As the dining public’s interest in the exotic continues to grow, and in the face of rising prices for most mainstream meats, a growing number of restaurants are turning to game meat as a point of distinction, as a move to add local color to the menu, or simply because it tastes good.
The elk strip loin at Rev at the Hotel Madeline in Telluride, Colo., is, at $36, by far the best seller during the winter holidays, according to chef Bud Thomas. He simply seasons the loin with salt and pepper, sears it and serves it with parsnip foam, parsnip chips and lemon-fried Brussels sprouts.
“Because we’re a ski destination and we’re up at 10,000 feet and in the woods, I think the No. 1 thing they’re looking for is elk,” Thomas said of his customers.
He gets the elk from local ranches when it’s available. Otherwise, he gets it from producers as far away as New Zealand, which provides much of the deer and elk eaten in the United States.
Thomas said that the larger domestic animals have a richer flavor, while New Zealand varieties tend to be sweeter.
David Schmidt, chef of Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., agrees that elk has particular appeal in the area, as does venison. The resort actually has deer living on the property, and elk can be seen a 20-minute drive away. Schmidt said that rather than turning his guests off to the prospect of eating them, seeing the animals nearby seems to encourage customers to order them.
He marinates both venison leg and elk loin in red wine with thyme, garlic and shallots. Then he dusts the venison with ground juniper and the elk with pepper, and grills them. He charges $44 for the venison and $42 for the elk.
At Hotel Madeline’s more casual Smak Bar, Thomas serves a Buffalo Buffalo Burger, which he said gives him the an opportunity to use the ground bison of local producers who have no trouble selling their prime cuts but often have an excess of ground product. “It’s a good opportunity to use the ground at volume,” he said.
Thomas said the burger, which is flavored Buffalo-wing style with domestic blue cheese and hot sauce, sells well at $14.
Paying for flavor
In general, game meat prices can be high, chefs report.
Enchantment Resort's Schmidt noted that his wholesale price for buffalo loin is $34-$36 per pound, and he charges $52 for his bison tenderloin, which he marinates with thyme, garlic and shallots and seasons with salt and pepper. But even at that price, Schmidt said buffalo is the best selling of the three items and is only outsold by the sea bass and beef filet on the menu.
Dirk Flanigan, chef of Henri and The Gage restaurants in Chicago, is a champion of game meat despite its cost. “It’s very important to me where our food comes from and what these things eat,” he said. “Given a choice, a rabbit or deer will eat right.”
“Caribou’s one of the best meats available,” he continued. “Its diet is blackberry and sage in the wild,” he noted, which he said contributes to its delicious flavor. However, because of high fuel costs, caribou is now too expensive for him to serve.
Still, at Henri, Flanigan always offers a game of the day, and at a recent fundraiser he prepared an elk loin with eggnog purée, pine reduction and kale. To make the purée, he added an extra egg to the eggnog, cooked it like a custard, puréed it and squirted it from a canister charged with nitrous oxide.
He made the pine reduction was by combining elk bone, veal stock and red wine and reducing it with juniper branches and rosemary. Flanigan finished it with a bruised juniper branch that he steeped in the sauce for ten minutes.
At Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, chef-owner Jonathon Sawyer was serving local deer that was bow-hunted during hunting season, which just ended.
“We love all the cuts but used mainly the hind quarter and back straps,” he said. The individual muscle and accompaniment varied from night to night, but one preparation, served as a $12 appetizer, was served with semolina gnocchi and sauerkraut.
“We also have wild ducks coming into season soon,” he said. “One of our favorite ways to utilize local ducks is to make a beautiful duck meatball with aged duck and aged beef fat. It's a great way to extend the product and offer it to more customers without breaking the bank.”
Christopher Kufek, chef of Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, Calif., uses game ranging from squab to elk to antelope.
Kufek said his antelope comes from Texas and is similar to pork although leaner and thus potentially tough. So he brines the short loin in 3 percent vinegar and 7 percent salt. Then he dries it in his walk-in for 20 to 30 minutes, grills it over mesquite, and serves it with cauliflower or a root vegetable, as well as a fruit, such as apple or poached pear, and a truffle pork sauce. He charges between $46 and $50 for the dish.
Chains get game
Game is not only popular among independent restaurants. Better burger chains such as Burger Lounge, The Counter and Bareburger have started to offer bison, elk, wild boar and ostrich  on their menus, following a tradition that Fuddruckers started  years ago.
“We decided to offer game meats at Bareburger — elk, ostrich and wild boar — in order to bring a variety to our guests that they can't find in a lot of places,” Bareburger chief executive Euripides Pelekanos said in an e-mal. “We're big fans of these meats for a number of reasons. Both elk and ostrich are quite lean, for example, and they're healthy alternatives to beef burgers. Wild boar is definitely a meat-lover's choice — it's got a higher fat content but packs big flavor. For a lot of our guests, an ostrich, elk or wild boar patty at Bareburger is their first experience with these meats, which is what gets us excited as both chefs and fans of good food.”
Pelekanos said those three meats account for about 20 percent of burger sales total, and bison makes up another 20 percent, which is about double turkey sales and four times the sale of lamb burgers.
Casual-dining chain Seasons 52 also has added venison to its winter menu for the past few years. Last year it introduced a grilled venison chop on venison and mushroom ragout with truffle-mashed potatoes, which is being reprised this year.
“I’ve always found it interesting to cook these meats, and they’re so readily available,” said Flanigan, who has been offering elk saddle at The Gage since the restaurant opened nearly six years ago. Although the restaurant’s top sellers are burgers, fish and chops, the elk is “up there with the rib eye,” he said. “It sells like crazy.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] .
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