Primal Napa

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"Have you tried the lamb brains?"

Well, it was just that sort of party. The lamb brains, so I was told, were simply smashing--like meaty custard, in the best possible way.

But the lamb brains weren't the half of it. The outdoor tables at last weekend's first Primal Napa event were a head-to-tail, guts-and-all celebration of going deep with meat. There were the strips of grilled beef heart, for starters, and a whole roasted Musquee de Provence squash stuffed with chunks of pork liver. Then slim slices of headcheese, unctuous slathers of nduja, much salume, even entire smoke-blackened lambs' heads, complete with jutting teeth and curled, fibrous tongues. "Yeah, just gnaw right on the jawbone," advised one chef-jacketed guy behind the table.

Primal Napa - photo by Stacy Cahill

The setting was appropriately rustic, outside on a beautiful autumn afternoon, under the trees and up against the vines at the Chase Cellars' Hayne vineyard in Napa, with hay bales scattered and, for Napa, quite a young and stylish crowd. There was definitely money here, cool money with BMWs parked in the grass, strolling over for scoops of lamb brains and chunks of rare goat right off the bone.


Chris Cosentino at Primal Napa - photo by Stacy CahillBack in the hot zone, surrounded by smoking coals, piles of logs and a whole Mediterranean coastline of fresh rosemary branches was Mr. Meat himself, Incanto and Boccalone's Chris Cosentino, jogging from fire to fire in his flaming orange t-shirt emblazoned "USDA Choice," his voice worn to a rasp. In fact, all the cooks seemed to be having a swell time, getting sweaty and grimy surrounded by fire and meat.

Mopping harissa marinade over a long spitted row of feet-on chickens, nuzzling a flat of eggs into a pillow of hot ash, angling an entire spread-eagled goat (furry hooves intact) over a pile of flaming coals: the concept may have been based in subsistence cooking, but the style was deep in the smoky flair that only flambeing can bring.

The mood was definitely gleeful--meat does that to people--and in a funny way, honest. There was no getting away from the fact that eating here meant eating something that once had a face, because that face, or at least the edible bits of it--the tongue, the cheeks, even the eyeballs--were probably right there on the table next to the legs or ribs or tenderloin. And the animals had a pedigree: ask any cook, and they could tell you where the meat they were roasting came from, who raised it and how.

Elbowing up to the platter of slow-cooked pork Hudson Ranch pork belly (divine), one could eavesdrop on any number of serious discussions about heritage pig breeding. Get distracted for a few moments by the leather-and-chocolate Pinots from Hirsch Vineyards, and the roasted goat legs would be all but picked clean, although a few succulent morsels could always be chiseled off and shared by the kind woman wielding a chef's knife on the other side of the table. This wasn't down-home (the highlights and sunglasses on display were much too expensive for that) but there weren't any waiters or coddling, either. In fact, you had to do a little begging just to score a little paper plate and skimpy napkin. Some of the meat was in bite-sized slices; some was simply hacked up and plattered, letting the hungry pull through the shreds and fat with eager hands and plastic forks. We cooked it, the attitude seemed to be. You figure it out.

Primal Napa - photo by Stacy Cahill

Up front were hands-on displays of rock-star butchering (a cross-coast trend recently chronicled in the New York Times under the headline Slaughterhouse Live) with Fatted Calf founder Taylor Boetticher whipping through a beef forequarter with deft strokes and cool aplomb. Neatly wiggling out the ball of a shoulder, he pointed out that this particular breakdown didn't require too much finesse, since all the meat was destined for sliders, a rough grind of aged meat and creamy fat made into mini-burgers for the hungry hordes. (Too true: with all the variety meats on display, the table handing out hot dogs and burgers was the one with the surging six-deep, hands-out crowd, right from the moment the patties hit the grill.)

Primal Napa - photo by Stacy Cahill

Not surprisingly, the list of participants read like a who's who of current carnivorishness: Fatted Calf, 4505 Meats, Boccalone, Avedano's, Perbacco, Star Meats...and Ubuntu? Wait, that Ubuntu, Napa's famous yoga-studio/vegetarian restaurant, the place my vegan cousin and his new bride had a nearly religious experience over the cauliflower three ways? Thankfully, Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox (not himself a vegetarian) joined the party to show that open fire-cooking can do wonderful things to vegetables, too. There were terra cotta pots brimming with Rancho Gordo beans in spicy broth, slippery whole roasted torpedo onions, and more.

As the sun slipped away and the strings of white lights lit up across the wine-pouring booths, the heavy hitters came out, finally ready after their hours in the hot zone, staked and salted, roasted and smoky. It was primal, and it was delicious.

Sorry, Mr. Foer. You may not eat it any more, but you know how good it can be.

Photos by Stacy Cahill