Wild Game Is Invading Bay Area Menus, But Why?

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Picture this:
You fling open your front door and, as sometimes happens in the Berkeley hills and certain other Bay Area neighborhoods, a blacktail deer glances up from the low-growing roses it's been eating. Antlers glinting, velvety muzzle twitching, jaws working, the stately creature fixes its tentative, chocolate-syrup gaze on you, not trusting but wondering. And if you stand still as if playing Freeze, this deer will take you for a rock or tree and, with a relieved shudder, start feeding again.

A wild blacktail deer in the Berkeley hills. Credit: Kristan Lawson
A wild blacktail deer in the Berkeley hills. Credit: Kristan Lawson

Now picture this:
You stealthily reach back into your house, seize a rifle and shoot the deer, dressing its flesh on your driveway and cooking some for lunch.

Eww, right? But isn't this scenario just one small step away from ordering roasted venison at La Folie or, for that matter, wild-boar paella at Venga Paella, a bison burger at Ironside, or a boar-, bison-, venison, or alligator burger at the Bistro S.F. Grill?

Seared venison medallions with honey-lavender sauce, served at The Peaks restaurant in Sequoia National Park, are at least contextual. But on menus here in urban and suburban Locavoreville, where we don't shoot the deer in our driveways, wild game meats are becoming bizarrely ubiquitous.

Wild-boar risotto at Palio d'Asti. Credit: Martino Di Grande
Wild-boar risotto at Palio d'Asti. Credit: Martino Di Grande

At Oakland's Michel Bistro, executive chef Anthony Salguero serves a Wild Westishly sassy-tasting, silkily tender bison tartare, spiced with strong house-made mustard. A16 and A16 Rockridge's chef Rocky Maselli, who's won a wild-game cooking competition, serves wild rabbit year 'round and will feature other game meats in sugos, sausages, lasagnes and meatballs this fall. Twenty Five Lusk's executive chef Matthew Dolan serves quail, rabbit, venison and boar, and wishes he could also source and serve the snow grouse he loved while working in Scandinavia. Chef Pelle Nilsson, who has cooked for the King of Sweden, serves moose sliders from his Chef Pelle food truck.


At Palio d'Asti in the Financial District, wild-boar shoulder is marinated in red wine and spices, then braised overnight before being cooked into a ragu: "Wild boar is a very common ingredient in Italy and especially Tuscany," says owner Martino Di Grande, who also serves boar-loin risotto, boar lasagne and roasted venison loin with juniper.

Such ideas are catching on -- stampeding, as it were, through Bay Area kitchens far from the nearest forest or prairie. Granted, wild-caught salmon is old news. But reindeer sausages -- in the Tenderloin? New news.

Moose sliders on the Chef Pelle food truck menu at this year's San Francisco Street Food Festival. Credit: Kristan Lawson
Moose sliders on the Chef Pelle food truck menu at this year's San Francisco Street Food Festival. Credit: Kristan Lawson

And why? Because elk steak is the anti-cupcake? Because safe suburban childhoods spent eating Lunchables while playing Myst left hipsters with holes in their souls that make them (still safely) crave blood, guts and the ostensible wild? Because their beards, hats, plaids, vintage typewriters and tattooed anchors comprise a plaintive chorus of cries for help, signaling howling nostalgia for the steampunk stickiness of gory, tech-free, hands-on history in which their kidney-cooking forebears wielded crossbows, guns, hatchets and hooks?

Perhaps as part of this inchoate yearning, the Bay Area food scene has become in the last few years a virtual beast-feast. How, when blood sausage grows boring, to raise the shock stakes?

With the flesh of creatures not traditionally bred for slaughter but, although some of them are indeed now raised on farms, evoking the catch-me-if-you-can thrill and horror of the hunt.

That's not just meat. It's meat squared.

Sachin Chopra and Shoshana Wolff, the married chef/winemaker pair whose All Spice restaurant in San Mateo has maintained a Michelin star for all of its four years, are launching a game-themed restaurant in Nob Hill. Its name, GAME, was selected to signify a certain elegant playfulness but mainly means: "Pheasant and Bison Served Here."

Pheasant at All Spice. Photo: Hardy Wilson
Pheasant at All Spice. Photo: Hardy Wilson

"I'm classically trained, with a French-cooking background, so I was looking for new avenues in which to work with meat," says Culinary Institute of America grad Chopra, an alum of Daniel Boulud's four-star restaurant Daniel whose popular experiments with venison, boar, squab, pheasant, partridge and elk at All Spice inspired him to open GAME.

"A lot of people might think game tastes really strong and that it stinks, but it isn't and it doesn't. I've found that these meats are actually quite good," Chopra says. "They're not all that different to my palate than standard meats, but they provide cleaner meat flavors. They have a lower cholesterol footprint than beef and pork and, of course, are much leaner -- so they must be cooked with other fats. Game meats especially shine when you cook them medium rare -- but, because they cook faster than standard meats, this requires a lot of care."

"You really need to have your cooking skills down in order to prepare game well."

GAME's inaugural menu -- civic red tape has stalled the restaurant's opening from mid-June to mid-to-late September -- will feature ever-shifting gameburgers along with other game entrées, overseen by executive chef Zack Freitas.

David Smith, whose sausage-shaped Missing Link food cart is a fixture at the Treasure Island Flea Market and might soon join Off the Grid, credits himself with pioneering the City's new game game. Smith started selling wild-game sausages in the Tenderloin three years ago after learning to love elk chops and elk sliders while working as a bartender at Alaska's Denali National Park.

The Missing Link cart. Photo: Chad Norket
The Missing Link cart. Photo: Chad Norket

"I'm from Texas; I was familiar with these animals," Smith recalls. But, for him, the game-changer was "this guy in downtown Anchorage who just killed it with reindeer nachos."

Yup: chips. Salsa. And delicious ground Donder-and-Blitzen.

"I saw it as a niche and knew exactly where I wanted to go with it," Smith says.

While bison had long been served in San Francisco -- most notably at Tommy's Joynt -- Smith introduced such retro-neo-exotica as elk sausages stuffed with jalapeño cheddar, dressed with coleslaw and watermelon radish.

He describes his mission as "educating people and breaking them down. I'd watch someone start to walk away from my cart because I didn't sell regular hot dogs, then I'd ask them: 'You want a hot dog? Do you know what's in hot dogs? It's disgusting. You'd really rather walk away from this?'"

To persuade them, he'd slice up free samples of his own sausages -- hormone-free and sourced mainly from family-owned outfits in South Dakota and Alaska.

His mission continues. As more and more restaurants put game on their menus, Smith samples their fare.

"I don't usually call people out on stuff, but I was sitting in this Marina District place eating a burger which is listed on the menu as 100 percent elk and thinking, 'I know elk. That's not elk.' So I asked, and they said, 'Oh yes, it definitely is.' I thought, 'Y'all are miseducating people, because whatever this is, it tastes like cafeteria burgers to me.'

"I did some research online and learned that you can add soy protein to elk and still legally call it 100 percent elk -- even if it's 35 percent soy. I don't understand why that loophole exists, allowing people to use so much filler. To me, it's disturbing."


That being said, "Fuddrucker's in Emeryville does an elkburger which is definitely kick-ass," Smith asserts.