Sometimes, these odd parts even take center stage, drawing plenty of applause. One Houston establishment where brains have actually found a niche is at Indika, the modern Indian restaurant in Montrose, a few blocks from where Feast once was. Though you might find goat brains in humble Indian or Pakistani restaurants in southwest Houston, you will certainly not find it served as attractively or tastefully as at Indika, whose kitchen quickly sautés the delicate substance with onions, potatoes and an array of piquant spices, then tops it with a tomato sauce and serves it on a paratha flatbread. About a half-mile west on Westheimer from Indika, at Da Marco, the city’s most highly rated restaurant (scoring 29 for Food), a much more commonly served organ meat has long-graced the menu; liver. Their calf liver “veneziana” features thinly sliced liver cooked in the classic Venetian-style accompanied with stewed onions. It is a far cry from rough-tasting cafeteria versions of liver and onions. Though the distinctive taste of iron-rich liver is not lost, the meat at Da Marco is tender, tasty and well-complemented by both the onions and the terrific side of polenta featuring touch of sweetness.
Much further out on Westheimer near the Beltway, Saldivia’s, an Uruguayan steakhouse serves savory grilled sweetbreads that work very well as a rich appetizer and preface one of their excellent steaks. Keeping with the tradition of that meat-loving part of the world that also encompasses central Argentina and southern Brazil, Saldivia’s also offers a very good morcilla, blood sausage. Also on the west side, in Spring Branch, Polonia serves the Polish version of blood sausage, kiszka, made with pig’s blood, which is sautéed with onions and served with pickles. Maybe somewhat of an acquired taste, it certainly has its fans.
More easily enjoyable for most, and much easier found, is pâté, an indispensible component of French gastronomy. As part of its menu of familiar French favorites, L’Olivier on lowest Westheimer, makes a terrific pâté made with chicken livers and a bit of brandy that is light and mild, yet quite flavorful. Not overly rich or rustic, it is very easy to eat spread on the toasted slices of baguette that accompany it. Another traditional Gallic liver starter – and gateway to gout – that L’Olivier also offers is seared foie gras. The more casual Café Rabelais in the Rice Village does a very commendable version of the dish and sleek Etoile in Uptown features duck liver in their lauded foie gras terrine.
Though these and a few other restaurants provide reliable renditions of pâtés, foie gras and other fine French offal preparations, Houston is not really awash in French eateries. No matter. Offal is found almost everywhere, including top restaurants like Latin Bites, but mainly in the hundreds of area taquerias where the weekend staple is menudo, a spicy soup of beef stomach tripe and legendary hangover cure. And, there might even be some offal in the last sausage you ate. Just maybe.
In addition to the fondly remembered Feast, the ravioli at John Sheely's Osteria Mazzantini well-reviewed but short-lived Italian restaurant in the Galleria area, was its signature dish, and I hope will be seen again in a Houston restaurant. The pockets of fresh pasta are stuffed with kale, ricotta and minced calf’s sweetbreads and served in a sauce of browned butter, pine nuts, some balsamic vinegar and a touch of lemon. Featuring well-made pasta and excellent ingredients, with the sweetbreads and plentiful butter, this is a rich and satisfying dish. It was inspired by the ravioli that Sheely’s Italian grandmother served him when he was young. Instead of sweetbreads, his grandmother’s ravioli were filled with calf’s brains – a delicacy commonly found in Italian restaurants over a century ago – but he thought the brains might be a little too unusual for most local diners.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on Zagat.com
The sweetbreads at Saldivia's.