As the weather cools and ratatouille gives way to cassoulet on local menus, the change in season often triggers a deep-rooted desire for richer, more complex meats. Traditionally, game has been especially prized in autumn, as the animals fattening up for the upcoming winter tend to be much tastier. The dirty little secret about wild game of course, is that none of it (served in restaurants anyway) is actually wild. Because meat sold in restaurants has to be inspected, all “game” comes from ranch-raised animals, often referred to as “Tame Game” among professional chefs. Even so, game offers a more exciting alternative to humdrum chickens, cows and pigs. Game is a little more daring, a little more adventuresome. After all, a quail is more exotic than a chicken. A boar is much fiercer than a pig. And an elk is a nobler beast than a cow. There is also a plus side to the farmed stuff: You don’t have to worry about spitting out birdshot as you work your way through a duck. That said, here are a few restaurants to consider when you want to take a walk on the wild side.
Slow-roasted Duck with Exotic Mushrooms and Roasted Red Peppers at New Orleans Grill.
La Provence in Lacombe is in full stride now following the transition from late founding chef Chris Kerageorgiou to new owner John Besh, who recently landed René Bajeux for the position of executive chef. The focus of the menu, along with the setting, is Provençal. New gardens on-site supply many of the herbs, citrus and heirloom vegetables used in the kitchen. The rustic-chic interior features exposed wooden beams and walls painted in cheerful Provençal hues.
The meal here started quickly with a silky duck liver pâté served alongside the bread basket. Mama Rachelle’s Whole Roasted Quail and Jacobs Andouille Gumbo, a legacy dish inherited from Kerageorgiou’s original menu, came with the game bird split down the middle and laid atop a tiny bed of dirty rice. Andouille-studded gumbo was then ladled around the bird. An entrée of Crispy Roasted Duckling with Lavender Honey, Spring Onions and Asparagus was lacquered with honey and roasted to near-carmalization, keeping the skin nice and crisp. The accompanying asparagus was unusually cut along the bias, which gave the presentation a bit of a tweak, while the fingerling potatoes were split on their long axis as well. A ladle of demi-glace over the accompaniments helped tie it all together and a Laguiole knife with its elegant bee medallion dressed up the place setting.
Another entrée of Mama’s Braised Local Rabbit with Tomatoes, Fennel and Garlic with Potato Gnocchi was served in a copper pot. The rabbit was stewed with cognac and chanterelles to a consistency where the meat pulled apart easily with a light rake of the fork. The licorice taste of the fennel was a pleasant counterpoint to the slightly bitter tang of the accompanying chard. Despite their proximity, the individual elements of the dish remained separate and distinct.
If you have time, enjoy a drink at the bar or a seat on the patio outside. This is the kind of place that invites lounging but be sure to plan ahead: The restaurant fills up quickly and reservations are recommended.
Back on the south shore, the Windsor Court Hotel recently underwent a transition at the top as well, when highly-regarded local chef Greg Sonnier took over the helm at the venerable New Orleans Grill. Chef Sonnier’s menu focuses on local ingredients and methodology and fans of Gabrielle will be pleased to see favorites from his old restaurant make the occasional appearance, albeit plated up with fancier tableware.
Life is hard on a duck here in southern Louisiana. This meal began with the fowl: an amuse-bouche of duck liver pâté with honey and blueberries on a round of toasted bread appeared at the table. An appetizer of Grilled Rabbit en Brochette with Tasso Grit Cake and Honey-Lavender Mustard Sauce was next, a dish for which Sonnier is famous. The lean rabbit benefited from its sheath of tasso, which had crisped nicely on the grill.
An entrée of Slow-roasted Duck with Exotic Mushrooms and Roasted Red Peppers was dressed in an orange-sherry sauce and served over a bed of shoestring potatoes, capped with a long strip of duck crackling. The expertly-rendered duck surrendered easily to the touch of the fork and shreds of the meat mixed with the jus and shoestring potatoes to form an ambrosial hash.
Going into fall, look for Sonnier to feature farm-raised geese from Canada in the form of house-made confit and by extension, in cassoulet. “I love goose,” he says. “It has such a rich, dark meat and it’s full of flavor.” Braised venison will also make an appearance, along with elk chops. Served on the bone and weighing in at close to 14 ounces, the lean but flavorful elk makes for an exciting alternative to the similarly-sized veal chop.
Chef Frank Brigtsen is intimately familiar with game, having worked under Paul Prudhomme first at Commander’s Palace and later at K-Paul’s. At a meal recently at his eponymous restaurant in the Riverbend, Brigtsen’s, he featured a fantastic Rabbit and Andouille Filé Gumbo sporting a roux with the complexion of molten chocolate. Firm cubes of andouille competed with strips of rabbit for attention from my spoon and when I was done, I wished there had been more.
An entrée of Panéed Rabbit with Sesame Crust, Spinach and Creole Mustard Sauce acknowledged a slight Asian influence, reinforced by the accompanying side of julienned carrots, cabbage and peapods. Another entrée of roast duck, with which Brigtsen has an especially deft hand, featured a tart dried cherry sauce made from natural jus along with a touch of rice vinegar for balance. Eschewing grilling or searing when it comes to preparing the fowl, Brigtsen instead slow-roasts his for several hours to render it properly, then de-bones it. When it comes time to serve, he’ll run it back through the broiler to make the skin nice and crisp.
When the weather cools, he plans to offer a marinated venison dish with diced, roasted winter vegetables such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes and an apple cider vinegar pan gravy. “Dishes like this fill out a menu to offer some variety to people who are maybe a little more adventurous,” Brigtsen says. “The meat is lean, flavorful and fork-tender, not to mention nutritious, so it answers a lot of peoples’ wants.”