Patrick Martins summed it up in a single slab: pork belly. “That’s the cut that people ask for the most,” he said. “Evidently they can’t find it in their supermarkets.”
No, they cannot. And that is just one reason why Mr. Martins opened a real butcher shop on the Lower East Side last month.
He’s not the only one. Butcher shops, once a vestige, are opening in many New York neighborhoods where buying meat has often been reduced to staring down a sea of plastic-wrapped foam trays. These new stores offer much more. To make the most of them, though, a basic understanding of the butcher’s craft is essential.
Buying some pork or most other meats is not as simple or as cheap as picking out an apple. Do not tweet your friends for advice; consult the butcher.
“Here, you can have a conversation with a human being, and I can tell you that every transaction is different,” said Brent Young, one of the butchers at the Meat Hook in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This no-frills workroom in the shadowy rumble of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway goes a long way to dispel the notion that a dedicated butcher shop is an elitist venue for those times you want a prime T-bone to impress the in-laws.
How you plan to cook the meat determines the cut. And the quantity for a serving will be based how it will be trimmed, and what else you are serving. If the meat you think you want is not available or too expensive, the butcher can offer alternatives.
“We can offer cuts you never see in a supermarket,” Mr. Young said. “Cheap cuts. Customers on a budget come in asking for ideas, they want other options.” To make the most of the animals, the Meat Hook’s butchers went to France for two weeks last spring to learn how butchering is done there, and discovered little portions of succulence that could be ferreted out of parts of a steer, like the merlot steak and the oyster steak. (Remember that it was the French who popularized the hanger steak, which now is sometimes sold in better supermarkets.)
For those whose appetites stray beyond steak, a culinary adventure in the way of oxtails, marrow bones, kidneys, pig’s ears and trotters starts with the butcher, usually after a phone call in advance. You also need a butcher for some less exotic items like brisket that is fattier and juicier than the more easily found lean first cut.
“Our restaurant features nose-to-tail dining so we break down whole animals,” said Christian Pappanicholas, an owner of Cannibal, the new butcher attached to Resto, a meat-centric restaurant in Murray Hill, in Manhattan. “And if a customer wants to buy certain cuts they’ve had here to cook at home, like lamb neck, we can sell it.”
It’s a major turnaround in the way meat has been bought and sold. Some 40 or so years ago, beef was shipped to New York’s meatpacking district in the form of whole carcasses, or “rail beef.” Then the big Midwestern packing houses started shipping what was called “boxed beef,” primal cuts packed in Cryovac. Now, butchers like those at Cannibal are carving whole animals again, and not just for beef.
Joshua and Jessica Applestone founded Fleisher’s in Kingston, N.Y., and even taught butchering to chefs and customers. They just opened a branch in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for their growing roster of New York City customers.
There are others: Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, previously available only online, with a shop in the Chelsea Market; Marlow & Daughters, a spin-off of the Marlow & Sons restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Tiberio Custom Meats, which has a shop at Sauce, a new restaurant on the Lower East Side, and plans to open in Brooklyn; and Japan Premium Beef on Bond Street in NoHo, specializing in ultra-tender wagyu, cut for Asian recipes.
This phenomenon is not limited to New York City. In other cities, butchers are also opening, including Barbara Lynch’s Butcher Shop in Boston, the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, Calif., Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis, and Chop Butchery and Charcuterie in Portland, Ore.
DeBragga, once strictly a wholesaler in the meatpacking district, now has a retail store online as well as a new service feature, a telephone hot line for customers so they can discuss the meat before they click the mouse. There are also butchers at some Greenmarkets now, selling meat and poultry from farms in the region.
And it’s not just for the fresh pork belly, suddenly in demand thanks to cookbooks, chefs and television. It is also for other cuts of meat like crown roasts of lamb, whole veal shanks, pork cheeks, cross-rib roasts, lamb riblets, beef ribs for the barbecue, sweetbreads, lamb tongues, pork livers and even goat or rabbit that tempt home cooks but are too specialized or unusual for supermarkets.
There’s a fresh-meat counter at Eataly, where an order for a whole boned pig for porchetta or a proper Florentine tagliata steak is not an impossible request.
At his new Heritage Meat Shop, Mr. Martins can sell pork belly because his company, Heritage Foods USA, buys whole animals and uses everything. “We’re about nose-to-tail,” he said. “We buy 200 pigs each week and we sell a lot of it to chefs, but there are cuts they don’t particularly buy so we have to make the most of them. Smoked porterhouse pork chops is one of them.” Cue the choucroute recipe.
Heritage Meat Shop is one of several latter-day butchers that seek out breeds of cattle or hogs other than those favored by industrial meat packers. Berkshire pork, for instance, has more fat but more flavor, and the butcher will also have fatback to sell you to line a rich terrine, or skin to fry for cracklings to whet appetites with the margaritas.
These days, veal that is rosy, not ivory, because it comes from pastured animals and not young calves chained in a box is increasingly appreciated. The DeBragga Web site describes where and how the veal was raised.
“We’ve just started selling veal,” said Jake Dickson of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. “Ethics and quality were the issues. Our veal is more like young beef than old-fashioned veal.”
Once you accept humanely raised veal, it’s time to consider a number of options that have been largely off some tables for many years. If a solid veal rump roast is going to break the budget, consider a plump, well-trimmed veal neck roast. Or a handsome whole veal shank, a succulent joint of meat that’s usually sliced up for osso buco but makes for a presentation worthy of Henry VIII. Try veal “oxtails” or brisket, which are more tender and cook faster than beef.
Or use the breast, and make sure you ask the butcher to bone it for you. Some new customers who have never bought meat where that kind of service is included in the (typically higher) price can discover other benefits. They can arrange to bring in their own herbed bread crumb and garlic mixture, and the butcher will stuff, roll and tie the roast. How many home cooks can handle a length of butcher’s string as deftly, quickly and neatly as the person behind the meat counter?
Getting to know a bona-fide butcher at a bigger food market like Eataly or Fairway may wind up saving you money. Not only can you explore cheaper but worthwhile cuts, you will get just the amount of meat you need, trimmed just so, instead of settling for some packaged quantity with the attractive pieces layered on top.
Even at Lobel’s, a carriage trade butcher that has been on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side for 60 years, customer tastes are changing. “With the struggling economy, people want different options,” said Evan Lobel, the fifth-generation butcher who now runs the company. “They want more braising cuts like lamb breast, veal breast and lamb riblets.”
A butcher like Lobel’s, which prides itself on customer service, will ask how you want your short ribs. There are several options: in chunks across the bone as for flanken, or with longer bones, English-style, which are also good for Texas barbecue and some Korean recipes.
Boning short ribs for stew is a tricky job that you can leave to the butcher, who would also be able to slice some beef for Korean bulgogi, paper-thin. For the Argentine stuffed steak, matambre, you need a pocket cut in a whole flank steak. Will your knives and skills take you that far?
When you deal with a butcher, asking for center cut, a particular thickness in something as simple as filet mignon, the amount of fat on a steak, lamb chops to be Frenched and taking home the trimmings to use in some recipe is routine. And unless you happen to own a bandsaw, so is slicing off the chine bone, part of the backbone that’s attached to the ribs.
Perhaps you would like some of the silver skin peeled off that leg of lamb or whole filet or beef, or your rib roast or rack of veal boned but tied back onto the bones for flavor. A butcher will comply but also advise if you are in doubt. Take in your recipe and go over it with the butcher — just not at 5 p.m. on a Friday when there’s a line out the door.
While the best way to buy fish is to see what looks good in the market that day, it pays to call the butcher at least a day ahead to find out whether a particular cut is available, to ask what else might be suitable and perhaps to place an order.
“We’re finding that one of the things we have to do is retrain the customer on how to shop,” Mr. Fox said. Merely setting foot in a store like Fleisher’s as you provision for dinner is a first step.