Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the wild game renaissance in British restaurants. Apparently, younger chefs across the pond are creating modern, accessible game dishes, leaving aside heavy sauces, and boning small game birds for customers who don’t want to be bothered picking through the carcass. And lean game meats like venison, rabbit, grouse, and elk have become attractive to consumers who are trying to avoid industrially produced beef and poultry.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find much game in New York restaurants, aside from a smattering of wild boar Bolognese sauces, a few plates of bunny here and there, and a special game menu that Picholine has done in the past. But in Brooklyn, Henry’s End chef/owner Mark Lahm is quietly cooking an extensive wintertime game menu, which he’s been running October through March since 1986. Reindeer, bear, turtle, kangaroo, and antelope — if you can eat it, Lahm has served it. Fork in the Road chatted with Lahm about the ins and outs of cooking and serving game.
Why isn’t game more popular in the United States?
Well, it’s gaining from what it was years ago, but it’s still not what everybody looks to eat when they go out. People have a certain comfort zone, and game is not something that people are used to eating.
But one of the reasons we started doing it was because it was different from what other places were doing. And one of the things that’s made it more popular is that most game that’s being raised is actually better for you than domesticated beef and poultry. It’s raised more naturally, it’s free range. It doesn’t get the hormones that domestic beef and poultry does. It’s inherently leaner, lower in fat and cholesterol.
Since you can’t serve meat that’s actually been shot in the wild, [all meat served in restaurants must be USDA-inspected] where do you source these meats from?
Is there a certain game meat that’s particularly challenging to cook?
In general, once you know how to cook one game item, you know how to cook most of them — venison, elk, wild boar. It’s basic cooking principals. If it’s cooked properly it tastes very good. We love to do long-cooked stews, a savory venison stew, for instance, or we’ll make a game cassoulet with wild boar and rabbit sausage. Then we have things like elk chops that take three to four minutes to cook.
We’ve learned how to cook game properly; we’ve been doing it for long time, so we have lot of experience with it. There’s nothing worse than overcooked game, because of its leanness.
But you know, there are some things that we’ve done in the past that just didn’t taste that great, that were a little too different. Bear is pretty raunchy. But people request it all the time.
People request bear?
People request everything!
And is there anything you’d like to serve but can’t find a consistent source for?
I’m able to get most of the meats that I seek out. But again, I like to do things that people like. I don’t want to do something that, even though I think it’s interesting, people don’t like. Game birds for instance, I think are very, very interesting, but they have unusual flavors, and whenever I try to put them on the menu, people don’t like them. They want to eat game, but they don’t want things that are gamey in flavor.
What sort of game birds do you mean? I see you have pheasant on the menu online.
Grouse, woodcock, a lot of the English game birds are very flavorful and very intense. Even squab people tend to have a difficult time with — it’s a dark meat bird, and some people equate it to a livery flavor. Those birds tend to be less popular compared to pheasant, and quail.
What’s on the menu tonight?
Tonight we have herb-crusted elk chops, ostrich au poivre, wild boar stew with truffled polenta, quail stuffed with figs, mixed game grill, turtle soup and our country game pate.
Are there any other restaurants in the U.S. that you think are doing interesting things with game?
In Denver, The Fort always has a good selection of game.
44 Henry Street, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2009