Game is the new beef. Sure, rabbit stew and wild duck have long been fall favorites, but the as the locavore and hunt-kill-eat movement continue to gain momentum, more and more wild beasties are showing up on local menus.
“There’s definitely more of a demand as people learn about game,” said Jonni Offenbach, owner of Golden Gate Meats in Santa Rosa. About 10 percent of the restaurant meat purveyor’s businesses is in game, she said. Though you won’t find any truly wild game on restaurant menus (it’s illegal to sell sport-caught game commercially in California), ranch-raised game are lean, vitamin and Omega-3 packed alternatives with rich, winter-worthy flavor.
The most popular game: Rabbit, quail, ground buffalo, venison loin and wild boar shoulders, according to Offenbach. But that’s just the tip of the horn, really. You’ll find everything from antelope to ostrich on local menus.
Keep in mind that game meat is highly perishable and unlike beef or chicken, not to everyone’s taste. Most chefs will feature a dish or two throughout the winter, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it on menus all the time. Below are restaurants that frequently serve game on fall and winter menus, but if you’ve got a serious craving, call ahead and make sure they’re serving these wild-side dishes.
Want to try your own hand at game? Bud’s Custom Meats (7750 Petaluma Hill Rd., Penngrove, 795-8402)carries a variety of game including ground buffalo, rabbit, wild boar, deer and elk.Be assured that what you’re eating at a restaurant or from a grocery store isn’t someone’s hunting trophy. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, it is illegal to sell “sport caught” meat (meaning anything that hasn’t been raised on a ranch or processed under FDA supervision) commercially in the state of California.St. Francis Annual Wild Game Dinner, Nov 19
Executive Chef David Bush serves up duck confit spring rolls, mini buffalo burgers, smoked trout, braised shoulder of wild boar, roasted rack of venison with reds and whites from the winery. Reservations Required, $125.00 Public, $99.00 Wine Club Members (+tax
Rabbit: Though it’s technically considered “game”, rabbit is quickly becoming about as exotic as chicken. Fast-breeding and economical, rabbits are high in protein, extremely low in fat. The flavor is similar to the dark meat on a chicken, and frequently found on European-inspired menus. Americans sometimes eschew the meat because of the “cute” factor of rabbits, but its lean, delicate meat is quickly making it a restaurant darling. You’ll most often find it braised or stewed, though the saddle and loin are popular cuts. Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit — a bacon-wrapped loin, roasted rack and confit of leg– has become a perennial favorite at Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant.
Find it: K&L Bistro (119 South Main St.,Sebastopol, 823-6614), Bistro Des Copains (3782 Bohemian Highway, Occidental, 874-2436), Riviera Ristorante (75 Montgomery Drive
Santa Rosa, 579-2682) Barndiva (231 Center St. Healdsburg, 431-0100), Della Santina (spit-roasted rabbit with herbs, rabbit with pappardelle noodles, 133 East Napa St., Sonoma, 935-0576); Madrona Manor (Cloverdale rabbit with chanterelle mushrooms, 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg, (800) 258-4003).
Wild Boar: Feistier and hairier than their barnyard cousins, wild boar are the original heritage breed. The most popular of “game” meats for restaurants, most consumers are willing to chance it on this lean, dark red meat whose flavor profile only a baby-step away from pork. Expect to see it braised in stews and ragus, as the low fat content lends itself well to long-cooking and intensely-flavored sauces. Chefs like John Stewart of Zazu Restaurant (3535 Guerneville Rd, Santa Rosa, 523-4814) are also using wild boar for sausage and burgers (boar burgers with Zazu “Q” is on the menu). Porcineophile chefs like Ari Rosen of Healdsburg’s Scopa (109 Plaza, St #A, Healdsburg, 433-5282) are fans of Magruder Ranch in Mendocino County where a European wild boar and local wild boars feed and forage on the 2400-acre Potter Valley property.
Restaurants where you’ll frequently find wild boar on the menu: Scopa, Diavola (21021 Geyserville Ave, Geyserville, 814-0111) Riviera, Zazu Restaurant, K&L Bistro, Cafe Europe (104 Calistoga Rd., Santa Rosa, 538-5255), Lococo’s Cucina Rustica (117 4th St., Santa Rosa, 523-2227).
Bison: Though they were nearly hunted into extinction, the American bison (also known as buffalo), are now ranch-raised like cattle. Their extremely lean meat has about half the calories of beef and is very high in protein. Because there’s so little fat, bison steaks are rarely found, but makes for excellent burgers. And that’s the problem as well: Many ranches limit the number of animals they slaughter each year, and once the ground meat is gone, it’s gone. “It’s hard to get,” said Chris Peterson of Bud’s Custom Meats.
Find it at: Matchbox Diner food truck (matchboxdiner.com for locations), Brody’s Burgers & Brews who have featured a variety of exotic burgers, including ostrich and a cricket burger, 3135 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa, 526-4878, Brown St. Island Grill (100 Brown St., Sebastopol, 824-4800), Johnny Garlic’s (bourbon buffalo meatloaf, “Hunter’s Creation”, a rotating lineup of alligator, buffalo, elk, venison, quail, ostrich, pheasant, wild boar and rabbit, 1460 Farmers Lane
Santa Rosa, 528-6368).
Pheasant and Quail: Both of these game birds have delicate flavors and textures, making them popular with chefs. Because of the quail’s tiny size, they’re often served as appetizers. Find them at: Dry Creek Kitchen (317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 431-0330), Zazu, Diavola, Bistro des Copains. Squab (aka pigeon) comes and goes on menus, but is a richer alternative to chicken.
Elk and Venison: If you’re not a venison fan, chances are your Uncle Henry forced some of his gamey hunter’s catch on you. Ranch-raised deer have a less funky flavor with the dark crimson richness that makes wild meat so desirable. Elk, which is harder to find, has a sweet flavor with a dark and coarse texture. These meats are best left to the pros for optimal preparation. Find them: Farmhouse Inn (Roasted Elk Tenderloin with huckleberry sauce); Madrona Manor (venison tenderloin with Estate beets, chicory).
What, no duck? Though they were once considered game, commercial ducks have become domesticated animals that have little in common with their wild brethren. Their rich, ruby meat lend itself best to searing or confit. You’ll find Sonoma County’s Liberty Ducks, raised by Petaluma’s Jim Reichardt or Salmon Creek Ranch’s Muscovy ducks at dozens of local restaurants.