When poultry perennials like chicken, turkey and duck seem too tame, guests may cozy up to less common choices.
KFC and Chick-fil-A notwithstanding, chickens are not the only birds to be found in American restaurants. And, contrary to the ubiquitous cliché, not everything tastes like chicken. Turkey, duck and even goose turn up on many menus. But, when a restaurateur wants his eatery to really stand out, one of the best ways to do it is by serving up even more exotic species, including pigeon, also known as squab, quail, grouse, partridge, Guinea fowl and pheasant.
Such options have been around fine dining establishments for decades — and these are still the most likely venues for such selections. But, nowadays, it also is possible to find a touch of the unusual in more modest surroundings.
Some Like It Cool
Sammy’s Wild Game Grill, Houston, Texas, is a casual counter service operation where paper-lined plastic baskets stand in for bone china chargers. But if the appointments are downscale, the menu is not, says owner Sammy Ballarin. “Right now, we’re offering pheasant sausages, and emu burgers and filets at affordable prices. We also bring in other varieties from time to time.
And we have numerous non-feathered choices as well, including water buffalo, camel, venison, elk, antelope and kangaroo. Seasonal meats, besides the emu, are oryx, alligator, rabbit, eland and pacu, a freshwater fish native to South America.”
Ballarin, 39, says he was born into the restaurant industry. “I came to the United States after being raised in Spain, where my father owned a neighborhood café with a wood-fired grill. My mom was American, so I’m the product of two cultures — three counting my wife, who is Venezuelan.
”Availability of game birds is not a major stumbling block, Ballarin contends. There are plenty of farms throughout the USA. At the moment, we’re getting our pheasants from Tennessee.”
Ballarin describes pheasant meat as sweeter, leaner, more acidic and slightly chewier than chicken. “Our pheasant sausage is seasoned with cognac, among other goodies,” he says. “One of the most popular dishes is pheasant-stuffed jalapeños. We make it in a pressure cooker, then shred the meat and sweeten it with dried black currants.”
Noting that such offerings make Sammy’s a destination different from most other local restaurants, Ballarin says he promotes mainly through social media like Facebook and Instagram. Favorable reviews on Yelp.com and similar websites also bring in business, he adds.
Some Like It Haute
Founded in 1993 by Chef Daniel Boulud, New York City’s Restaurant Daniel offers French cuisine in a fine dining setting. Other Boulud ventures, some local and some international, include Café Boulud, Boulud Sud, db Bistro, DBGB, Maison Boulud and Épicerie Boulud.
“Game is really something [we] look for in the fall and winter seasons,” says executive chef Jean-François Bruel. “The birds are imported from Scotland through companies like Solex Fine Foods and D’Artagnan.
We can also find a lot of other locally sourced domestic birds like squab, quail and guinea hen.” Game birds are a specialty that is easily accessible to the restaurant industry, but not so much for the home cook, he says.“So, this is where the restaurant plays a role in bringing these delicacies to our customers.
I would not say that game accounts for a high percentage of our sales, but we certainly love to prepare these ingredients and introduce them to customers,” the chef says.
Suggesting that game birds are “not for everyone,” Bruel says the meat can prove too powerful in flavor for somebody who is not very adventurous. It would be a mistake to have game birds dominate a menu, he believes. “It’s better to simply offer it as one of several choices.”
Some Meals Entail Quail
Duskie Estes was destined for the unusual on the day she was born. Her parents — 1960s California hippies, she says — made up the name Duskie because they liked its sound. Today, with her husband John Stewart, she has two kids of her own, as well as up to 100 animals, and is co-chef proprietor of Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California, the same town that spawned Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and Charles M. Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip.
“We are an authentic farm to table restaurant, growing much of our produce and raising rabbits, ducks, chickens, goats, pigs, and sheep. Our style is simple and ingredient-driven. The best ingredients are those just picked, some never refrigerated. We believe deeply in our responsibility to support small farmers, diversity of agriculture, pasture living for animals, and respect for their lives by using all the parts from snout-to-tail,” she says.
Conceding that most people are more accepting of fried chicken and burgers, Estes, nevertheless, says, “We are always able to sell anything unusual on our menu.” She offers the following dishes as examples: buttermilk fried quail with BBQ peanuts and smoky collard greens; and lacquered quail with watermelon, cucumber, and black garlic.
“I like to marinate quail in balsamic vinegar
and good soy sauce with a little grapeseed oil”
Bring ’em Back, Not Alive
“I like to marinate quail in balsamic vinegar and good soy sauce with a little grapeseed oil,” says Isaac Toups, chef/owner of New Orleans-based Toups Meatery and Toups South. “This is great for the grill or to sear in a cast iron pan with some brown butter. “
A native of Rayne, Louisiana — “the heart of Cajun country,” he says — Toups is known for his “born and braised” culinary style, heavily influenced by both grandmothers and refined in fine New Orleans restaurants, including 10 years with Emeril Lagasse.
At Toups’ Meatery, which opened in 2012, the chef serves up authentic Cajun dishes, including cracklins, lamb neck with black eye pea ragout and fennel and confit chicken thighs, ham braised greens, dijon cream and lardons.
Game birds are featured, if available. “When we go hunting we always save the hearts and livers from the ducks, quail, etc. I chase flavor always. Just so happens that is in off-cuts a lot of times. I have on the Toups Meatery menu right now quail, confit chicken thighs, chicken liver
mousse and, as a weekend special, whole roasted bone marrow with confit duck hearts. The marrow dish is a favorite that we finish with the customer drinking through a whiskey luge (in other words sucking down shots through beef marrow bones). We also have foie gras torchon at both Toups Meatery and Toups South,” says the owner.
Minus the Musketeers
In his classic novel “The Three Musketeers,ˮ author Alexandre Dumas gave his protagonist D’Artagnan three stalwart companions and a deathless slogan — “All for one, and one for all.” In the meat supply business, however, D’Artagnan goes it alone. What’s more, the heroic spirit in this case is not a man, but a woman.
Ariane Daguin was going to college in 1985 and working part-time for a New York pâté de foie gras producer, when she met her first U.S.-based duck farmers. Her employers declined to partner with the farmers, so Ariane left her job, quit school, and pooled her very limited financial resources with a co-worker. Thus, D’Artagnan Foods was born as a one-product company, selling only foie gras.
Fast forward 33 years, and the firm, headquartered in Union, New Jersey, is now recognized as a leading resource for fresh game, meat and poultry, with about 8,000 restaurant clients and some 2,000 retail stores on its customer list. Working with approximately 1,500 small farmers — many of whom are organized into 35 co-ops nationwide — D’Artagnan encourages its vendors to commit to humane, sustainable free-range standards that also call for the animals to be antibiotic- and hormone-free.
One of Daguin’s favorite game bird dishes is roast quail with foie gras, armagnac brandy and grapes. Claiming that the foie gras and armagnac are Gascon specialties, Daguin says their presence “transforms the quail into a singularly lavish prelude to a grand dinner.”
Magret duck breast a la D’Artagnan is another dish she is fond of. “My father, Chef Andre Daguin, was the first to treat duck breast like a steak, serving it rare in the 1950s at his restaurant in southwestern France,” she recalls. Key ingredients include a shallot, a cup of full-bodied red wind such as madiran, and two tablespoons of duck and veal demi-glace.