With venison, buffalo, and squab now offered on mainstream menus, fans are getting wild with their dinner orders.
When the first Ted’s Montana Grill opened in Columbus, OH, in January, 2000, CEO George McKerrow assumed that the bison menu items would account for maybe 20% of sales. An industry veteran, McKerrow had been trying to bring bison to the mass market for years, but his former employers didn’t think the public was ready to order buffalo over beef—especially in casual dining. So when initial sales figures came in closer to 60% for the bison entrees, he and partner Ted Turner knew their timing was right.
“Until they taste it, people think bison has a gamy flavor. But our animals are grass-fed and ranched very much like beef cattle so the meat is similar in taste and texture,” McKerrow explains. Since bison is naturally leaner, correct cooking is key to acceptance, too. “Buffalo meat and other game has the reputation of being dry. We slow roast most of the cuts and dome our burgers to keep the meat juicy,” he adds.
Four years and 29 additional units later, Ted’s has established itself as the casual restaurant for bison. The burgers, steaks, short ribs, and pot roast can all be ordered in either buffalo meat or beef versions, but chainwide sales of bison-based items still reach 50%. Men over age 50 and women are among the primary consumers—the very same demographic that was most resistant during focus group testing. Top sellers are the bison burgers, with bison meat loaf and pot roast following close behind. All come in on the lower end of the $6-$24 price range for entrees. Primal cuts like the tenderloin filet, Kansas City strip steak, prime rib, and ribeye are on the more expensive side. Since Ted Turner is the largest bison rancher in the U.S. and supplies the meat, food costs are kept under control.
McKerrow is especially proud of his success with the less expensive secondary cuts. “These were more difficult to bring to the table, but they’ve gradually grown in popularity. The primal cuts have long been offered by fine-dining chefs, and there’s more acceptance there,” he says.
One of these chefs is David Woolley, the man currently behind the stove at The Fort—the historic 350-seat restaurant outside Denver, CO, that has been a destination for game since it opened in 1963. Today, he serves over 60,000 buffalo entrees annually, along with a good portion of elk, quail, and other “wild” birds and animals typical of “early West” cuisine.
Around 65%-70% of The Fort’s customers order game on any given night, Woolley estimates, and he goes out of his way to make the experience memorable. For buffalo entrees like Uncle Dick’s Buffalo New York Strip ($36.95 for 14 oz.) and Scout Jim Baker’s Mountain Man Steak ($47.95 for 20 oz.), he starts with bone-in ranch-raised bison. “The bones offer so much more flavor,” Woolley claims, “and the flavor increases as the meat ages.” To maximize the impact, he massages the meat with a rub made of New Mexican green chilies and cinnamon, then smokes the steaks with applewood.
Another Woolley signature is his Smoke House Buffalo Ribs Platter ($24.95/half rack; $39.95/full rack). Here, he slowly braises hearty buffalo ribs then smokes them, finishing off with a tangy whiskey-flavored BBQ sauce. “Bobby Flay told me that these were the best ribs he’s ever eaten,” boasts the chef. While the ribs are also a hit with his regular clientele, the most popular and longest-running game entree is The Fort’s Game Plate ($39). It features an elk chop with wild huckleberry sauce, a buffalo filet medallion or prime rib, and grilled teriyaki quail.
To soften food costs, which Woolley reports have risen by four percentage points in the last year, he cross-utilizes some of his game “scraps” to create appetizer specials. For a recent starter, he ground up bits of New Zealand elk venison, and blended in cooked duck, foie gras, and dried blueberries to form sausage patties. These he grilled and served over wilted spinach and chard with a mushroom demi-glace. “Contrary to what many people think, venison can come from elk, caribou, or moose as well as deer,” Woolley explains. “Whatever the source, it tends to be a little dry. The foie gras and duck add moisture and fat.”
Beacon restaurant & bar in New York City is another sought-after destination for game, thanks in large part to chef-owner Waldy Malouf’s execution and continuing enthusiasm. Malouf’s clientele has followed him from the Hudson River Club—where he introduced them to locally raised venison and quail 20 years ago—to the clubby, 200-seat Beacon, and they expect to see game on the menu. At Beacon, they get it in many varieties—on both the appetizer and entree lists and at prix fixe tasting dinners—often seasoned with the wood-fired spit roasting and grilling that distinguishes the restaurant.
“My customers have become much more knowledgeable and accepting of game,” says Malouf. “They realize its health benefits, appreciate its flavor, and are no longer ‘scared’ to order it.” To accommodate these eaters, he menus items like Venison Chops with Spicy Currants and Red Wine Sauce ($32) and Grilled Quail Salad with warm sheep’s milk ricotta and bacon-sherry vinaigrette ($16) year round. In addition, Beacon held a series of game dinners last year ($85 per person), pairing four courses of game with Scotch, Port, and Madeira, respectively. For these events, Malouf prepared more esoteric fare, including Spit-Roasted Mallard Duck with braised morels & Swiss chard, Roast “Wild Shot” Pheasant with braised cabbage, foie gras toast & port sauce, and “Civet” of Snowshoe Hare with Herbed Egg Noodles. The dinners also gave him leeway to experiment with specialties such as housemade wild boar sausage and cured venison prosciutto—items that are too time-consuming to make on a regular basis. Beacon is repeating the successful series this winter.
While “game destination” restaurants like The Fort and Beacon can guarantee a certain percentage of game sales off the regular menu, other chefs we talked with prefer to offer these meats and birds as specials—particularly in the fall and winter when heartier fare is a draw. Jan Jorgenson, chef-owner of Two Chefs, a 100-seat upscale bistro (avg. check $60) in South Miami, FL, finds that he sells more game when he prepares it for specials and private parties. “You can’t get these products all the time, so when I do have them in, I want to move them fast,” he says. “If I do 20 game specials, they usually sell out before the night is over.”
Many American restaurants purchase vacuum-packed, domesticated game, raised under controlled circumstances; Jorgenson sources his from the U.S. and New Zealand. Food costs are high—$15-$18/lb.—so entrees run in the $30 range at Two Chefs. Game also shows up in smaller portions as part of multi-course tasting menus paired with wine. “The wine geeks are more likely to explore and be receptive to new and unusual things,” he notes.
Best received by a cross-section of his guests are venison, buffalo, rabbit, squab, and quail—especially if their preparation is grounded in familiarity. For a recent rabbit dish, he separated the front and rear legs from the loin and gave the former a “coq au vin” type of treatment, braising them in red wine with pearl onions and mushrooms. The loin was boned and stuffed with a foie gras farci, rolled up, and poached in cheesecloth to make a gallantine.
Like Jorgenson, Dean Zanella, executive chef of 312 Chicago (avg. check $40), finds that game works better as a special at his 180-seat Tuscan-style restaurant. “Although people love to eat game in the Midwest, there’s still a large portion of Americans who are unadventurous,” he says. Of the 200 covers he does on an average night, about 20 orders are for game. Zanella is partial towards birds, including pheasant, squab, wild duck, and quail.
Preparations at 312 Chicago stay true to its rustic Italian concept. The entree-size Grilled Honey Marinated Squab Salad with Orange, Toasted Pistachios, and Dates ($21.95) was inspired by a dish Zanella tasted on a recent trip to Italy. “The flavors of honey, pomegranate syrup, and dates work particularly well with game,” he says. Like Malouf, Zanella likes to spit- roast whole birds. He’ll then use the drippings to create a sauce that’s spooned over the breast portion to provide a greater depth of flavor and extra moistness. For smaller birds, like quail, the chef marinates first, then quickly grills or pan-fries it to produce a nice char without drying out the meat.
Attentive cooking techniques and a receptive customer base keeps the game moving at 312 Chicago, but Zanella goes one step further—he educates his servers by trying out different dishes at staff meals. They, in turn, help convert those less adventurous patrons into game customers.
At Caffe Renato in Taos, NM, executive chef Jennifer Dove tries a different tactic to win over wary diners while keeping her average dinner check in the $25 range. “Some of my guests are intrigued by game, others simply are not,” she says of the tourists and locals who frequent the 80-seat midpriced restaurant. So while she offers specials from time to time—like Elk Tenderloin with a cranberry demi- glace ($25.95)—high food costs make it too high-risk if it doesn’t sell well.
Less risky and more universally appealing is Dove’s $12.95 Game Burger. Here, she mixes ground buffalo with ground beef and ground lamb, cooks it on the charcoal grill, and serves it up with a topping of sweet onion confit and sides of cranberry cole slaw and chips. “I chose that combination of meats to balance the lean, gamy buffalo with the fattier, juicier beef and lamb,” says Dove. “People seem to like the idea of eating buffalo in a juicy burger that doesn’t have a gamy taste.”
Little Bird, Big Seller
Growing up in Denmark, a country rich in hunting grounds, Jan Jorgenson ate his share of wild game. “I was lucky to gain experience in bringing in and dressing pheasant, wild duck, and deer and learning how to cook them,” he says.
As a chef in the U.S., the game he gets is domesticated, milder in taste, and often vacuum packed, but Jorgenson relies on some of the same prep techniques. Venison is roasted and sliced into medallions; squab breast is roasted rare, sliced, and fanned around root vegetable puree, while the legs are confitted for an accompanying tartlet; and quail is stuffed and perched in puff pastry. Jorgenson would like to serve the quail with its head on, à la the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast,” but doesn’t think his clientele is quite ready. “My customers are well-traveled and request game, but only the wine geeks would appreciate seeing the bird’s beak,” he says.
Huntington Station, NY
Molasses Marinated Venison $30
Rhubarb compote, mustard greens, sweet potato gratin, huckleberry jus.
Risotto Stuffed Young Pheasant $27
Acorn squash, black trumpet mushrooms, pumpkin seed oil.
Colvin Run Tavern
Loin of Rabbit $24
With sweetbreads, artichokes, cepes, and peppered spaetzle.
Buckhead Brewery & Grill
The Game Warden $17.49
Venison skewered with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
Barbecued Buffalo Burger $7.99
Loon Lake Lodge
American Bison Meatloaf $15.95
Smashed potatoes, wild mushroom gravy, and onions.