This is of course quite logical, but I bet most dinner guests have the idea that all phases of their meal are being prepared from scratch, and the sudden recognition that this is not true I’m sure is disconcerting for some.
On the night of our visit, I remember being impressed with the prep of the halibut -the fish of the day- which did start with a beautiful chunk of raw fish – the cook had a large metal container of melted, clarified butter next to the range, and he put 3 or 4 ladles of it into a small aluminum saute pan over a very high gas flame (I so wish I had gas at home!) – into that went the halibut and almost immediately, he tilted the pan and began basting the fish over and over – this continued for at least 3 minutes, while he kept poking the piece, until the fish was done to his satisfaction, and then plated. I also noticed that the excess ‘used’ butter was then poured into another container and obviously saved for another use. I have never cooked fish this way, but I will – the constant basting over high heat must bring a nice crust and juicy texture to this gorgeous chunk of fish.
We ordered wine and looked over the menu, a rather minimalist, weekly changing document. There were only six entree items listed, of which one -a burger- is well known to exist there only as a curiosity piece, with only 5 a night being available – why this is so has never really been explained, but one can assume that it is a reflection of the apparently complex humor of chef Gabe Rucker . The rest of the list pretty much covered the usual eclectic picks: a pork; a poultry; a fish; a vegetarian choice; and a beef dish – of course, none of these were simple dishes, but the beef choice of the night especially peaked my interest – Beef Cheeks Bourguignon, if only because I’d never before had beef cheeks.
Interestingly, cheeks of any animal or fish fall into the category of offal, defined generally as animal ‘waste’ - the inherent negativity is of course subjectively dependent on one’s perspective. But regardless of the merits of category, cheeks of anything have also long been recognized as a center of concentrated richness and flavor, and therefore have a significant following among foodies. Rucker has a reputation as a champion of offal, and has been known at times to slip at least 3 or 4 varieties of meat or fish cheeks onto the Le Pigeon menu – I went with the beef cheeks for the new experience.
How were they? Well, since it was beef, and done in a classic bourguignon style, there was nothing new or unique with the taste – my first impression was of a magnificent pot roast! What sets this dish apart is the richness and intense flavor contained in each bite. Although there was no apparent fat here, the influence of fat’s contribution to the unctuous mouth feel was undeniable. By the third bite, I knew Rucker had a real winner here -luxury comfort food- and I knew I had to get my hands on some beef cheeks for my own home prep.
In the U.S., unless you live in an urban area, you will not easily find beef cheeks. Unless, that is, you live in proximity to a Wal-Mart (and who doesn’t?). However, even then, if your community does not have a significant Hispanic population, even Wal-Mart may not offer beef cheeks, since they only appear under the Cargill brand, ‘Rumba’, which is specifically targeted to the U.S. Hispanic community. So, you may, or may not. find Rumba brand Beef Cheeks in your local Wal-Mart.
I really do have mixed emotions about this! I am generally not a fan of Cargill, or of their Rumba brand, since most of the offal marketed under that brand is less than top quality – I don’t want to get into that here, but I’d be happy to extend this conversation to the comments below, if anyone wishes. Having said that, I did purchase and use some of Rumba’s beef cheeks a few days ago, and found them to be more than acceptable as a meat product for the dish I was making. And in the case that some readers may wish to try beef cheeks at home, I’ll include my notes from the experience.
Expect beef cheeks to be fatty, unless your butcher has trimmed them, which of course, Wal-Mart does not. Also expect them to be priced in the $3 a pound range (not the $1 they were several years ago, before ‘cheeks’ were discovered). Expect the Wal-Mart variety to be ugly – they are vacuum packed in tough plastic to extend their refrigerator shelf life (up to a month!), and when removed, they are a strange purple color, even the fat. Expect, as well, that your beef cheeks will have up to 50% fat surrounding the otherwise very lean looking meat. But what truly makes this cut so rich and unctuous is that it is full of collagen, which upon braising turns into a soft, flavorful element of the meat itself, turning what would have been a somewhat dry and lean piece of meat into something quite luxurious.
The recipe I choose to use was from the reputable Epicurious site - the recipes, and the cooks who use them and leave reviews on Epicurious, are generally a bit more sophisticated than some of the more ‘pop’ food sites, which tend toward more simplistic dishes. If you choose to try this recipe, allow me to add my assessment of it as a vehicle for beef cheeks. I try to use a ‘taste as you cook’ approach to whatever I’m doing, and about 3/4s of the way into this one, I sensed that there was a bit more tomato than I really wanted – since it was overwhelming the wine, I went ahead and poured the rest of the bottle of red wine into the pot as it finished. I think that helped, but I still feel that there is more tomato in this dish than necessary.
I should also add that when I next use beef cheeks -and I certainly will- I won’t trim the fat quite so aggressively as I did on this one! I think leaving some of the fat attached would actually add flavor to the final dish – and this one is ALL about flavor. I’d also leave the silverskin on, to see how it cooked up, in comparison to mine, which was well trimmed of all silverskin – frankly, it’s a bitch to do, and it may not be such a big negative in the end – braising is an amazing process.
If you are a lover of pot roast -and who isn’t?- I think you owe yourself the experience of trying braised beef cheeks. It may well be the ultimate cut of beef for this popular and comforting dish. And at least until cheeks become even more popular, they’ll remain an economical choice as well – as one commenter has noted, Beef Cheeks are the current lobster of the beef world!