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Originally published Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Taste

Local butchers reconnect to a lost time, lost skills

Local butchers are making a comeback in Seattle, sharing their knowledge of less-familiar cuts of meat and how to prepare them best. Along the way, says former chef-turned butcher John Neumark, they're connecting the dots back to a time before food became industrialized and creating true communities along the way.

photographed by Dean Rutz

THE NEIGHBORHOOD butcher is back.

It's not the uncomplicated, white-aproned figure of our parents' or grandparents' era. It's also not the hot new "rock star butcher" making national headlines for wild tattoos and butchering parties, though Seattle has those, too.

Instead, it's the face of a chef — specifically, chef John Neumark, longtime head of the kitchen at Serafina. He's now what he calls the "meat tender" at Bill the Butcher in Laurelhurst, one of five shops in a fast-growing local chain. (Russ Flint, former sous chef at Boat Street Café, is manning the lauded new Rain Shadow Meats on Capitol Hill, Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Gabriel Claycamp has founded The Swinery in West Seattle, and other shops are popping up.)

In the years since supermarkets replaced greengrocers and butchers, home cooks lost out on the variety and knowledge that such specialists used to share. Not too many people were left to explain that there is plenty more to a cow than hamburger and prime rib, that less familiar cuts are cheaper and even tastier if you know what to do with them.

There aren't a lot of cheerleaders in the average supermarket, for instance, for beef tongue. But Neumark argues passionately that tongue makes the best sandwich around, once it's salted and boiled in court bouillon and the outer skin removed.

"It is sort of daunting-looking," Neumark concedes. But if the big . . . floppy appearance is really too much, he offers up lamb tongues instead, teensy by comparison, which he vows will taste great when simply grilled and added to salads.

He warns against roasting the chickens in his refrigerator case, from Carnation's Dog Mountain Farm. The meat is top-quality and full of flavor, Neumark says, but the exercise the birds get toughens the meat; stews are the way to make them shine.

He could sell flank steak all day, but why? Skirt steak is half the price, with a more interesting texture and more complex flavor. Even short ribs, the darlings of fancy restaurants, aren't the easiest retail sell, until Neumark rattles off directions for oven-braising them.

The Laurelhurst store has done well since opening a few months ago, despite nearby competitors from Safeway to PCC Natural Markets. There's already surprising demand for a freezer case filled with bins bearing labels like "offal" and "bunnies."

The butcher's return has, though, brought out issues his '50s counterparts never faced: Bill's was founded on a commitment to local-sustainable-organic foods, and its co-founder and CEO is J'Amy Owens, a retail guru with an eye for such sizzling trends. (The Bill of the store's name is co-founder William Von Schneidau.) But the chain was either unclear or incorrect in some of its food labels, The Stranger reported earlier this year, and the owners initially declined to list their suppliers — a bizarre stand for a business built on such ideals. (It has since released a supplier list and labeled its meats, blaming the missteps on its fast expansion.)

But Neumark does see his 800-square-foot domain as a connection to days past. He thinks of his niche as having a personal relationship with customers and avoiding the mass-market food chain, "connecting the dots back to a time before food became industrialized."

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And, he's found, the neighborhood butcher has to do with even more than the meat. It's having a place to work and shop within walking distance, where neighbors and regulars from places like Seattle Children's hospital can mingle, where he feels he's helping build a true community instead of just somewhere to live.

Years ago, he said, there was a butcher shop in Laurelhurst, in the space where Jak's Grill stands now. It was across the street and it had no connection to Bill's, but that doesn't matter. People still come in with wide smiles, saying, "It's great that you're back."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer. Dean Rutz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Braised Short Ribs

Serves 4

3 ½ pounds grass-fed beef short ribs, cut into 2-inch pieces

Salt

Fresh-ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 small onions, peeled and quartered

2 carrots, peeled and cut in large pieces

1 celery stalk, peeled and quartered

6 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

6 thyme sprigs

4 parsley sprigs

1 bay leaf

3 tomatoes, cored and quartered

¾ cup red wine

2 cups chicken or beef broth

1. Season short ribs with salt and pepper (if possible, do this a day in advance). Cover and refrigerate until an hour before cooking.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place short ribs in a roasting pan in a single layer, bone side down. Roast 25 to 30 minutes to brown the meat and render some fat. Remove from the oven, pour off fat, and set pan aside.

3. While ribs are roasting, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, parsley and bay. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook five minutes more, then add wine and broth and bring to a simmer.

4. Remove short ribs from roasting pan and pour the contents of the skillet into the pan. Place ribs on top of vegetables, bone side up. Cover tightly with a lid or foil, and return to hot oven. After about 20 minutes, when the liquid just begins to bubble, lower heat to 325 degrees and loosen the lid or foil to vent heat so the liquid doesn't boil. Continue braising another 60 to 90 minutes, until meat is tender and starts falling off the bone.

5. Lift ribs out of braising liquid and set aside. Strain liquid, pressing down with the back of a spoon on the vegetables to extract all the juices. Discard vegetables. Allow braising liquid to settle and skim off fat. Taste the liquid; if it has reduced too much or is salty, add water.

6. Reheat short ribs in braising liquid just before serving.

— from "The Art Of Simple Food" by Alice Waters

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