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Tongue is one of those delicacies that must have been discovered by some very hungry peopledesperate enough to try it once, optimistic enough to make it work. It's a thick, extremely strong muscle that requires lengthy brining and thin slicing before it will win you over. Thankfully, in addition to tenderizing the meat, this process renders it fairly unrecognizable.
My heritage should point me in the direction of the Italian dish, bollito misto ("mixed boil"), a homey but elegant preparation that seems to be creeping into style in New York (Falai Panetteria! Del Posto!) The boiled substances vary, but calf's tongue is a traditional element. But no, it was New York that convinced me. Or, rather, some enthusiastic Jews. I've fallen into a crowd that grins devilishly whenever tongue makes a menu appearance. Their grandmothers made it when they were young. They were ashamed to tell their friends, but always loved it.
Never mind that some of the dishes we've been sampling would render their bubbes totally mystified. At the Japanese steakhouse Yakiniku West, I did not fall in love with the side order we cooked at our little grillit was tasty but a little tough. Shilla, the hippest barbecue restaurant in Korea Town, was the unlikely site of my conversion. The tongue was paper-thin and in perfect rounds. Our waitress tossed it onto the grill haphazardly, letting the slices overlap, then dipped her tongs in water and flicked the meat. The steaming affect left our tongue gray, not charred or browned, but the flavor far surpassed the looks. It tasted like fat, mostly, with the slightest gamey undertone, and was completely tender. We smeared it with sesame oil and salt or fermented bean paste and wrapped it in red leaf lettuce.
As we were leaving, a crowd of hysterical teenaged girls gathered outside. "Wow, this place is really popular," we said. Then a limo pulled up and the Korean pop star, Rain, made his way through the squealing mob to get inside. He had that day appeared on TRL and given a concert at Madison Square Garden. But we don't know whether he had the tongue.
I, for one, couldn't get my mind off it. Intrigued by the recent popularity of the humble muscle at upscale restaurants, I enlisted a friend to partake in what she dubbed a "Tongue Shoot Out" on the Lower East Side. To experience its high and low appeal, we started at WD-50, where chef Wylie Dufresne has created a dainty appetizer, and washed it down with the most famous preparation of all: a sandwich from Katz's Deli.
For the record, we were ignored for a shocking length of time at WD-50, but we won't hold that against the poor tongue, which was pickled and draped in thin, ribbon-like slices down the center of the plate, pink like rare roast beef. There were three triangles of romaine lettuce and a few flakes of Maldon sea salt on top. To the side was a neat pile of what looked like rock salt, but was actually romaine lettuce ribs, diced to astonishing tinyness. Next to that was a pile of purple powder the waiter introduced by saying: "This is the red onion, which has been chopped." But the red onion seems to have been dehydrated first and tasted, not unpleasantly, like a mild version of onion powder. On the other side of the plate was a whimsical smear of "tomato molasses" and three puffy cubes of fried mayonnaise.
Despite the thought that went into this $15 arrangement, it succeeds because of its simplicity. The tongue is not aggressively briny, the piles and smears around it play supporting roles to the main draw, which is the delicate texture of the meat. The only challenge is to avoid the instinct to pop a mayo ball into your mouth whole, which you will regret.
Tongue from a stranger
photo: Jennifer Snow/jensnow.com
Eventually, a goofy young man approached with his date and bent down to peer at the tongue. "Hey, is that from Katz's?" he asked. We said yes and waited for the inevitable. "Um, what is that?" We informed him, and he was impressed. His date seemed scared and stood several feet back. He leaned in close, holding back from asking for a taste. But nothing seemed more natural in the heat of the moment. I offered him a bite. "Really? Can I taste your cow tongue?" he asked, wide eyed as a boy getting a tour of a fire truck. "I've never had tongue before, especially not from a stranger on the street."