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The Bambi Syndrome

Texas is overrun with native whitetails, so why do restaurants have to buy their venison from game farms?

The medium-rare Axis venison medallions, hearty wild boar and grilled quail are set off perfectly by an earthy mushroom sauce and tart cranberry compote. The dark red venison is leaner and tougher than beef, but with a richer flavor. The boar has been brine-cured until it tastes like ham. Rotisserie for Beef and Bird calls this the "Texas Wild Game Dinner."

I've been sampling venison dishes lately to see what Houston chefs are doing with the exotic ingredient. I get interested in the subject every year at about this time. I come from a family of hunters, and the deep freezer in my garage is usually the final resting place of two or three Hill Country whitetails. I'm always looking for new ways to cook it.

I'd say chef Joe Mannke at Rotisserie for Beef and Bird is doing the best job with venison in Houston. His approach is very traditional and European. In fact, I've had this exact combination of cranberry compote, wild mushrooms and venison at Auberge de l'Ill, a three-star French restaurant in Alsace. The biggest difference is that chef Marc Haeberlin at Auberge de l'Ill uses wild venison, while chef Mannke uses farm-raised deer, which is somewhat bizarre when you think about it: Deer are rare in Europe, but Texas is overrun with them.

Chef Joe Mannke is doing the best job with venison in Houston.
Deron Neblett
Chef Joe Mannke is doing the best job with venison in Houston.

Details

713-977-9524. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Texas wild game dinner: $24.95
Axis venison medallions: $21.95

2200 Wilcrest

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Joe Mannke began as a kitchen apprentice in the best hotel in Munich when he was 14 years old. His cooking sensibilities reflect that classical German training, and so does the first-rate food served at his restaurant. Everything from the brown bread with salmon spread served before the meal to the perfectly cooked vegetables tastes consistently excellent.

Mannke's talents as an interior decorator, on the other hand, are debatable. The ambience reflects his zeal as a successful immigrant; it's Americana run amok. The furniture and architecture are American colonial, but the pictures on the walls make you want to laugh: Ben Franklin and some other wigged guys drinking a glass of wine, Spanish conquistadors claiming territory for New Spain, Western pioneers in covered wagons, New England pilgrims at a Thanksgiving dinner -- it's a fractured fairy tale of American history. The chef says these oil paintings were created by a local artist; if you look closely you can spot Mannke's own mug in them.

Unfortunately, Mannke's menu suffers from the same jarring incongruity. Louisiana gumbo, New England mussels, French onion soup, Texas tortilla soup and shrimp piri-piri (a spicy Portuguese sauce) all appear on the appetizer page. Let me guess, it's sort of a Cajun, New England, French, Southwestern cuisine -- with piri-piri sauce?

The restaurant claims to pay homage to traditional American cooking, but the chef is obviously not too clear on the fine points. In a bow to American regional cuisine, the menu professes to offer "a generous selection of chicken, duck and vegetables from world famous Texas farms," but no details are supplied. Do you know of any world-famous Texas duck farms? I don't either. A call to the restaurant's kitchen confirms that the duck actually comes from world-famous Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana. The chicken and vegetables come from world-famous restaurant supplier Sysco.

The American heritage shtick is all just a silly disguise. No matter what name you give it, Joe's food is German. And it tastes wonderful. Why doesn't he just call it what it is? German chefs have an inferiority complex; the rest of the world doesn't think very highly of German food, and they know it. So they're always struggling to pass off their cooking as something else, which is too bad, because German and Austrian chefs are among the best in the world. And Joe Mannke is a superstar.

Knowing this about Mannke, you tend to forgive him the fact that his Texas wild game dinner isn't wild, and doesn't come from Texas. Of course, nobody else serves local wild game either. It's against the law. Axis venison comes from India and is farm-raised in Texas. Quail and pheasant aren't from around here either. And while wild boars are painfully plentiful (if you mean feral hogs), you can't serve them in a restaurant. But this isn't Mannke's fault. That's the way it is in America. Game belongs to the people. You can shoot it and eat it, but you can't buy it, sell it or trade it.

In Europe, on the other hand, game belonged to the king. Hunting was a royal sport and a social event, and game cookery was haute cuisine. That's why there are very few European home recipes for game. In France and Germany, hunters still sell or trade their wild game to restaurants so that professional chefs can properly transform it into gourmet dishes. At Auberge de l'Ill on the French-German border, chef Haeberlin treats the local deer meat like a precious commodity. And so does Joe Mannke.

Most Americans go to the other extreme. The butchers who process our deer grind up everything but the backstraps, and home cooks are happy if their kids mistake the ground venison for regular hamburger. This attitude is the end result of our democratization of what was once an aristocratic tradition. America's early European settlers delighted in the fact that venison, the meal of kings, was free for the taking. And eventually we came to take it for granted.

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