In the first 10 years of the new century, city-dwelling American diners needed to embrace offal. That was the message coming from a slew of gastropubs opening around the country, focused on nose-to-tail dining using marrow, head meat, and all manner of organs. Foremost among the terrines was chicken liver. At Animal in LA, which opened in 2008, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo “helped to pioneer the use of offal dishes like chicken liver — their signature and only appetizer” writes Bill Esparza. Opened in New York City in 2004, the Spotted Pig, before its staggering fall, also served chicken liver toast, messy and meaty on thick, crusty bread. At Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance, the chicken liver with mostarda and sourdough has been a menu staple for a decade. And it’s remained popular on the menu at Publican in Chicago as well.
These chicken liver presentations tend to be rustic and homey. After all, when they first hit menus, it was a recession and this class of restaurants was out to prove that these cheap cuts were good, actually, and that a quality meal full of tradition and technique didn’t have to come with an expense account. And while these days there are rampant layoffs and wages are stagnant, apparently we’re not in a recession, and this time around, chicken liver is a little more refined. It’s most often seen as a mousse, lovingly piped and fussily plated, and paired with more upscale flavors. It’s an affordable luxury, but you’d never know by looking at it. That’s the point. It looks expensive.
The 2023 chicken liver toast has something unfamiliar from its previous iterations. It might be the plating, as in the showering of herbes de provence at Bar Spero in DC, or the smoothed and garnished plate covered in nuts and fruits at San Francisco’s Cassava. Or the unexpected might come from the flavor pairings: Instead of English- and French-centric mustards and jams, there’s chicken liver mousse with chai spice on rosemary naan at a recent collab between Tim Hollingsworth and Badmaash in LA. At NYC’s Double Chicken Please, chicken liver toast comes with coffee mushroom butter, while Post Haste in Philadelphia swaps toast for a savory Belgian waffle and blueberry caramel. In fact, chicken liver toast is just a whole thing in Philly.
Given that so many diners are already used to your charcuterie basics, chefs feel like they can experiment with chicken liver mousse and create these non-traditional pairings. Cassava general manager Yuka Ioroi says her husband, chef Kris Toliao, has recently been using banana ketchup, a childhood staple for him, with chicken liver. “Because [chicken liver is] traditionally paired with jam, and it’s a cooked down fruit sauce, he thought it’d be more interesting and a different way to show sweet and savory,” she says. Jonas Zukosky, chef de cuisine at Denver’s Hey Kiddo, serves fluted ribbons of chicken liver mousse on Texas toast, topped with crispy tempura, pickled mustard seed, and strawberry vinegar. This isn’t to say simple, familiar preparations aren’t still popping up. New York darling Libertine offers a toasted baguette with either butter or chicken liver mousse.
Along with its unmistakable flavor, cost has always been part of chicken liver’s appeal for chefs. “It’s a pretty affordable menu item you can put on and not lose your tail like you do on everything else,” chef Lee Styer of the Dutch told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Ioroi says it felt like a particularly smart choice in California, where foie gras has had a dicey legal battle, so “it’s the next best thing.”
According to Zukosky, chicken liver is also a no-waste workhorse. “It’s a good vessel for a lot of byproducts that we create throughout the kitchen,” he says. Hey Kiddo gets whole chickens delivered to the kitchen, organs intact, so instead of throwing them away Zukosky is able to use them on the menu beyond the Instagram-favorite toast.
It’s not just a bargain for the restaurant, it’s also a good value for customers. Because chicken liver mousse is so rich, Zukosky says a single toast can serve two to four people. Which makes it a smart indulgence at a time when canned fish and saltines can cost you over $20.
Maybe this is recession food; restaurants tend to see these things coming before the government, anyway. But now, the “unpopular” cuts don’t have to be an exercise in necessity. “Some people have had liver — I grew up eating calf liver, served with onions and potatoes, and it was not good. It tasted like iron and ruined me for wanting to eat [any livers],” says Zukosky. With just a little tweaking and finesse, he regularly overhears customers raving. Chicken liver can be affordable, sustainable, and also a luxury. This time around, restaurants aren’t sacrificing elegance.