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In the final scene of Hannibal, the fugitive Dr. Lecter relaxes aboard a passenger plane, calmly ticking off the contents of his Dean & DeLuca box meal for the benefit of a curious young boy. The fine old cannibal shows the child his jar of beluga caviar and a single fig, but then the kid interrupts. He wants to know what’s in the small plastic container. “That looks good,” the boy says. “Can I have some?”
The good doctor obliges and gives the impressionable child a small bite—of agent Paul Krendler’s brain, which Lecter had sautéed with butter and shallots the night before. The scene, of course, has its desired effect: I suspect a large number of Americans gasp every time they watch it, a little imaginary lobe of gray matter stuck in their throats. It’s no doubt the same reaction people have when Indiana Jones is served monkey brains. I mean, everyone knows brains are zombie food.
Bernard Grenier, for one, isn’t so squeamish around brains, at least the non-human kind. The chef and owner of Bistro d’Oc grew up in Languedoc, France, and, like other children in the region, was fed brains regularly. “People buy brains for babies,” says Grenier, recalling how his family simply sautéed the organ meat in pork fat until it was soft and rich.
Grenier now offers brains at Bistro d’Oc, one of the damn few restaurants still serving the classic French dish. You won’t find brains anymore at La Miche in Bethesda, where Grenier served it for nearly 25 years before opening d’Oc across the street from Ford’s Theatre. You won’t find it at La Fourchette in Adams Morgan, either. And you definitely won’t find it at Montsouris off Dupont Circle or Montmartre on Capitol Hill. Why? Because chef and co-owner Stephane Lezla flat-out hates brains.
“I had a bad memory of brain when I was a kid,” says Lezla, who was forced to finish a plate of the organ meat against his will. “When you’re a kid [and experience something like that], you have a bad memory of it for the rest of your life.”
“Nobody wants it,” adds Jacqueline Chauvet, co-owner of La Fourchette. “We do sometimes [cook it] for ourselves, but never to put it on the menu.”
If the mere thought of eating brains churns your stomach, then you’ll definitely want to avoid actually preparing them—or even reading about preparing them. Now, I like brains, at least the plate of Pakistani-style brains I had at Ravi Kabob in Arlington many months ago. But despite that happy experience, I did a few double takes when reading the chapter on brains in Simon Hopkinson’s cookbook Roast Chicken and Other Stories. Here’s the first ingredient in the bourgeois dish cervelles au beurre noir: “2 calves’ brains, cleaned of blood and nerves.”
The recipe continues: After poaching the brains nearly 20 minutes until “firm to the touch,” you’re supposed to drain the organ on a warm plate. Then “[s]lice each brain in half lengthways down the natural divide of the two lobes. Season with salt and pepper and dredge lightly with flour.”
Still with me?
For his preparation at Bistro d’Oc, Grenier prefers lamb brains over calf brains, and it has nothing to do with mad cow disease, since he doesn’t think Americans worry about the disease as much as Europeans. “Lamb brains are much more popular than calves’ brains,” he says, a relative distinction if I’ve ever heard one. “I think they have more flavor. They have a touch of lamb, which I like.”
On a frigid Monday afternoon, Grenier gives me a demonstration on how he cooks lamb brains. By the time I arrive, he’s already done the dirty work. He’s removed the nerves and soaked the brains in vinegar and water overnight to drain the blood. The little lamb brains now look like day-old white mac-and-cheese congealed into tight balls.
To sell brains in America, restaurateurs must overcome some daunting psychological hurdles. Grenier has his tricks. One is to offer sautéed brains only on the specials menu, where it has an air of rarity. “If you put it on the standard menu,” he says, “it won’t sell as well.” The other is to cook the brains gently in a pot of cold, seasoned water and vinegar, which you bring to a boil then immediately take off the fire. If you boil the organ too long, it will become hard and chewy, two slap-you-in-the-face reminders that you’re noshing on a young animal’s nerve center.
Once the poaching is complete, the rest of the preparation is a breeze: Grenier quickly sautés the flour-dusted brains in a butter sauce with shallots and capers until they turn a golden brown. Right at the end, he ladles in some chicken broth to the pan. “I do that to hide the butter,” he says.
Out in the dining room, I sit down with City Paper photographer Darrow Montgomery to sample Grenier’s dish (which we paid for). Montgomery admits he’s trying not to think about the main ingredient. “I’m thinking sweetbreads, sweetbreads,” he says. I’m less hesitant but still find myself delicately placing the fork in my mouth, as if hoping the brains won’t come into contact with too many taste buds. It’s stupid, I know, particularly after the impact of the dish fully hits me. The texture is so creamy, the lobes practically melt on your tongue; the butter only accentuates the organ’s creaminess and consistency, while the capers add that much-needed sharp note.
The dish is so good that neither Montgomery nor I leave a single lobe undisturbed, though he suggests that “everything tastes better with capers,” which sounds like a backhanded compliment to me. Regardless, I ask Grenier if he thinks Americans could ever embrace brain-eating the way the French have. “American customers have a long way to go before they have a mind to eat brains,” he says. “Some people would never touch it.”
Education, Grenier thinks, is the key, which reminds me of something that La Fourchette’s Chauvet recently mentioned—that a junior high art teacher used to regularly bring students to the restaurant so they could sample escargot, sweetbreads, and other dishes that Americans tend to avoid. The students’ youth, the owner said, made them open to the food.
In a way, it’s the same innocence that Dr. Lecter exploits on the plane when he tells the young boy about his mother’s simple philosophy: “‘It is important,’ she always used to say, ‘always to try new things.’” The mad doctor is angling to invite a naive child into the world of cannibalism. My intentions are slightly more honorable: Screw the zombie lore. Give lamb brains a try.
Bistro d’Oc, 518 10th St. NW, (202) 393-5444.
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