A meal fit for a Great White Hunter
Charleston City Paper - February 15, 2006
By: Bill Davis
Like stampeding wildebeest trampling Simba's dad, each year the third weekend of February brings to Charleston an odd bird which alights in all of her hotel rooms and restaurant perches: the Orvis Cowboy.
The Orvis Cowboy (Overspendum honkus faux-Hunterum),which snarls peninsular traffic in the same way a flock of starlings chokes a live oak, is notable for its camouflage plumage and its bright orange chest. Banded around its neck are duck calls of various registers.
But with the arrival of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition also comes a blessed migration of exotic meats and dishes not usually available on the menus of area restaurants that cater to the duck hunting-and-painting set. A high water/low water mark was reached in the late '90s when a long-gone tavern, the Bubble Room, offered up portions of real African lion.
This year, the intrepid food hunters here at the City Paper beat the bushes, but were unable to scare up anything as exotic — or as liable to turn on a hunter and make a meal out of him — as Simba. But we were able to track down a bevy of options for diners wanting to dine on the Wild Side. (And the colored girls go doo doo doo, doo ...)
While most restaurants appear satisfied with just sitting back, doing what they do best, and letting the money roll in — especially since SEWE's three-day financial impact on this town thrashes the 17 days of Spoleto — there are more than a handful of chefs who have gone off the beaten path this year.
For those willing to make a safari off the peninsula, chefs Chris Brandt, at The Ocean Room at the Sanctuary, and Enzo Steffenelli, at Wild Dunes' Sea Island Grill, are offering up repasts that would satisfy the Hemingway in all of us.
Brandt, who counts octopus brain as the most exotic food he's ever stuffed down his throat, always offers up some sort of game to those vacationing out at Kiawah's massive oceanfront hotel. Right now he's serving free-range antelope filets from Broken Arrow Ranch, located in Ingram, Texas, near San Antonio.
"I like the leg filet because the way it is harvested, it is sent to us with all the different muscles separated and broken apart," says Brandt. "That way, there is no cross-section of muscles going in different ways when you cut into it."
The filets are culled from the leg of a 200-400 pound Nilgai antelope that was originally a native of the Himalayan foothills near Nepal and India.
The antelope were introduced to Texas at the King Ranch in the 1930s as an experimental alternative to cattle. And like the South American nutria in Louisiana, the antelope flourished on a sandy terrain devoid of any real predators.
The antelope is strong enough to "stomp a coyote," says Chris Hughes, the ranch's general manager and son of its owner and founder.
To harvest the animal, the Hughes family uses helicopter-borne sharpshooters to fire a single shot from a long-range .308 caliber rifle that has been "suppressed" — "not 'silenced,' this isn't a James Bond film," says Hughes, who returned home to run the family business after earning an MBA from Wake Forest.
The shot to the head, Hughes says, is the humane way to take down the animal, since, unlike cattle stuffed into a finishing chute at a slaughterhouse, they don't have any idea what's about to hit them.
The process has another, more delicious, result. Because the animal isn't freaked out before the single shot claims its life, there's no time for its body to secrete un-yummy compounds like adrenaline into its body, making for a tenderer, more succulent meat.
To ensure absolute freshness, the Hughes use roving, truck-mounted meat rooms where the animals are dressed and sliced right in the field, then the filets are packed directly into ice boxes and overnighted to restaurants around the country.
Additionally, they use electric leads that cause the animal's heart to keep ba-bumping so the blood can be pumped out naturally, further cleansing other compounds from the meat.
(Houston, we have a problem; the City Paper has just lost its vegetarian readers for at least a year.)
Broken Arrow raises other herds that often find their way to Lowcountry dinner plates, including wild boar, Axis deer, which originated in India, and Sika deer, which were brought over to the ranch from Manchuria and Japan.
Several local dining rooms regularly order from Broken Arrow, and you can look for their fare at places like Wentworth Mansion and Middleton Place on a regular basis.
For the Ocean Room, Chef Brandt has ordered a passel of the boar, intending to pound it flat into what will look like a traditional carpaccio. Catering to the more game-hungry palate of the typical SEWE attendee, he will also be offering waterfowl, like duck, which he says always sells well.
Like Steffenelli, Brandt will also be serving veal sweetbreads during SEWE, which are made up of thymus and pancreas glands of the calves.
Steffenelli's veal sweetbreads, like the inner working of the cuckoo clock from his Swiss homeland, are an intricate beauty. Sliced thin into angled triangles, the glands are caught in time in a terrined gelatin that unmasks their tender deliciousness.
Steffenelli will offer a special menu, available Thursday through Sunday, that also features a scrumptious pheasant confit wrapped in a ravioli made from wafer-thin plantain slices. This hearty nosh straddles the line between haute cuisine and comfort food as the rustic qualities of pheasant marry with the exotic fruit in a crunchy, warming assault on your mouth. (Yes, it really is that good.)
Showing attention to detail, the confit is made from rendered pheasant fat — his kitchen doesn't take the shortcut of using duck fat.
Steffenelli is also creating a tasting plate of three different caviars. While caviar is somewhat ubiquitous, what makes this dish exotic is that he hasn't gone with Beluga, or any of the other heavier caviars, but with tobiko caviar, to create an almost whimsically simple dish.
The red, scented caviar, served in an Asian soup spoon, is so sweet and light that the best way to taste it is to pin the individual eggs between your teeth and burst them against the sweet sensor tastebuds located at the tip of your tongue.
While Steffenelli's SEWE menu grew out of his monthly Dinners with Enzo program, in which he pairs exciting dishes with thoughtful wine selections, it also came from the experience of hosting a week-long exotic food dinner at a restaurant he used to work at in Florida.
"We served everything, all the crazy things, that week, like antelope, lion, elk, and bugs."
"Yeah, bugs," he says with a Swiss lilt that lets you know that while he carries his Italian father's last name, he grew up near the Austrian border.
"I now know not to serve anything too exotic, like rattlesnake, lion, or zebra. They are all available, but because those animals are more like a pet, people aren't as likely to want to eat them. Especially if they were in a children's movie."
Judging by the first $2,000 order sheet Chef Ciaran Duffy filled out in preparation for SEWE, there's not much he won't serve at Tristan: wild boar leg, elk shoulder, ostrich top loin, venison leg filet, Kurobuta pork loin, bison, buffalo top rounds, elk sausage, buffalo sausage, and rabbit sausage.
"I tried to even get kangaroo," laughs Duffy, a 9-foot-tall Irishman who speaks with a Tampa Bay accent after 19 years in the States, who has cooked up Tristan's first Brazilian Steakhouse Wild Game Dinner.
Adding to the exotica of the affair, Tristan's waitstaff will be circulating the floor with real Brazilian skewers, carving up the game and meat at the table for diners in a traditional Churrascaria manner. The meal will also include salad and lighter fare to complement the meal.
Less adventurous diners can still order off the a la carte menu at the restaurant located on the first floor of the French Quarter Inn, but where would the fun be in that?
There will plenty of fun (and adventure) in Charleston's dining rooms during SEWE, especially with the old standbys like Chef Robert Carter's Peninsula Grill, which will be offering a venison pâté and squab with a sweet potato fritter and tarragon jus.
Newcomer Chef Ben Berryhill, of Red Drum Gastropub in Mt. Pleasant, will present venison medallions, which are always on the menu, and, in celebration of SEWE, venison sausage, in the restaurant's shrimp and grits plates.
He'll also be offering red drum — the farm-raised kind, not the kind that was overfished. "We're totally into sustainable harvesting," he says.
This is by no means an exhaustive search for the wildest game in Charleston. Especially since so many restaurants will wait until the last moment to see what ranchers like Broken Arrow have before ordering.
So get out there and explore. Just leave the rifles in the truck, guys.