Quietly, an obscure cut of beef has risen to a high place in restaurants across the Washington area. That would be oxtail -- the meat with a name only a heifer could love. Chefs are updating traditional recipes and pairing relatively inexpensive, braised oxtail meat with luxury ingredients such as truffles, as well as filet mignon and even seafood. "It's the fashion of the day," says Yannick Cam, chef of the new Le Paradou restaurant in the Penn Quarter. "Before, it was just a plain stew."
But there is nothing plain about Cam's oxtail with snails and black truffles. "For me, it's a wonderful combination of the sweet, unctuous oxtail with the earthy truffles and snails for texture," he says.
Oxtail is a beef cut that is, more often than not, slowly braised until the stringy, exquisitely flavored meat comes away from the bone. The braising liquid, enriched by the bones and marrow, is easily reduced to a robust sauce. And it's believed that as long as man has eaten beef, the tail has been enjoyed as an important part of the package.
The resurgence of oxtail is preceded by a long history. Traditionally in Europe, simple soups and stews were made such as the Flemish hochepot -- oxtail braised with cabbage, carrot, onion, leek and potato.
A clear soup made from oxtail and flavored with basil, thyme and sherry is a classic in England. It was likely introduced to the British by refugees from the French Revolution, according to the culinary dictionary Larousse Gastronomique. Oxtail is also an essential ingredient in classic French onion soup and Vietnamese pho -- the beef and noodle soup.
For those who did not grow up on a farm, oxen are bovid ruminants (curd-chewing) such as cattle, yak or bison that have been castrated and domesticated. Steer are, essentially, younger cattle that are raised for beef. What's sold in supermarkets as oxtail is the bony and fatty rear appendage of a steer. More often than not, the tail is cut by the butcher into thick disks that are anywhere from two to three inches thick and 11/2 to three inches in diameter.
"At home in Ireland we never gave a thought to what it was. I just knew that oxtail soup was my favorite. Now, it's a cozy ingredient that's made such a boom," says Cathal Armstrong chef of the Restaurant Eve, which opened last spring in Alexandria.
At Eve, Armstrong serves braised oxtail with seared tuna on top, garnished with a pinch of baby arugula. "We were thinking, 'What about a crazy surf and turf combination, something different, something new,' " says Armstrong. "And tuna can carry a lot of flavors and not overwhelm the meat."
Fabrizio Aielli, chef of Teatro Goldoni, an Italian dining venue in downtown Washington, remembers his mother's simple salad of braised oxtail, carrot, potato and tomato with a red wine vinaigrette. "[Oxtail] was just something we grew up with in Venice," says Aielli. "It's still one of my favorites because it's so delicious."
On his current menu, Aielli features a ragout of oxtail with sea scallops, "a wonderful contrast," that he serves with a celery root puree.
Michel Richard of Citronelle in Georgetown gets right to the point.
"It's cheap and it's good," says Richard. "It's wonderful with noodles. The waxy pasta and oxtail broth go perfectly together." On his menu there is a terrine, made with a sausage of oxtail, mushrooms and black truffle, encased in tubular pasta. A slice is served surrounded by intense oxtail broth.
From one day to the next, Jeff Heineman, chef of the contemporary American bistro Grapeseed in Bethesda, may have a pan-roasted filet mignon topped with a ragout of oxtail or a salad composed of frisee, endive, shitake mushrooms and oxtail drizzled with a warm sherry vinaigrette.
Oxtail with hearty greens, such as frisee, is a particularity nice combo. "That's how we did it when I worked in southwestern France," says Heineman, adding that the meat "really stands up to an assertive vinaigrette."
Ravioli stuffed with oxtail can be found at a number of area restaurants. That's because "ravioli captures the flavor in a nice little capsule," says Andrew Evan, chef of the Australian-inspired Inn at Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He places oxtail-stuffed ravioli atop a pile of French lentils and then ladles on a little froth made with porcini mushrooms.
Brendan Cox, formerly of Equinox and Market Salamander in Middleburg and the new chef of Circle Bistro in Foggy Bottom, pan-roasts monkfish seasoned with the three C's -- clove, cardamom and cinnamon -- and serves it with oxtail ravioli and a red wine sauce.
At Oyamel, Jose Andres' new Mexican restaurant in Arlington, sous chef Cristina Kiewek makes a terrific taco with a handmade, corn tortilla stuffed with shreds of braised oxtail, shaved pineapple and bits of onion and cilantro.
"You don't find oxtail tacos in taquerias in Mexico," says Kiewek, who hails from Mexico City. "But we were thinking oxtail is such rich meat with so much fat, it would go perfectly with the acid in pineapple."
"It's the new short ribs," says Cox. He makes the point that short ribs, another inexpensive cut of beef, ascended from the pits of barbecue to celebrity fare at top restaurants over the past several years.
Oxtail is here to stay -- until another meat takes its place. And Le Paradou's Cam has a prediction: "Next, it will be pig's feet."