When it comes to game meat, duck jumped the shark a generation ago. From ethnic spots to fine dining restaurants, domestically raised duck is such a familiar protein that most wouldn’t even categorize it as game anymore.
The same isn’t so for bison, venison, game birds or wild boar. All have made inroads, but remain niche proteins. Compared to duck, which is found on 14.7 percent of menus nationwide, most varieties of game appear on fewer than 2 percent of menus according to foodservice research firm Datassential.
Some signs, though, are pointing to change. Many chefs want sustainable options, like the lower environmental impact of grass-fed game meats. Many game meats are leaner, such as bison and elk, which are drawing customers seeking healthier choices. These proteins also appeal to diners “looking to climb the next rung on the foodie ladder,” says Amanda Barnes, executive chef of Hot Chocolate in Chicago.
Which meats are ready to dominate? Chefs make a case for their favorite game.
Bison is only on 1.2 percent of menus nationwide, but its frequency has jumped 50 percent since 2010, according to Datassential. For Executive Chef Ben Jones of The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Montana, bison has already broke out of the pack, outselling duck.
“Almost every guest says they love bison, and they appreciate that mine is local,” he says.
At Pomp, the resort’s upscale restaurant, Jones has year-round demand for bison rib-eye, New York strip and fillet. Rib-eye and New York strip steaks are grilled, but fillets are butter-basted to avoid toughening the lean cut. Because the cuts are lean overall, they are not cooked past medium. If a guest requests medium-well, Jones suggests beef instead because it’s more forgiving.
Bison is also a favorite protein at Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colorado. Executive Chef Jeff Bolton purchases a monthly side of bison, usually just shy of 800 pounds. The meat is portioned into steaks, smoked, dry-aged or ground for meatloaf. For beer dinners, he buys a whole bison, working the meat into every course. Bison steak, he says, benefits from aging, which enhances the texture.
“It’s so lean that it might be a little chewy compared to beef but the dry-aging process helps tenderize the meat,” he says.
As beef prices continue to climb and poultry and egg costs rise due to the worst avian flu outbreak in U.S. history, game prices don’t seem out of line. Compared with other game, birds are often more versatile, says Dakota Weiss, chef-owner of Estrella in West Hollywood, California. “The birds soak up all different flavors,” she says. “They’re great in summer and winter.”
Weiss, whose grandparents raised pheasants, makes game birds a regular part of her menu. For Cobb salad with squab, she air dries the bird for three days to get a crisp skin while it’s roasting. She then mixes leg meat into the salad and tops it with sliced breast meat. “You’re eating poultry, but you feel like it’s so much bigger than that,” Weiss says.
Game birds also have a home at Hot Chocolate, where Barnes rotates squab, quail, grouse and pheasant. She brines the birds to increase their moisture content and also hangs them overnight in the walk-in for a crispier skin. She then stuffs the bird for menu appeal and to keep food costs in line. Quail gets rye bread and pistachio stuffing, while squab is filled with cornbread and shishito peppers.
"Curing and smoking helps create a nice texture even when the meat is on the rare side."
-Executive Chef John Cox at Sierra Mar
“Putting stuffing into squab or quail and pairing it with a seasonal vegetable is the trifecta of tasting good, being affordable and being approachable,” Barnes says.
VENISON AND ELK
As more diners seek leaner, nutritionally dense meat options, venison and elk are becoming more than special occasion choices. At Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, Executive Chef John Cox uses venison and elk for everything from carpaccio to braised shanks. While elk tends to be larger with slightly more marbling than venison, both are extremely lean. Cox lightly cures elk flank steak with sea salt and fennel pollen for an hour before cold smoking it. The steak is then quickly seared and basted with butter or bacon fat.
“The curing and smoking helps create a nice texture even when the meat is on the rare side,” Cox says.
For Chef-owner Eric Donnelly’s second Seattle restaurant, FlintCreek Cattle Co., he plans to feature less familiar meat varieties, such as venison and elk, due to their lower carbon footprint and high yield. Donnelly has had luck using the meat as carpaccio and for rib-eye as a grilled entree, along with braising elk cheeks.
Like Cox, Donnelly believes getting game right is all about technique, especially when grilling steaks. “Without the fat content, it’s not as forgiving,” he says. Braising, however, is less of an issue because the meat and bones make gelatinous stock.
“Cooking (beef) steaks all night is not that exciting, but when you’re working different meats all the time, it makes you a better cook,” he says.
Whole-hog butchery has been embraced by chefs, which positions wild boar to benefit from this porcine devotion. For a center of the plate game meat, John Hogan is partial to venison. But for charcuterie, he favors wild boar. “When it comes to making sausage or pate, the boar has a really unique sweet pork flavor,” says the executive chef of River Roast in Chicago, whose charcuterie plate includes game options like smoked boar shoulder terrine.
Wild boar is no secret among Italian chefs, who have long appreciated the rich, sweet meat. At Piccolo Sogno, also in Chicago, 50 pounds of wild boar goes into ragu, which Chef-owner Tony Priolo serves with pappardelle, polenta or risotto.
Priolo buys shoulder or neck portions, which are marinated overnight in red wine, red wine vinegar, orange, cinnamon and juniper berries. The meat and marinade are braised with mirepoix and finished with meat broth and tomato.
“This is on our menu all year-round,” he says. “If I don’t have it, we’re in trouble.”
Kate Leahy is an Oakland, California-based writer and cookbook author. Follow her on Twitter @KateLeahy.
Snap Kitchen, a healthy takeaway concept in Texas and Chicago, offers bison in four dishes including a bison breakfast bowl with maple-apple bison sausage, a bison quinoa hash and a bun-less bison burger with an over-easy egg. All are popular, particularly the hash, which also has brown rice, quinoa and kidney beans. So what’s the appeal?
“Bison is lower in total fat, lower in calories, higher in good essential fats and high in iron compared to beef,” says Daniel Magoon, Snap Kitchen’s registered dietitian. But the real driver is the bison. “You’re giving people a different flavor and approach that’s a little trendier.”