Head cheese is not a cheese. It's a meat cut from different parts of a pig's head. The Pig in Logan Circle's chef Michael Bonk explains how it's different from other meat, and how it's one of the most complex foods out there. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
Reporter

You know that’s not cheese, right?” asks our server at Le Diplomate when I order the fromage de tête, or head cheese. When he later presents the slice of pressed meat — bits of pig’s head suspended in natural meat gelatin — he hovers for a minute to watch our first bites, to be certain that we enjoy it.

“The younger generation of American diners aren’t necessarily familiar with what head cheeses are,” said William Washington, the Logan Circle restaurant’s general manager. “We don’t want anyone to be surprised.”

But for those with an adventurous palate, head cheese (which also appears on area menus under the names tête, testa or pig’s head terrine) is an easy way to participate in the nose-to-tail dining movement. That’s because you’ll eat the nose along with much of the rest of the pig’s head. There is no cheese in the dish; it gets its name from the Latin “forma,” and consequently the French “fromage,” both referring to the pressed mold used to prepare head meat and cheese.

Penn Quarter’s meaty Partisan restaurant, attached to a Red Apron Butchery, prepares its tête de pho head cheese by braising whole pig heads in broth reminiscent of Vietnamese noodle soup, with onion, garlic, cardamom and clove. Once the head is tender, butcher Nate Anda reduces the liquid to make a thick natural gelatin. He discards the bones and glands, leaving the rest to set in a terrine mold. “It’s got ears, tongue, cheeks, jowls and all the skin,” said Anda.

When a house-made head cheese appears on a menu, diners can be sure that plenty of time and care went into the labor-intensive dish. Chef Brian McPherson of Alexandria’s Jackson 20 makes his over 10 days.

Tete de pho at the Partisan. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

His is a classic French technique that requires brining three or four heads over seven days. On the seventh day, he’ll wash the heads in simmering hot water before simmering them once again, this time with a sachet of herbs and a mirepoix.

“I never, ever boil it,” he said, because boiling clouds the liquid. He’ll cool the heads and the liquid overnight, and on day nine, he’ll roast the heads until they’re crisp, picking the best meat to go into the terrine, which sets overnight. Three to four heads will yield about 50 servings.

At Le Diplomate, the meat is served with pickled chanterelle mushrooms and julienned granny smith apple, a combination that “really help[s] cut the fattiness and the collagen in the gelatin,” said chef Michael Abt, who begins the four-day process of making a batch every Wednesday. While the dish is not a big mover — he estimates they sell about 12 head cheeses per day out of an average of 600 guests — “Those that do order it are fanatical about it,” he said. “They come back for it over and over.”

The Hamilton, the Pig and Range in the District and Partisan’s sister restaurant, B Side, in Fairfax are among the other restaurants that often offer head cheese, reflecting diners’ increasing openness to consuming offal. Traditional Vietnamese bakeries in the region put head cheese on banh mi sandwiches, too.

“Some people get really excited about it, and some people are put off,” said Anda. “That’s one of the main reasons we play around with it as much as we do. We use different flavors and get people to take the risk and try it.”

More Plate Lab

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.