The Bambi Syndrome
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.
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.
The 13 colonies relied so heavily on native white-tailed deer as a meat source that by the time of the American Revolution, game laws were already being enacted to protect the dwindling population. By the end of the 19th century, the American white-tailed deer was nearly wiped out. The loss of so much of our wildlife resulted in tougher hunting regulations in the 1930s and gave rise to modern anti-hunting sentiments.
The 1942 animated Disney classic Bambi gave America's new nature-loving sensibility a cute voice. Duke University biological anthropologist Matt Cartmill called the movie "the most effective piece of anti-hunting propaganda ever made" ("The Bambi Syndrome," Natural History, June 1993). Thanks to the wave of anthropomorphism that Bambi set in motion, Cartmill complains, Americans have come to see wild animals as "cute little people in bunny suits" romping through the forest. One-third of the American public is of the opinion that sport hunting should be made illegal.
Venison disappeared from American fine dining until the late 1980s, but by the 1990s it had become a standard ingredient in haute American restaurants. It turned out that this new venison wasn't wild; it was a product of the rapidly expanding game farm industry. Game farms import non-native species such as Axis deer, Nilgai antelope and red deer from New Zealand, breeding the animals as livestock and selling the meat to restaurants. This process not only sidesteps game regulations, it provides Bambi-lovers venison without guilt -- but not without irony.
We now have some 250,000 non-native deer on Texas game farms, and the overpopulation of native white-tailed deer is getting out of hand. Texas Parks and Wildlife estimated the 2000 population at over four million deer (compared to 3.5 million ten years ago). The Edwards Plateau ecosystem is cratering as deer devour the oak forests and turn the Hill Country into a cedar thicket.
There are more than 25 million Bambis in America now, more than when Columbus arrived.
Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, Vallone's and the Rainbow Lodge all serve farm-raised venison tenderloins. You'd think they would all taste about the same, but they don't. The cooking technique makes all the difference.
At Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, the Axis venison medallions are lightly floured before they are pan-cooked to medium rare. This allows the surface of the meat to brown and develop a complex texture that absorbs the sauce. At Vallone's, the red deer venison chops are broiled so that the outside is dark while the inside remains rosy. The caramelized flavor is a fantastic complement to the mushroom demi-glace the venison is served with. Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Lodge chef Lance Youngs is roasting a two- or three-inch segment of venison tenderloin in one piece and then carving the roasted meat into three medallions. It sounds like it would work, but in fact, the result is a stack of disgustingly mushy meat slices. The Rainbow Lodge's herb-crusted elk medallions, which are cooked after they're sliced, are a much better bet.
Venison tenderloin (backstrap) tastes better when it's cut into relatively thin chops or medallions, a counterintuitive cooking technique for those of us who love rare beef. But venison has a softer and bloodier texture than beef. More of the surface of the venison needs to be browned to balance the flavor. This is even more true of native white-tailed venison, which tends to be leaner and have a stronger flavor due to the animal's varied diet.
Chef Youngs stopped by my table and confirmed that the red deer came from Broken Arrow Ranch, one of the pioneers of the farm-raised game business in Texas. But he also said he'd heard of a new trend. For the first time in recent history, you can get real wild game in an American restaurant.
White-tailed deer are now being legally harvested in some states. Farmers and ranchers pay the state for the deer on their property and then slaughter and butcher the deer under USDA supervision. The venison is then legal to sell.
I can't wait to try white-tailed venison in a Houston restaurant, and I promise to let you know when I find it. But I wonder how those creative geniuses, the menu writers, are going to deal with it. If farm-raised Asian deer is "wild game," then what's native white-tailed deer? "Really wild game"?
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