Are We Ready for an Aspic Comeback?
Maison Nico is a new pâtisserie and market in San Francisco's Jackson Square, where delicacies like pâté en croûte, terrine, and brioche feuilletée compete for one's attention. Then again, everything pales in comparison to them. The lacquered, artfully layered half-domes. The aspics. If you're not accustomed to thinking of aspic as an object of desire, chef Nicholas Delaroque aims to change that. "Most people are familiar with pâté, but the aspic is the eye-catcher," he says. "Once people discover it, they really enjoy it."
What makes sense for a Frenchman may not to the average American. Many consider aspic, a savory meat jelly by most definitions, to be a relic of the 1950s. The dish gets its texture from slowly cooked, gelatinous animal or fish parts, which form a broth that can be clarified with egg whites. Occasionally, aspic acts as a layer in pâté or terrine. Most commonly, it is the jelly encasing cubed or shredded meat, vegetables, and sometimes fish or hard-boiled eggs.
In vintage cookbooks, aspic is showcased as a grand centerpiece that gets its shape from an elaborate jello mold. These images often make the rounds as nostalgic memes, and the dish is occasionally mocked on TikTok. Kholodetz, the Eastern European spin on aspic, is the star of a Buzzfeed video called "Americans Try Weird Russian Foods for the First Time." And yet, Delaroque is hardly alone in making aspic bold and beautiful again, as many newly opened restaurants around the U.S. are gearing for the dish's most glamorous comeback yet.
At Maison Nico, the elaborate aspics look nothing like the yellow jello blobs of yesteryear—one is pescetarian, containing lobster and snapper, and another stars cabbage, Guinea hen legs, and vadouvan.
Equally thoughtful and gourmet versions have recently emerged across the country. At the newly opened Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, AZ, guests can sample a layered lobster flan topped with seaweed-flavored aspic. In Chicago, newcomer Dear Margaret serves pork terrine set in aspic, breaded and deep-fried on top of creamed spinach, and chef Ryan Epp, at the just-opened Chicago outpost of Verve Wine, plans to add an aspic special soon. (During past stints at Per Se and Roister, Epp crafted an aspic featuring turbot, and another with suckling pig.) Seattle's butcher shop Beast and Cleaver and its restaurant The Peasant, open since late 2020, offer jambon persille, a traditional ham hock terrine in aspic from Burgundy, as part of its charcuterie program, along with aspic-laden pâtés.
Even restaurants that aren't new are currently adding aspic to the roster. At the San Francisco institution SPQR, a starter of pork, salami, and mortadella terrine encased in a "gelatina" of clarified apple cider was just added to the menu. At Washington D.C's Convivial, for Mother's Day and beyond, expect to find crabcakes with a spicy tomato aspic. A fish-forward terrine in aspic, flavored with fennel and tomato, has recently appeared at Napa Valley's fine-dining establishment Press.
To what do we owe this aspic renaissance? Part of the story is meat-loving chefs who, empowered by the nationwide craze for charcuterie, have been feeling emboldened to take matters to the next level. "Once I get the hooks in and get the customers' trust, they will try other weird things I'll put on the menu," says Dear Margaret's chef Ryan Brosseau. Aspic is the new shiny thing for Brosseau, who has "a reputation for charcuterie" and has experimented plenty with head cheese in the past. Deep-frying it helps, he says.
There's also the familiar refrain of the pandemic slowing everything down, turning the focus back to laborious, elaborate cooking projects. "Customers really enjoy our aspic and are always curious about what it is and how it's made," says Kevin Smith from Beast and Cleaver. "When they realize it takes three to five days to make a single batch of aspic, they really appreciate the skill, time, technique, and amount of effort. Currently, old-school, classical techniques are getting a lot of attention."
Bonnie Morales of Portland' Russian mega-hit Kachka should know. She's been serving kholodetz, which she calls "meat jello," on the restaurant's menu on and off since opening in 2014. It's also in Kachka's cookbook.
"I think there's always a pendulum swing of what's fashionable, and now there's just a little bit of a swing towards exploring foods and its origins," she says. What's more "origin" than veal legs and pig trotters cooked for hours on end? Morales also suggests that the bone broth wellness craze could have helped make bones more appetizing to more people.
Hiroyuki Tanaka, the chef and owner of Zama in Philadelphia, has been serving a different version of aspic for years—nikogori, a traditional Japanese jellied fish broth. "Over the past year we have seen more interest in things like mochi and coffee jelly in general, as they have become more popular and mainstream," he says. "I think that people's growing familiarity with Japanese cuisine in general might make them more apt to try aspic."
Arguably, aspic takes Japanese, Korean, and other dessert textures increasingly beloved by the American palate and insanely popular on social media into savory territory, and perhaps, we're finally ready. I ask aspic veteran Morales if that might be the case. "That's probably related," she says. "If you think of agar and jellies, bubble teas, overall—right now, for us as a country there's a heightened awareness to try something new being open to more different textures." Whatever the reason, aspic is here to stay, and this time, we're finally ready to take it seriously."