Rabbit bounces back on restaurant menus

State of the Plate: RB Menu Trends Columnist Nancy Kruse says this is the Year of the Rabbit on some restaurant menus. But despite the protein's advantages, it will likely remain a niche item.
Rabbit Rillette
Rabbit, in dishes like this Rabbit Rillette from Bolete, is high in protein but low in fat. But it has perception problems. / Photo courtesy of Bolete.

State of the Plate

The Chinese Lunar New Year is an annual cause for celebration, and it typically begets an onslaught of menu promotions. This Year of the Rabbit was no exception, as operators timed their specials to coincide with its kickoff on January 22.

From the Chinese kitchen. In New York City, noted chefs Eric Sze and Dominique Ansel collaborated on a special French-style Shao Bing Pork Belly Sandwich, and in Austin, TX, The Peached Tortilla offered Salt & Pepper Crispy Squid and Tamarind Pork Spareribs, along with Chinese Sweet Rice Cakes for dessert. From the multi-unit POV, Panda Express, the leading limited-service Chinese chain, had fun with the Good Fortune Scratcher Game, in which patrons could win prizes like free eggrolls.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, which runs one of the best-regarded, most innovative campus-dining programs in the business, celebrated in style with a menu that sported specialties like Chinese Pork and Radish Soup and Cantonese Roast Duck. Well-known television chef Martin Yan was on hand both to lead cooking classes and also to display his musical prowess on the drum that accompanied the Lunar New Year Lion Dance.

Wait, where’s the rabbit? Conspicuous by its absence was the title animal and cause of the new-year hubbub. Despite all that it has going for it, its absence from bills of fare remains an enduring menu mystery.

From the nutritional point of view, rabbit is hard to beat, boasting the highest percentage of protein and lowest percentage of fat per pound of all other available meat options. Rabbits are exceptionally eco-friendly to produce, and, of course, extremely prolific. Yet the USDA reports that only about one percent of Americans have eaten it. More dramatically, rabbit consumption weighs in at less than one pound per capita in the US, versus, say, nearly 70 pounds per capita for chicken, another versatile white protein with which it has much in common.

Reasons for its disuse vary from supply-chain issues—it is challenging to produce in commercial volumes—to problems of perception. Some pundits point to a lingering association with poverty: During the Great Depression, rabbit was reviled as “Hoover hogs,” or poor man’s meat.

Other analysts note that during World War II, rabbit consumption grew, albeit temporarily, thanks to rationing and meat shortages. However, an unfortunate if well-meaning story that appeared in Life magazine at the time reminded consumers that domestic rabbits are one of the few pets that can be enjoyed dead or alive—a sort of pet-to-pot strategy that failed miserably.  

In fact, our identification of bunnies as pets is generally considered the ultimate barrier to broader consumption here. When queried about the rabbit missing from his expansive Lunar New Year Menu, Chef Alexander Ong, Director of Culinary Excellence at UMass Amherst, replied succinctly that “they are way too cute for our audience.”

From the Southern kitchen. That objection has been overcome in many restaurants throughout the South and Southeast, where the long tradition of cooking with rabbit continues. It’s a regular feature at some of the most respected operations in the region, like Bayona in New Orleans, where the current menu boasts Mississippi Rabbit with smothered greens, dirty rice and Creole mustard seasoning. Nearby Compère Lapin, whose name translates roughly from French as brother rabbit, offers dishes like Chicken-Fried Rabbit with coconut-creamed collards.

In Birmingham, AL, Hot and Hot Fish Club goes beyond its seafood expertise with Rabbit Roulade with pearl barley, arugula pesto and cauliflower, while popular Canoe, a dining institution in Atlanta, has created an old-meets-new mashup with Slow Roasted Rabbit accompanied by roasted cauliflower risotto.

Chris McCord is chef de cuisine at lauded Gunshow in Atlanta. Here dishes are presented tableside by the chef or cook who prepared them, and the dining room is considered an extension of the kitchen. That kitchen is currently cooking up fun, innovative Drunken Rabbit Hash Browns. The protein is braised in whiskey and marinated for several days before being shredded with potatoes for a sly wink, perhaps, at Waffle House’s iconic side dish. When queried as to guest reaction, McCord says that he hasn’t seen any patron pushback, perhaps because the protein is “relatively inconspicuous.” 

Rabbit Alfredo

Rabbit Alfredo from Carson Kitchen. / Photo courtesy of Carson Kitchen.

From the Italian kitchen. Rabbits play a prominent role in Italian cuisine, as at Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in New York City, where recurring rabbit options include Rabbit Agnolotti in Brodo or Rabbit Salad with honey-glazed baby carrots, peas and salsa verde. At Birmingham’s Bottega, Grilled Rabbit Loin has been plated with fig mostarda and polenta.

In a similar vein, three-unit Carson Kitchen, which is headquartered in Las Vegas and notable for its fashion-forward menu, currently features Rabbit Alfredo with roasted poblano. It is the kitchen’s third iteration of a rabbit ragu.

Owner Cory Harwell tempts diners to take a leap by pairing it with a familiar ingredient, like pasta. He reports his customers are keen to try items associated with fine dining in an accessible, approachable format. Patron reaction is positive, though he suspects that many may not even “pay attention to the rabbit” component.

Harwell observes that the delicate, technique-driven nature of the protein may curtail its broader use. And since it’s extremely difficult to procure in volume here, Harwell imports his supply from Spain.

From the global kitchen. Speaking of Spain, rabbit is common its cuisine, too, which is reflected on the menus at all four US units of Jaleo by Jose Andrés, where the Paella Valenciana includes rabbit, chicken and artichokes. Denver’s El Five, specializes in tapas from Gibraltar and featured Rabbit Confit Crujientes, which means crispy or crunchy.  And on a related note, the Mexican-inflected menu at Destino in Washington, DC, includes the current Rabbit Enchiladas with spring peas, pipián blanco and sesame.

Rabbit makes a frequent appearance at Bolete, a James-Beard-recognized restaurant In Bethlehem, PA, that boasts innovative farm-to-table cuisine. Rabbit Cassoulet with bacon-wrapped rabbit loin, pork sausage, vegetables, finished with garlic breadcrumbs and mushroom butter is a standout on the current menu. It has also figured prominently in past offerings like the elegant Rabbit Rillette with black-garlic mustard, sour turnips, baby carrots and parsley on sourdough bread. 

Wait, here’s the rabbit. All things considered, rabbit consumption is unlikely to move beyond its current niche. Consumer attitudes and supply-chain issues combine to make it pretty much a nonstarter. Except in the springtime, that is.  

During Easter season, Americans bravely overcome their aversion to consuming rabbit and scarf down tons of chocolate versions and other sweet goodies like Bunny Box at Gigi’s Cupcakes, with its cute pastel-colored treats.

And in the ultimate mashup, consumers can also gulp down a liquid bunny treat in the form of the Pepsi X Peeps promotion. Back for its third go-round this spring, the iconic confections lend their marshmallow flavor to the cola. Graphics for this year’s edition feature an adorable pink Peeps bunny peeping around a bright yellow Pepsi can.

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