Calf’s Liver

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Working through a favorite restaurant’s menu will sometimes bring you to a dish you never expected to order. Case in point: Al Di La, in Park Slope, is one of our favorite restaurants. We were there this past Thursday night to celebrate the arrival of Craig’s parents and his impending film school graduation. Having been to Al Di La several times and having loved everything on the menu (the braised rabbit, the hangar steak, the pork rib special) the time had come for me to order the dish I feared the most: calf’s liver.

The waiter wasn’t particularly encouraging.

“Have you had the calf’s liver?” I asked him.

“Nooooo,” he said, in one of those extended drawn-out “no”s that a 12-year old might use if asked if he has a crush at school. “But then again,” he added. “I don’t eat meat.”

Craig’s mom was equally dubious. “Are you really going to order the calf’s liver, Adam?” she asked me kindly, her eyes seeming to flash the message: “You’re making a terrible mistake! Don’t do it!”

I was determined. I ordered the calf’s liver, took a big swig of wine, and waited for the great test to begin.

But first came the appetizers: a trio of Venetian tapas (pickled sardines, grilled octopus and fava bean spread) as well as a bowl of gnocchi with pork ragu that Craig’s dad said was the best he’d ever had.

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And then it came–the picture you saw at the top of this post.

Fanned out across the plate like any other cut of meat, the aroma was pungent and winey (which I liked). The grilled polenta was a welcome diversion but when the time came to taste the first forkful, I did so bravely.

And the verdict?

Very good, if you like liver. Which probably rules out 99% of you.

But here’s the thing: if you open your mind a little and stop thinking about liver as the thing that causes groaning on old sitcoms (“Aw, mom, not liver again!”) and think of it as a deeper, more challenging version of beef, then you can start to enjoy it. Here’s an analogy: liver is to steak what cheese is to milk. Meaning–it’s funkier, it’s gamier, it’s headier. Would I replace cheese for milk and put melted gouda on my cereal? No, of course not. But every now and then I might nibble on some gouda to give my tastebuds a fresh experience; same with liver.

And here, at Al Di La, the liver is prepared to perfection. Julie Powell once wrote me an e-mail when I had a disastrous chicken liver experience on my blog (see here) that said, in part: “chicken livers are GREAT, but MUST not be overcooked, as you say. They are my favorite things, next to beef liver.”

Well this was beef liver and it was not overcooked in any way. It was pink in the middle and rich and shiny with the sauce.

Would I order it again? Maybe in a year or two. I’m ready to work my way back through the menu again and enjoy the dishes that I enjoy more naturally. Liver takes a little work for me but I’m really glad I tried it.

And to everyone who scoffed at what I ordered: now I’m a member of the cool liver-eater club. Is there a cool hangar steak eater club? A cool braised rabbit eater club? Nope, just a cool liver-eater club and I’m in it.

8 comments

  1. Adam ~ I enjoy chicken livers and gamy food, but isn’t this just, if nothing else, too much? What a huge liver! And rich, too, I should imagine. Having said that, I’d probably struggle more with the baby octopus than with the liver. Good on you for getting out there and starting your own “cool liver-eater club.” And congratulations to Craig, too!

  2. That liver is the best thing ever at Al di La’s. It has been on the menu since they opened, I believe. I think it has been their signature dish (at least it was when I ate it a good eight years ago). Shame on the waiter for not encouraging you!

  3. I looove liver, but have never cooked it myself. I wanted to try after reading Julie & Julia, but Whole Foods only carries the frozen kind, and I don’t know whether you can start out with frozen. (Then again, I don’t know if I’m brave enough to carry home a fresh one…)

    That looks good, in spite of its size–I would prefer a half-portion, I think. Good for you, and I’m glad your experience wasn’t horrible!

  4. Before I became a vegetarian, I loved liver. My mom was German and made it quite often. I never developed an aversion to it I suppose because it was always properly cooked.

    Do bear in mind, though, that it is the liver in all of us, cows included, that processes and stores most of the toxins, ie: hormones, medicines, pesticides, chemicals of all kinds, so you are eating a concentrated dose of whatever that cow has been subjected to, making it wise to only eat organic, high quality liver. That alone may be why most people intuitively avoid it.

  5. In Texas we like to cook liver like out chicken fried steak. Soak it in milk and then dredge in flour seasoned with salt/pepper. Fried and served with sauteed onions and cream gravy….its great! Try some mashed potatoes and corn with it.

    Lubys is actually pretty good at cooking it if you want to try it out at a restaurant.

  6. Nice! Over here in France it is quite a common dish: one minute each side in a frying pan – has to stay rosé inside – and have them with potato purée and fried onions: delicious (but children don’t like it too :-)

  7. Wow. And I thought the veal kidneys I had in Sonoma the other day were adventuresome! I think calf liver trumps veal kidney…

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