We were fortunate enough to be able to attend Slow Food Memphis’s first major dinner event, a dinner at Hunt-Phelan focusing on the “lesser” cuts of beef. Michael Lenagar of Neola Farms provided the beef. Chef Stephen Hassinger turned the beef into superb dishes.
Before I list the menu, I want to say a word about “lesser” cuts. The first thing to know is that restaurants primarily sell the “upper” cuts, such as filets and New York strips. The filet is the most tender, but least flavorful, cut of beef. Why then would anyone order that cut? Simply put, the vast majority of American beef is crap, so folks at least want it to be tender.
Massive agribusiness beef producers are concerned about the quantity of beef they can produce and how quickly they can produce it. Cattle raised on steroids grow large amounts of muscle very quickly, so quickly that they don’t develop the natural marbling of fat that makes prime beef, well, prime.
A calf that is allowed to wean from his or her mother at the natural time has had time to start developing marbling. When that calf grows up with good food, fresh water, and no stress, that marbling continues to develop throughout its life.
But what’s the point of all this? The point is when you have a prime animal, there are no lesser cuts. Certainly the filet, ribeye, strip, etc., are pretty much foolproof for home grilling, but every piece of that beef is a beautiful masterpiece of food.
The difficulty that Michael faces is that people are used to thinking that only those upper cuts are the “good” pieces of meat. He’s got a lot more cow there to sell. The reality is that every single cut of that beef is wonderfully flavorful and tender, and honestly provide the consumer with more value for the money spent.
Chef Hassinger’s presentations of these cuts were lovely and minimalist. His menu was as well. I am going to present the menu as the chef did. I will also add the excellent wine pairings. The tantalizing glimpses the menu provided made the appearance of each dish all the more thrilling. You really had to be there, but I will do my best to capture the essence of the dishes.
broth, meatball, carrot
Mark West, Pinot Noir, California
Oxtail soup. Rich people get the good stuff. What do the po’ folks get? The tail.
This dish was presented in a bowl, a bowl with a ball of carrot, a small meatball, and a single leaf of flat parsley. After a few quizzical looks, a warning to wait came just before the servers returned with carafes of hot broth to fill the bowls.
We have been fans of, and friends with, Michael for a while now. We were delighted to be sitting next to him at dinner. Michael is a wonderful study in contrasts, a plainspoken rancher and a sophisticated wine connoisseur. The epitome of the simple country boy and a forward-thinking environmentalist.
When it comes to his food, Michael leans more to the simple country boy side. Looking at a bowl with one tiny meatball, Michael said, “when I think of eating beef, this isn’t what I usually have in mind.” When the broth was added, Michael took one whiff and said, “oh yes, this is our beef. You can tell our beef by the smell.” The oxtail broth was the absolute liquid essence of beef.
truffle, capers, parmesan
Hendry, Rose, Napa
Steak tartare is something I have never had before. Normally, if you were going to cut a piece of beef into small pieces and serve it raw, you might want to go for one of those upper cuts. This dish just proved the superior quality of Michael’s beef. Spread on toasted bread, this tartare was absolutely buttery.
M. Chapoutier “Bellarusche”, Cotes du Rhone, Francex
This was Stephen’s take on surf and turf. A dry-rubbed brisket was cooked to perfect tenderness and served with a portion of lobster. A drop of caviar on a swirl of light cream sauce gave the dish that final bit of over-the-top decadent brilliance.
oyster, radish, spinach
Casa Silva Carmenere, Reserva Colchagua Valley, Chile
Small slices of sirloin on a bed of spinach and topped with a fried oyster. Braised radishes added just a touch of sweetness.
Stepping Stone, Cabernet Franc, Rutherford, Napa
Short ribs are our favorite cut from Neola. Stephen pulled the meat from the braised ribs and served it in delicately thin sheets of pasta. The ravioli rested on a small puddle of richly reduced beef jus.
arugula, beets, cornichon
Louis Tete, Beaujolais-Villages, France
Tongue is one of those cuts that give most folks second thoughts. Michael, rancher, producer of beef, consumer of beef, couldn’t eat the tongue. Speaking of his steers, he said, “those boys lick me. If you offer them an apple, you’ll see that tongue snake out to slurp that apple up.” Other folks, myself included, have had bad experiences with poorly prepared tongue.
The tongue in this dish was breaded with panko and herbs and fried to a nice crisp. There was no hint of the organ flavor that tongue often has. Diced beets were lightly sweet and slices of cornichons were slightly sour, rounding out the richness of the tongue nicely.
Stephen is a master with ice creams and sorbets. This sorbet was certainly proof of that. Imagine perfectly sweetened iced tea whipped to a creamy frozen froth with just a touch of vodka and lemon to add a zing. This was a beautifully light ending to a perfectly presented meal.