Food Trends: The Rise of Cheek Meat

Like disgraced heiresses and rehabbed singers, meats vie for their turn in the spotlight. There was a happy time for short ribs, around 2004, when it seemed every restaurant in the nation was serving them in every flavour combination possible (pineapple and broccoli seared short ribs with yuzu aioli?). The fickle dining public sated itself and moved on. Then pork belly filled the niche-protein void. Offal put in a valiant effort, never making much impact beyond liver and sweetbreads; and bone marrow remains too prehistoric for most diners. Yet our fascination with cucina povera (a way of eating imposed by poverty and the need to use every bit of food, common to the mother cuisines of France, Italy, and China) endures; now cheeks are having their culinary moment.

I first encountered cheeks in Karen Barnaby’s cookbook Pacific Passions around 1996. The recipe was for halibut cheeks with homemade potato chips, and I remember wondering who in hell had ever heard of halibut cheeks? I stumbled across them at a fish shop in Victoria a couple of years later (and bought all of them). Cheeks really hit the big time when Thomas Keller started serving them at his Napa restaurant, the French Laundry, in a dish called Tongue in Cheek (braised beef cheek and veal tongue). After he published the recipe in the The French Laundry Cookbook, it was only a matter of time before chefs everywhere tuned in. The real explosion is more recent still. “I think they really started to take off after Dine Out a couple of years ago,” says Jeff Van Geest of Aurora Bistro. “We served them then, and this year I wanted to serve them again but they were all sold-out and presold throughout the event.”

We’re chewing on cheeks today because they’re a palatable extremity, uncommon enough to carry a whiff of extreme-eating cachet but cute enough to make it hard to know if you should eat them or kiss them. They’re good at all times of day, showing up on breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus. (I haven’t seen them on high tea menus yet—salmon cheek and dill mayonnaise finger sandwiches, perhaps?—but I’m sure it’s coming.) Best of all, just about every creature with a face has a pair, and they lend themselves to nearly any preparation, from frying and braising to grilling and roasting. Dino Renaerts, executive chef at Diva at the Met, uses different cheeks in different ways. “With something like beef, pork, or veal you’re usually working with a slow-cooking technique,” he explains, “braising or sous-vide, and that intensifies the flavour component and gives you that tender mouth feel. With seafood cheeks you’ve got something much lighter, and you can do something like a seafood salad. Halibut cheeks go through a real variation in size, starting out small early in the season and then getting bigger. With the early-season fish we’ll do something like a cheek terrine with baby carrots, maybe some pickled ginger and a soya yuzu dressing in an Asian style. Later, we’ll do more of an entrée dish and serve three cheeks on a plate and maybe just pan-sear them with a caper-lemon sauce.”

At Yew Restaurant and Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel, chef Rafael Gonzalez and his staff have been tweaking the cheek, he says, “since the day we opened.” Working with the traditional Italian pairing of pasta and veal, they combine braised cheeks with lumache (snail-shaped pasta), creamed morels, and ribbon-thin slices of semi-hard French Cantal cheese. “At first it was an appetizer, and it was slow to move. I think diners were a bit intimidated by the idea of eating cheek. But the waiters kept pushing it, people started to try it, and it’s become our best-selling dish.” The secret is the eight-hour braising, which renders the cheeks fork-tender and imbues them with the complex braising liquid: veal stock, port, and vinegar, given an unusual, haunting complexity by dried apricots and pears and lime pickle (the tart, salty condiment common in Indian food).

Cheeks are well-suited to Asian preparations; one of my favourites is found at Kingyo Izakaya. The restaurant uses rich, barley-fed pork with delicate, sweetly flavoured cheeks. The novelty of eating them is magnified by the preparation. A large, smoking-hot rock is precariously placed on the narrow counter alongside thin slices of pink meat. Armed only with chopsticks, you’re expected to lay the slices of cheek over the hot stone and let them sizzle and spit. A quick dip in a little ponzu sauce and you’ve got a dish that’s as delicious as it is dangerous.

Cheeks, of course, come in pairs, and using them to garnish a heartier cut works nicely. At Fraîche, the kitchen adds lamb cheeks to a deeply savoury potato hash to go alongside its lemon herb marinated lamb rack. The Cannery pairs similarly braised lamb cheeks in balsamic vinegar with its house-smoked rack of lamb with chickpea and anise galette and Mediterranean vegetable fricassee.

Chefs are getting playful with straight-up surf and turf—on Lift’s summer menu, scallops were paired with a veal cheek ravioli for a kind of Italian variation. At Wonton King, they serve stir-fried pork cheek alongside spicy mixed vegetables. Combine cheeks with equally trendy charcuterie and you have the perfect storm of contemporary cooking. Diva at the Met sits in the eye of this storm, preparing its pork cheek confit-style and serving it with an aromatic spiced basmati rice with pineapple mango chutney and tamarind jus. Boneta offers a cured pork cheek with white asparagus, frisée, gribiche sauce, and pine nuts as a cold appetizer.

For my money, the Cadillac of fish cheeks is halibut. The cheeks glisten in a pristine whiteness, which rivals that of scallops, and has an especially delicate, pure flavour. Chef Hidekazu Tojo at Tojo’s is a master of halibut cheeks and serves them in myriad ways: cooked simply with enoki and shiitake mushrooms, or sautéed with seasonal vegetables and plated with red peppercorns, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese broccoli, and a mandarin orange sauce. A seared halibut cheek hash appears seasonally on the brunch menu at Crave, and Jeff Van Geest at Aurora Bistro also turns to halibut for his halibut cheek schnitzel with Puy lentil ragout and brown butter sauce.

The popularity of cheeks in restaurants is having an effect on butchers and fishmongers. Armando Bacani of Armando’s Finest Meats on Granville Island doesn’t have any cheeks on the day I talk to him. “If you want to order some it takes about a week because the meat comes in from Quebec. There may be some local ones available, but the ones we carry are so good I don’t see any reason to carry any others.” More and more customers are looking for cheeks: “We get more of all these comfort-food cuts, especially during the wintertime. People are realizing that you don’t have to buy the most expensive cuts to have a good meal.”

Halibut cheeks are the most popular among home chefs. Brian Hamatake of Seafood City on Granville Island says, “We have halibut cheeks available all throughout halibut season, which starts in March and runs until November. It’s almost a delicacy now, and the price is about the same as halibut fillets, around $16 a pound. Normally you get about 10 to 12 cheeks to a pound, but a single cheek can get up to a pound on the biggest fish.” How to spot good cheeks? Hamatake suggests looking for those that have a nice shine, and have no fish smell whatsoever.

HOW far can a single kitchen take the cheek mandate? At C Restaurant, I present chef Quang Dang with the challenge of coming up with an all-cheek dinner. His first offering is unlikely: spot prawn cheeks. While I suppose that somewhere in those buggy little faces prawns do in fact have cheeks,

the thought that some apprentice had to spend the entire day with a microscope and a pair of tweezers is a bit depressing. Resting on a wasabi leaf is the pink, crispy fried carapace of a single spot prawn. Beneath the shell, the meat from the entire head (cheeks included) is bound together with a slick black sesame seed aioli. I pick it up taco-style and devour it in one go. It’s a riot of textures: crisp, gelatinous, slippery, and soft.

Next comes a trio of cheeks (spring and sockeye salmon, and tiny Langley trout cheeks) gilded with cilantro emulsion, coconut sorbet, crispy garlic, and coconut pearls. While the subtle variations in flavour are interesting, it is all a bit distracting. The next offering is a pair of pure white halibut cheeks topped with a thin, translucent rhubarb chip and, alongside, hazelnut oil and whole roasted hazelnuts that play off the astringent, woodsy crispness of the rhubarb. Walnuts coat a pair of pork cheeks (the nuts add textural intrigue and the pronounced flavour complements the delicately prepared cheeks) that sit alongside a scallop wrapped in smoked octopus bacon. The dish is a gastronomic illusion: the smokiness associated with pork is delivered through the octopus, and the walnuts combine with the pork to suggest a kind of upscale satay with peanut sauce. All this is served atop a salad of sorrel leaves, morel mushrooms, minuscule maple pearls, a few paper-thin slices of breakfast radish, and a sweet-and-sour black truffle gastrique. A more traditional braised lamb variation follows: the chef has gently braised cheeks overnight and used the meat to fill a single, tender tortellini. Around the plate are great colourful slashes of bright green pea puree and scarlet beet puree. The sweet earthiness of the beets and peas draws out the meatiness in the soft shreds of lamb cheek.

Because I have stuffed my own cheeks so abundantly, dessert looms as a threat more than treat. I cringe at the thought that the infinitely resourceful chef will somehow incorporate cheeks into dessert. Fortunately, he offers blackberry sorbet with a simple rhubarb mousse placed in a crispy meringue.

Are my eyes playing tricks, or does it resemble a blushing cheek?