We Got Game! Mad-Cowering Diners Ordering Venison, Bunny, Buffalo

It was a beastly March night, but the affluent professionals packing Quilty’s restaurant on Prince Street felt warm and snug. Or did they? One 29-year-old corporate lawyer said that news reports about the federal seizure of several hundred sheep in Vermont had given him pause.

“I gravitate between thinking that people are hysterical–and that the government might be hiding something,” he said. His plate of venison with juniper-and-rosemary marinade arrived.

“It’s like AIDS for cows,” said his dining companion in a stage whisper. “You just … don’t … know.”

Move over, steak. Those big beef moments of the late 1990’s–the First Masticator stuffing down Big Macs, investment bankers sawing into porterhouses at Maloney & Porcelli, fashion editors living on the Zone Diet and a daily intake of blood-red steak, tripping merrily on their high heels into the meatpacking district–seem increasingly quaint now that one is confronted daily with sad-eyed British cows being lowered onto funeral pyres, a dove-hunting Republican in the White House, a best-selling book ( Fast Food Nation ) about the horrors of Chicken McNuggets and burgers-on-the-go, and medieval-sounding terms such as “spongiform” and “prion” and “scrapie” flying through the air. If you’re going to have meat at all, the gods seem to be imploring, better make it … game.

“I don’t worry about disease or anything like that, but there’s things about beef,” said Quilty’s chef, Katy Sparks. “It’s raised in such huge, factory-like settings. It doesn’t have the sort of attention paid to it as the game does.”

Last fall, with steak gluttony in full throttle, Ms. Sparks removed beef from her menu and replaced it with buffalo. “It flew out of here,” she said. “It was very gratifying. I think they’re raised better than commercial beef is–fewer antibiotics, no growth hormones. People who raise game tend to be mavericks, in their own way.”

Wayne Nish, the chef at March on East 58th Street, recently decided to remove beef from his menu. “I don’t have faith in our government’s ability to control it,” he said. “I’m looking at it as a possible liability issue, and frankly, I just don’t need it.”

And when it comes to game, Mr. Nish is a purist who only uses actual hunted quarry–which, oddly enough, is only legal to serve if it’s imported from the United Kingdom.

Most so-called game is anything but sporting these days; it no longer necessarily means “wild animals, birds, or fish hunted for sport,” as it is defined by the American Heritage dictionary, but simply novelty meat.

Ms. Sparks said that farmed game is appropriate for the New York palate. “You don’t get people clamoring for true game, wild game,” she said. “And if they did, I don’t even think they’d know what they’d have to pay for it. I once got wild Scottish partridge, and I was picking out the buckshot. I was like, ‘My God, this is completely retro!'”

Indeed, the modern, mild-tasting “game,” now available year-round, is becoming ubiquitous. Tamarind, a new Indian restaurant on East 22nd Street, features venison with fenugreek and quail in herbs. Chinghalle on Gansevoort Street is named for the phonetic pronunciation (in Italian) of their house special, “wild boar.” Game abounds in Austrian haute-peasant fare: check out the menu at David Bouley’s Danube in Tribeca or Wallsé on West 11th Street. Australians also have a thing for game–Eight Mile Creek on Mulberry Street serves kangaroo, and buffalo was on the menu at Rupert Murdoch’s recent birthday party, catered by Acacia chef Philippe Seret. Would anyone be surprised if Russell Crowe tucked into a plate of steaming venison meatballs? It is no longer startling to see bison burgers on the laminated menu at the corner coffee shop. Are we entering the era of a rabbit in every pot?

Bucking a Trend

A recent restaurant-crawl through Manhattan revealed heightened levels of agita among Manhattan diners when the subject of beef was raised.

John Rikkers, a 38-year-old producer for Home Box Office, was perched at the bar of Métrazur in Grand Central Terminal. Dressed in a ribbed turtleneck, blue jeans and brown suede bucks, he said he has not eschewed steak entirely, but has begun to think twice about it.

“I read those articles and I’m like, ‘What the hell ?'” he said. “I certainly would think about where I was ordering beef. The whole thing is adding this element of consciousness to an otherwise somewhat unconscious selection of a dish. It’s like, ‘What’s in it? How is that prepared?’ Part of what makes beef and other kinds of common meats dangerous is the fact that they’re consumed so widely, they’re so much part of this huge economic market, that they have to be manufactured and dealt with on a large scale. And that makes them more susceptible to all the kinds of bad things that happen when people stop caring about what they’re doing.”

He said he’s particularly fond of the rabbit at Gotham Bar & Grill and the venison tenderloin at Union Square Cafe.

“I don’t find any funky taste to it at all; in fact, some of the tenderloin nowadays is even a little less funky than beef or pork!” he said.

Mr. Rikkers, who lives with his wife in Long Island City, said he has never hunted, but he’s curious. “I’ve never shot any of the animals I’ve eaten,” he said. “I’m not at all opposed to it, though. I would like to someday. I would like to shoot something and eat it.”

Recently, while in Millbrook, N.Y., he and his wife drove past a ranch that raises venison for city restaurants. “I was interested in the possibility of getting me some venison that had just been slaughtered,” he said, practically licking his lips. “It’s like the closer you are to being a part of the entire story, from the living animal to your plate, the better! That way, at least it doesn’t get processed. I wanted to go in there and say, ‘Hey, can you rip this one out fresh for me? Can I taste how fresh that is?'”

Then there’s Dan Crane, a 30-year-old educational-software developer and yoga enthusiast who used to enjoy monthly visits to Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg and the beef-bone marrow at Prune on East First Street. No longer. “No mad cow for me, thank you very much!” he said. Instead, he said he’s been eating venison medallions at Jean Georges (” Mmm . Rich and brown and yummy”) and rabbit dinners (“It tastes kind of like a fuzzier chicken”) prepared by his elder brother, Jeff Crane, a 33-year-old painter and art professor.

“Spring is good for bunnies,” said Jeff Crane. “In Prague, they sell it at Kmart! They call it the ‘ other other white meat.'”

Not long ago, riffing on recipes he found in Joy of Cooking and on the Internet, Jeff Crane concocted venison ragoût for a visiting German friend. He bought the deer frozen from a market on Ninth Avenue and 38th Street.

Mad cow fears haven’t changed his eating habits, claimed the elder Mr. Crane, and yet …. “You think about it. It’s crazy. It’s very easy to get doom-and-gloomy about it,” he said. “Like maybe this is the thing that’s going to wipe us off the face of the earth.”

Buffalo Gal, Doe Boy

With all the agri-uncertainty pressing at our borders, some New Yorkers have naturally gone the extra step and taken their meat into their own hands, in an odd mixture of the artisanal and the brutal.

Take Joan Kron, who writes about plastic surgery for Allure magazine. Two years ago, she started a buffalo farm in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband John Marder, a retired advertising executive, and his brother Michael Marder, a Manhattan dentist. “There’s no fat!” she bragged. “It tastes fabulous; it tastes just like hamburgers.

“My husband watches a lot of animal shows on the Discovery Channel,” said Ms. Kron during a recent interview in her elegantly minimalist Upper East Side apartment.

“I eat a lot of buffalo,” she said. “There certainly has never been any mad-cow disease in buffalo. Buffalo are American , and you don’t buy them in Europe like the sheep. The animals are slaughtered young. Buffalo are vegetarians ; if they’re eating protein, it’s vegetable protein. They do not eat animal protein–they eat corn, they eat grass. We don’t invite tourists up there, we don’t want people tramping around. Our animals are raised in isolation; there are no other animals raised near them.” Sometimes, Mrs. Kron and her husband play Brahms for their buffalo. “They have a very happy life; they sit in the hay looking like the happiest little campers,” she said.

The pink-cheeked, blue-eyed Ms. Kron proudly displayed snapshots of her 60-odd animals. Then from her Sub-Zero freezer she hoisted a 6-pound, 6-ounce shoulder “clod” of buffalo. She pointed to a liver. “Elegant dogs love the liver,” she said.

Belle-Air Farms enjoyed the product of their first slaughter–”Well, we call it a harvest,” Ms. Kron said–-last fall. Their meat is sold, under the label Buffalo Belle, at places like Nick & Toni’s in the Hamptons and Calliope in Manhattan; you can buy it raw at Grace’s Marketplace. Her next, inevitable target: the Condé Nast cafeteria (where editors, perhaps sensing the game Zeitgeist , are beginning to don the camouflage that was featured on the spring 2001 runways).

Restaurant maven Tim Zagat is not ready to declare steak over. And, he said, “There are health issues about some of the game that is available. You treat buffalo and other types of game with the same methods that you treat your cows, you’re gonna have the same problems.”

The only solution, some think, is to remove all the middlemen. Andrew Butters, a 1996 Brown graduate in history who is currently looking for work, enjoyed hunting dove, duck and deer in his (copious) spare time last fall. He thinks his hobby is a refreshing counterpunch to political correctness.

“It’s very fun,” he said. “You get to go out and play with guns and stomp around the woods, and you have all this food that you can take back to New York and have parties with, and scare all the New York girls with stories of shooting Bambi.”