New Cuts of Meat Are Trending Now
Shoulder tender, oyster steak, Vegas strip steak, and Merlot cut are coming to menus, though using underutilized cuts represents an old-school practice.
A dish from Duende
Photo by Andria Lo
If you ordered a steak at Perle Wine Bar & Bistro in Montclair Village last summer, chances are it was an Angus onglet, sliced into medallions, arranged on swirls of mushroom demi-glace. “Onglet” is the French name for what we would call a hanger steak, sometimes referred to as skirt or butcher steak, the latter because butchers were believed to love the flavor so much that they held it back for themselves.
Over the past five or so years, beef cuts such as hanger, tri-tip, flat iron, bavette, and short ribs have made ever more frequent appearances among restaurant meat offerings. Once underutilized, undervalued, and unfamiliar, partly because they come from small or remote sections of the animal — onglet derives from the diaphragm/lower belly of a steer or heifer — these cuts joined lamb shanks and pork shoulders on fine dining menus.
Whole Foods and other sources identify plant proteins, edible flowers, vegan desserts, veganism in general, and root-to-stem cooking as prime culinary developments to watch in the coming year. But according to the National Restaurant Association, as cited by Food & Wine, 2018’s top food trend will be “new cuts of meat (e.g. shoulder tender, oyster steak, Vegas strip steak, Merlot cut),” with 69 percent of chefs designating it as “hot.”
But not every unfamiliar cut is going to show up on your plate, simply grilled and sauced. Take the popular pork sugo at Mockingbird in downtown Oakland, for instance. Chefs Melissa Axelrod and William Johnson make it “primarily with pig heads from Riverdog farms,” Axelrod said. “It’s incredibly high quality, flavorful pork, but not a cut that most folks feel comfortable working with.” Axelrod explained that given inexorably rising costs, using “underutilized cuts with lower price points simply makes sense from the business side, of course only if they are tasty.” It’s really an old-fashioned approach — “how my grandma would cook, not wasting, being frugal, making the best of what you have to work with, and making it taste good.”
At Duende in Uptown Oakland, chef/owner Paul Canales puts that old-fashioned approach into practice daily, using as many elements of the animal as possible. It’s something he’s done since presenting the renowned Whole Hog Dinners at Oliveto, when he served dishes such as a ragu that included pig hearts, and zampone, or stuffed pig trotter. Canales is far less interested in cooking a newly branded piece of beef than he is in coming up with some new use for even less familiar, less utilized, and perhaps less inherently appetizing parts. “What’s exciting to me is not the latest trendy cut of meat,” he said, “because all I’d be doing is garnishing it. My creativity becomes not a conception, but a filigree.”
When you break down whole animals, as Canales and his chefs do regularly with pigs, lambs, and rabbits, “you get odd bits left over,” he said. His freezers and walk-in refrigerator at Duende are full of said odd bits that he’s collected during butchery, and things he’s prepared with them. Sometimes he finds himself looking at freshly processed rabbit livers or pork spleens, or rummaging through packages of pig ears he’s stashed away. You ask yourself, “What am I gonna do with these?” he said.
That’s why you find things on Duende’s menu like fried rabbit livers, bazo (a spleen spread), pig ear or beef tendon terrine, sobrassada (a spicy, chorizo-like cured spread with lamb bellies, hearts, kidneys, and livers), fuet (“whip,” a skinny, Catalonian, dry-cured, warm-spice pork-leg salami), and braised tripe cut into penne-size pieces and served in a creamy sauce made with the milk, sprinkled with jamon bread crumbs with crunchy tidbits left over from fabricating ham in house. “The craziest thing I’ve ever done was with a box of pig tails I got from Stone Valley Farms through their rep Julie Nutter,” Canales said. “I braised them for 45 orders of cola de cerco and went through them all in one night. The meat was like butter, super tender. I do all this stuff all the time. It’s not like a special dinner. People who come to the restaurant regularly expect it.”
Among the “new” meat offerings available is “mature meat,” as described by Alessa Palmer, marketing and livestock supply manager for Petaluma’s Marin Sun Farms. Under its Mindful Meats brand, Marin Sun raises and processes mature dairy cows that have lived three to eight years, whereas most beef cattle are slaughtered between 12 and 24 months of age. “Mindful Meats is exclusively dual-purpose animals,” Palmer explains, “meaning they are raised for more than one purpose — milk and meat. The quality that comes from a mature cow, similar to that of a well-aged wine or cheese, is unique in a deeper, richer flavor, and more nuanced than just ‘tender.’”
Spanish-American chef José Andrés — whose culinary empire includes restaurants from Washington D.C., to Dorado, Puerto Rico — approached Marin Sun “to get Mindful Meats on his menu because he was looking for something reminiscent of the old ox meat in Spain, something with that rich, deep flavor,” Palmer said.
Cost, creative challenges, sustainability, and nostalgia may be motivating chefs to bring new, less familiar, and underutilized cuts to their tables, but for the consumer, it’s ultimately that “rich, deep flavor” that seals the deal. For Scott Brennan, owner/butcher at the recently opened Fifth Quarter charcuterie in Montclair Village, nothing matches the onglet. He can get it only when his supplier, Five Dot Ranch, is processing whole cows — there’s only one onglet per animal — but when he does, you’ll see it front and center in his display case.