Two decades ago — or even just a few years back, before the great economic calamity of 2008 — many of the featured ingredients on sous-chef Adam Brick’s tasting menu at Graffiato would have been found rotting in the trash. Pineapple skins. Lamb hearts. Egg shells. The tough little side muscle on a sea scallop that’s typically excised with extreme prejudice.
Back then, few self-respecting, chef-driven restaurants would have considered serving an ingredient such as beef tendon, the stuff often seen floating in a bowl of soup at suburban pho parlors. In the white-tablecloth world of fine dining, beef has always meant rib-eye or filet mignon, or perhaps sirloin if you’re really slumming it. But right there among Brick’s new dishes is a small plate of beef tendon, a tough connective tissue that requires prolonged heat to soften its collagen-rich fibers into something rich and gelatinous and delicious.
The tendon is just one of 12 courses that Brick has conceived for his $85 “Gems” tasting menu, which will be offered every Sunday and Monday starting Jan. 13 at the six-seat bar upstairs at Graffiato in Chinatown. The tendon, served on a split veal bone with a soft-scrambled egg infused with smoked marrow, will take its place among some of the other “gems” on Brick’s menu: diced lamb-heart tartare with smoked yogurt; halibut tail meat glazed with chicken-wing sauce; raw tuna marrow in a broth prepared with the fish’s roasted spine; fried chips made from purees of rice and those tough scallop muscles; an egg-shell meringue sprinkled over chocolate custard; a pineapple-skin semifreddo sitting in Thai-scented coconut water.
Eccentric on its own, Brick’s tasting menu is a departure in another way for Graffiato, the small-plates restaurant that former “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella conceived as a kind of homage to his Italian-American roots in New Jersey. The multi-course menu is a tiny oasis of fine dining tucked into a place that trades on its clubby informality and the two-fisted, blue-collar drive of its celebrity chef. It’s like Graffiato’s own minibar, but with ingredients foraged from the garbage.
Once the “gems” menu is available to the public, it also will be the strutting, rock-star front man of the scrap trend already well underway at fine-dining restaurants in the area.
“If we don’t use all the byproducts,” says Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, “there is no way that fine dining could survive.”
Armstrong will be the first to tell you that fine-dining temples have always kept a close eye on waste. In the early 1990s, he was a saucier at Vidalia, where chef and owner Jeff Buben had assembled a future all-star team that included Peter Smith (who would go on to helm the now-closed PS 7s) and Eric Ziebold (now leading CityZen). Armstrong recalls that Buben required cooks to have a hotel pan at their station for scraps: perhaps the outer leaves of cauliflower or thyme stems or shrimp shells, stuff that often would be turned into stock.