Head Case

Our new column about singular meals debuts with, uh, brains

Maybe it's the whole French fetish going on right now -- does anyone else find it ironic that while the rest of the country rides a wave of anti-French sentiment, San Francisco is celebrating a major French food renaissance? -- but once again, it has come down to organ meat.

I'd like to preface this column by saying that I never really considered myself an organ meat kind of gal -- quite the contrary, actually. When I was little, my Polish father, a man not exactly known for his culinary prowess, proudly and frequently shared with his family the few dishes he knew how to make well. Sadly, these consisted almost entirely of offerings that made us gag: herring salad, gefilte fish, tongue, and sautéed chicken gizzards and hearts.

This early childhood trauma caused me to swear off organ meats and virtually anything cold and gelatinous for upward of 20 years -- until one day, when I discovered foie gras. And like the old axiom about marijuana leading to harder drugs, I found myself going down a slippery slope. Foie gras is just cold liver, I reasoned, so what's the harm in trying pancreas? From there it was just a short skip and a jump to thymus, kidneys, brains, and intestines.

But even as I went forth into Delfinadetermined to find a hidden gem, a buried treasure that everyone had been overlooking in a stampede to get to Craig Stoll's famous roast chicken and Niman Ranch flatiron steak frites, I never imagined it would be organ meat that would turn my head.

But then the dish arrived, small and unassuming: lambs' brains alla saltimbocca -- a dish with a name so politically incorrect, so Pulp Fiction, that I almost had to order it by whispering in my waiter's ear. (As it is, I said it very softly, which ended up backfiring, since the decibel level at Delfina is something akin to being at a miniature Rolling Stones concert, and the waiter, having not quite heard me, was forced to cock his head to one side and announce in a voice that carried all the way to the PETA offices down the street, "I'm sorry. Did you say you'll have the lambs' brains? Good choice!") Is it any wonder some brilliant marketing person in the 18th century came up with the term "sweetbreads"? Would you ask publicly for "calf pancreas"?

"There may be a fear factor involved," admits Stoll. "But really, lambs' brains are better than sweetbreads. They're better even than foie gras. They're delicate and sweet. People just need to get past the name."

Apparently, they have. The item has been featured semiregularly on the appetizer menu, and more often than not, it's been a top seller.

Poached in a court bouillon broth, seasoned with salt and pepper, dusted in flour, and sautéed in butter and oil, the three diminutive brains ("Lambs are not very bright," says Stoll. "And we get especially dumb ones") are then draped with a small piece of prosciutto and napped with a sauce of butter, lemon, white wine, chicken stock, and herbs. The result is something surprisingly light and incredibly addictive -- the kind of dish that'd make Delfina a destination if we weren't already going there all the time.

Stoll says he's thrilled that it's catching on, and if enough folks call in and request it, he might consider it for a regular spot on the menu. "Maybe if I told people that the diced bits on top of the steak aren't garlic but bone marrow, they'd order something else."

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