I recently traveled to Denver, CO. I saw beautiful mountains, I drank natural spring water, but most importantly (perhaps because it rained my entire trip), I ate.
I feasted on grilled red deer, wild boar chops, rattle snake and pheasant hot dogs and, or course, Ted Turner's buffalo burger. The dishes were delicious and inventive: the hot dog, from Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, was paired with a cactus jam, scallions and cilantro (my boyfriend had the elk jalepeno cheddar dog with cream cheese and caramelized onion); the deer, from Craftwood Inn, was grilled in pepper and ale and served in an apple reduction.
I had sampled wild game before, but always as a novelty rather than a potential culinary staple. Sure, I've had venison and quail, but in the same way I've had grasshopper. Never before had the answer to the question, "have you ever eaten...?", been served to me in a lemon sage and mascarpone sauce, atop a lemon confit, at a white linen tablecloth restaurant.
I had to have more. So naturally, roughly 90 minutes after arriving back in the Big Apple, I was already online scoping my home town options for boar, elk and the like. Sadly, the offerings were, well, sparse.
That's not to say they are nonexistent: Henry's End in Brooklyn Heights holds an annual wild game festival, high end restaurants like Picholine and Daniel serve select game dishes, and Jean Georges is famous for its squab. Duck, of course, has taken NYC by storm, even prompting Pete Wells to write a head to head review of his all-duck dinners (including ice cream!) at two well-regarded Manhattan restaurants.
But in a metropolis where "African" and "Indonesian" are categories on Seamless Web, where you can stuff your face with octopus balls at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday (Okonomikayi, on E9th, if you must know), and where foodie TV hosts like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern come to worship at the altar of bizarre grub -- how could it be that meats served plentifully in our heartland are so hard to come by?
The first reason is relatively obvious: wild game may be domestic, but it isn't local. In a city of locavore chefs, carting an animal cross country is unappealing, both from a moral and marketing standpoint. The vendor at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market explained to me that the store will not purchase meat that comes from more than 400 miles away (the 400 miles includes the voyage from the farm to the slaughterhouse and then to the store). That pretty much rules out everything outside the Northeast and Midatlantic.
So why not transplant some elk and buffalo from the Rockies to the Hudson Valley, and voila, you've got a local game farm? Well, game isn't all that easy to raise. Contrary to popular belief, game animals aren't hauled in by a brawny hunter, carved up in the back of the kitchen and served to us au jus. Consistent with federal regulations, all meat served in restaurants must be USDA inspected prior to slaughter. That means the meat can't be shot in the wild: it must be farmed. Farming game is challenging, especially if you want to do it humanely. Take Dickson's Farmstand Meats: they say it's tricky to source rabbit because the shop won't buy rabbits raised in cages, and rabbits simply enclosed by fences can dig under the fence and escape.
As hard as game is to raise, it appears to be even harder to cook. The flavor is more challenging and unusual, and it's a bit of a harder sell for our palates. Or at least, that's what a few of the vendors at Smorgasburg told me as their reason for not venturing -- yet -- into the wild game market. My friend and food blogger, Epicuriosa, pointed out that because wild game is, well, wild, there is more of a variety between individual animals and it's harder to predict how a cooked animal will taste. Obviously, inability to ensure consistency makes it harder to place an animal on a dinner menu.
And then, there's the question of cost. Money is a funny concept in New York City, the land of the $200 tasting menu. Price elasticity in this town seems to know no bounds, so really, what does it mean for an exotic meat to be "too expensive"? Perhaps, a meat is too expensive when the cost of raising, shipping and preparing it translates into a menu price that New Yorkers refuse to pay.
I had no idea how much game actually goes for until I paid a visit to a nearby butcher, Ottomanelli & Sons. who happens to specialize in wild game. The freezer section was stocked with buffalo steaks, ground bison and kangaroo nuggets, among other exotic specialties. I decided on the butcher's recommendation: a lean, shrink wrapped buffalo steak, which weighed in at just over a pound. My bill: $28. By comparison, the dry aged sirloin, which I devoured with glee last night while my buffalo thawed, was $15.99 a pound.
When I asked about the difference in price, the butcher's answer was predictable: miles mean dollars. Imagine what a flight from Australia does to the price tag of a frozen marsupial, which is so common in its homeland that it's considered a pest. On the other hand, when I visited Henry's End over the weekend, I was able to get a tasty spice rubbed kangaroo steak (yes, flown in from Australia), for $29, comparable to what you would pay for beef. Then again, the elk chops were $38.
So what is the future of wild game in New York City? Based on my very informal survey, it seems uncertain. Wild boar is popular enough, especially in the areas of sausage and ragout. Rabbits make an occasional appearance at French establishments. But other than that, NYC lags behind its game-loving peers in the heartland and down south, where dishes like turtle stew make reptilian game into a delicacy. Then again, tastes in the city change at warp speed. Perhaps like cupcakes, pickles, macarons and now meatballs, wild game is just waiting for some smart branding and Brooklyn street cred to become the next big thing.
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