A baby goat, skinned and gutted, lay inert on a stainless-steel counter in chef Morou Ouattara’s prep kitchen at Signatures. Its front quarters, bound by string, were bent at the knee, creating the unsettling illusion that the animal, which had arrived from a specialty supplier in Pennsylvania that morning, had been slaughtered midjump. The tongue protruded through the animal’s tiny clenched teeth. The black eyes bulged.
Morou, with his longtime sous chef, Eddie Marine, battening down the front quarters, chopped off one of the hind legs with a Chinese cleaver. Sushi chef Jeff Ramsay and I, along with a publicist, watched. The rest of Morou’s busy staff of cooks, none of whom had ever worked with a goat, couldn’t resist sneaking a peek, too.
The chef handed off the butchered leg like an unwieldy baton to another assistant, instructing him to rub it down with chilis, salt, and tandoor spice.
“Tonight’s amuse,” he announced.
Yes, the appetite-whetting nibble to be delivered, gratis, to diners on a muggy midweek night in April at this destination restaurant mere blocks from the White House was leg of goat. I asked Morou if he was at all concerned that his customers might not exactly take to seeing slices of goat set down before them. He shrugged, smiled: “It’s free food.”
Morou, a native of Ivory Coast, was profiled by writer Joan Nathan a couple of months ago in a front-page food-section story in the New York Times, a piece that depicted him as a loving mama’s boy who, despite all his culinary credentials, could only lend the occasional hand in the kitchen when his mother came to visit. A couple of his mother’s traditional West African recipes ran alongside the piece. The response to the article has been tremendous, unexpected. Morou’s customers, already enamored of his freewheeling, playful creations—peanut-butter-and-jelly shrimp, alligator corn fritters with harissa dipping sauce—have been pleading with him to put some of the dishes he grew up with on his menu. He listened, adding black-eyed-pea fritters and a Kobe-beef kitfo.
Next was goat. If not quite taking the plunge by making it a regular part of his rotation, Morou nonetheless got his feet wet one week last month, preparing the animal five different ways in one night as a trial run: tandoor goat, goat kebabs, goat spring rolls with a piping of goat cheese, goat-loin medallions with a Vidalia-onion purée, and baby-goat chops with a smoky aubergine sauce.
As it happened, Morou, for all his daring, was not even ahead of the curve. In March, Roberto Donna had added roasted goat to his menu at Galileo as part of a new slate of Neapolitan dishes. And two months before that, Fabio Trabocchi had brought goat to the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, featuring it on his “Evoluzione” menu at Maestro.
It’s awfully tempting to dismiss any exotic-food trend as the collective, self-congratulatory effort of a bunch of hotshot chefs on the lookout for the next big thing. Antelope, ostrich, wild boar, kangaroo, and several heirloom varieties of pork and veal—all have done time on restaurant menus about town recently. And goat—a meat that, in unskilled hands, is probably best left to stews and curries, where its toughness is neutralized through slow cooking that gently releases its strong flavors—might seem to be merely the latest challenge for ambitious chefs.
But if the arrival of goat this spring signals anything, it’s less the hipster’s lusting after something new than the craftsman’s respect for his sources. It’s no coincidence that all three chefs grew up in regions that honor the peasant origins of their cuisines. (Donna and Trabocchi hail from Tuscany and Marche, respectively.) All three spoke to me about reaching deep into their food memories as they set about constructing their goat dishes—or, rather, reconstructing them: tweaking them to make them not merely palatable but also understandable to their audiences.
And goat is a challenge in more ways than one. Because there is so little yield from a goat, it’s imperative that the kitchen use the entire animal, head and all, if it intends to recoup its considerable investment. For many chefs, particularly those who did not grow up in a goat-eating culture, this process can be prohibitive, demanding difficult-to-acquire expertise. And the meat is exceptionally lean—which is fine for foodophobes looking to hack away at calories but anathema to first-class chefs looking to maximize flavor. “To braise it correctly and keep the meat moist,” says Trabocchi, “requires a lot of skill.”
But the rewards are worth all the troubles. “Goat, if it is cooked well,” Donna notes, “has more taste than lamb.”
In fact, when I sat down to a tasting menu at Maestro a couple of months ago, I assumed that Trabocchi’s baby-goat chops were, in fact, lamb chops. I even called the waiter back and asked him to repeat himself, thinking I’d misheard. As usual, the proof was in the eating—they possessed much more character than any lamb chops I’d ever eaten.
So thorough is Trabocchi in his preparation, so careful to make use of every last little thing he’s been given of the animal, that even vegetarians could maybe consider forgiving him. The bones and head are removed to make a stock. The legs and shoulder meat are marinated, then braised for 12 hours. The resulting liquid, combined with the stock, produces the rich, savory jus that Trabocchi uses to intensify the flavor of the chops. The remainder of the animal is cooked slowly over a makeshift charcoal grill (a recent addition, inspired by a trip to Italy) to give it “all the smells of a picnic.” A sauce made from flat-leaf parsley, capers, onions, anchovies, white-wine vinegar, and olive oil adds a fragrant, herby brightness.
Morou’s version of chops is likewise an attempt to replicate the goat he grew up on. In Africa, says Morou, goat is smoked, then stewed. To reproduce the smokiness, Morou sautées eggplants and tomatoes in rendered bacon; this foundation becomes the sauce that naps the chops. The nuts and spices typical of stews back home—pistachio, cardamom—find their way into an accompanying mound of rice.
For Donna, the challenge is to retain as much of the meat’s fat as possible. When he slow-roasts his goat (275 degrees for almost three hours), he also roasts some potatoes with it. The fat that melts away from the animal is absorbed by the vegetables; Donna adds an extra spoonful of rendered pork fat. The meltingly luscious potatoes are then served in a sort of gratinée atop the sliced goat. “The potato soaking up the fat—that’s why it’s so good,” says Donna.
He recalls a dish he ate three years ago in Campania, a whole roasted goat he devoured in the boisterous company of a large family: “You split the brain—the best part. In a big family, the father usually gets to eat the eyeballs and the tongue. The tongue is very, very good.”
Mindful of his customers’ more delicate sensibilities, Donna takes great care to make his dish restaurant-friendly, removing all the bones before he serves it. He insists, however, that he hasn’t upscaled it more than he needs to. “If you’re from Avellino,” he says, “you’ll recognize it.”
Morou, as he prepared to unleash his goat on an unsuspecting audience that night, also considered a concession to customer squeamishness. Calling his entrees “baby” goat, he reasoned, would conjure up diners’ visions of small, milk-fed veal—a plus—and the word “chops” should also go some way toward upping that particular dish’s appeal.
Another thought occurred to him: “Maybe,” he said as he instructed his prep staff to get cracking on a berbere sauce to go along with the tandoor goat, “we’ll call it ‘spring goat.’” —Todd Kliman
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