Originally posted April 19th. As promised, the exciting conclusion!
Yesterday, we announced that we would be doing some investigative journalism, following a report in the NYTimes about the emergence of humanely raised, flavorful veal. The article flagged Blackbird as a Chicago restaurant that offers the organic stuff, so we thought we’d check in on a few other spots that serve veal to find out which type they use.
An innocent enough question, or so we thought. While several restaurants happily named their suppliers, others became immediately suspicious, like we were asking where they got their foie gras from, or something. What we discovered through our (admittedly not exhaustive) research is that most places are still proudly using the old kind of veal. It does taste good, or at least feels good in the mouth, and like tofu, it can take on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. We suspect that the more reticent restaurants do not serve the pastured veal, because they probably would have been flaunting it if they had, but that is just conjecture. Ultimately, we were more put off by the restaurants which dodged and stalled than by the restaurants which serve caged veal. How one treats animals is important, but how one treats humans, perhaps more so. Ready for our findings?
We might as well start with Blackbird, which offers a grilled veal ribeye with cornbread porridge, rapini, bittersweet chocolate, black truffle and rosemary for $36 (and some veal sweetbreads as an appetizers for $13; awesome). Their veal is Le Québécois, a program that entails no use of hormones, antibiotics, or ruminant proteins, and promises that the calves were raised on a natural diet and “humanely,” the details of which are not overly specific. But suffice it to say, this sounds around as good as it gets for baby animal.
Next up, NoMI. For the $48 they charge for their veal with creamy polenta and hedgehog mushrooms, that cow better have been receiving daily massages since birth, Kobe-style. Considering it’s from the Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, it is fair to say that it’s top-of-the-line stuff (so high end that they don’t have/need a website).
How about some steakhouses? These bastions of beef and bounty can be somewhat slow to respond to trends (a bit reductive to call humanely raised veal a trend, but that’s exactly what it is). Here we have to apologize, because even though we got the names of the respective veal suppliers of David Burke’s Primehouse (Purely Gourmet) and The Palm (Consumers Meats), further investigation did not reveal which type of veal each serves. We called up Consumers Meats to ask what kind of veal they sold, and were given a one-word answer: “nature.” After much pressing, we got the guy to cough up an explanation, which was, in its entirety, “they put them at the bench and raise them special.” They sure do. In fact, Nature Veal is a technical term, and it refers to a Department of Agriculture certification of quality. Not an organic certification, exactly, but the veal’s probably pretty tender.
Moving right along to some Italian restaurants, and why not try Little Italy? We could not have been more charmed by the woman who answered the phone at Bacchanalia, who had an instant answer for us: Casper Foods. When she started rattling off the company’s address (310 N Green St) and phone number, we asked how she knew all this right off the top of her head. Her response? “The guy’s my neighbor!” Sure enough, a call to La Fontanella revealed Casper to be their veal supplier as well. It is good to see that Chicago butchers are supplying Chicago restaurants - makes our heart swell. Is it organic? Almost certainly not, but we sort of feel okay about that.
Finally, we thought we’d see what some Lettuce Entertain You restaurants were doing. TRU and Ambria both have veal on the menu, so we thought, what’s the worst that can happen? After speaking to someone at TRU reception, we were quickly transferred between managers and chefs, none of whom knew where their veal came from, or was authorized to tell us. Eventually, we were connected with a woman at LEYE HQ, who coldly informed us that we would have to leave a voicemail with their public relations manager. Our call was not returned. Once they determined that we were not a customer, they really did not want to have anything to do with us. We don’t entirely blame them - LEYE is a pretty big company, and the press is a dangerous animal (more so than caged calves, even). But what, exactly, did they have to hide?
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[Photo: Organic veal rack from Mondo Di Carne in Australia (sorry; we know how good it looks)]