It’s a well-established irony that a plentiful, local protein – venison, from North American white-tailed deer – is not a viable source of food. Regulations prevent hunted animals to be sold to consumers, either at restaurants or in stores, because there is no screening process to ensure standards and safety.
But venison is lean and flavorful and there is an alternative to meat from deer killed in the wild, one that is sustainable and growing in popularity: farm-raised deer.
In New York City, chefs are seeing increased interest in venison. Meat purveyors like D’Artagnan and DeBragga are filling more restaurant orders and supplying more grocery stores and markets with it. Consumers’ tastes are changing, they say.
At The Musket Room, Chef Matt Lambert’s restaurant that opened two years ago (and won a Michelin star after just four months of opening), venison is on the menu year-round. Lambert is not a surprising chef to have wholeheartedly embraced venison. He’s a native of New Zealand, which is where most venison sold in America is raised and slaughtered.
“[Venison] is not a commodity meat that everyone’s used to eating,” he said. “It’s not very common.”
Still, the appetite for uncommon foods is growing in New York City, he said, and his “Red Deer with Flavors of Gin” has become so popular, it’s a signature dish.
At Gotham Bar & Grill, Chef Alfred Portale has been serving venison for 20 years, but has seen increased interest in the lean protein in recent years.
“We’ve always had a lot of interest because we’re one of the few restaurants that offer it, but … there is an uptick in popularity,” he said. “I think the public is continually becoming more and more sophisticated in their dining choices.”
Farm-raised venison is a lean, healthy protein without much fat but still features a lot of flavor, chef’s said. Farm-raised deer are generally the red deer variety, and differ slightly from the white-tailed variety typically seen in the North American wild. The flavor is less gamey than wild deer.
“It is much more approachable than other game meats, with a similar profile to beef,” said Lambert.
Chef Dave Santos of Louro is also a cheerleader for venison. He likes it so much he tries to put it on the menu year-round. Venison is considered a fall/winter item because that’s when American hunting season is, but New Zealand venison is raised year-round thanks to a temperate climate, and is thus available year-round.
“It’s an uphill battle to get people to eat it outside of that season,” said Santos. “In the summer I’ll do venison tartare or carpaccio, to break people’s mentality behind it.”
Despite the tendency to only eat venison in a specific season, sales are up.
Ariane Daguin, CEO and co-founder of D’Artagnan, has been distributing venison since the company was founded 30 years ago. D’Artagnan sources venison from Cervena, a consortium of deer farmers in New Zealand. Once the farmers teamed up, she said, a consistent stream of quality product was available for distribution – and that was when sale of venison really picked up. A rack of Venison ribs is about $86.99 and 2 pounds of venison strip steak is about $60.
“In the restaurant industry sales have picked up in the past ten years and in the retail world it’s much more recent,” she said. “In the past two to three years we’ve been starting to sell successfully to more supermarkets and not just those very high-end gourmet grocers.”
D’Artagnan expects a 25% increase in U.S.sales for this calendar year. In 2013, the company sold 105,000 pounds of venison: a 22% increase over 2012. The company projects they will sell 135,000-140,000 in 2014.
George Faison, partner and Chief Operating Officer of DeBragga meat purveyors (and co-founder of D’Artagnan with Daguin) also said venison sales were growing.
And in addition to venison from New Zealand, Faison is now sourcing domestic venison from a farm in Iowa called Bur Oaks. It is the first deer farm in the United States that is producing venison in high numbers that he can sell.
All the racks from this year’s crop of 120 animals at Bur Oaks are going to Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill. But that’s it for the year.
Faison says the taste is fresher than that of New Zealand Cervena venison.
“He [Portale] wanted something that was truly special,” he said. “It’s an opportunity. It costs more to produce because it’s a smaller herd and the processing costs are higher, but people who enjoy the flavor, they’ll see.”
But while demand is growing, there are challenges to farming domestic deer. The herds need space and also facilities to slaughter and process the animals. Venison need about as much space as cattle on pasture, and require high fencing. At Bur Oaks, everything is done on site, but the number of animals is limited.
“New Zealand is the only source where you can have a constant supply in consistent quality,” said Daguin.
Faison says he hopes that will change, and with the increased demand, it seems, at the very least, to be a possibility.
Where to eat venison in New York City
The Musket Room: Chef Matt Lambert’s signature dish is Red Deer with Flavors of Gin, made with New Zealand venison. $33. 265 Elizabeth St.,
Louro: Dave Santos often puts venison from New Zealand on the menu at his modern American restaurant. In the summer he features tartare and carpaccio and in the winter strips and saddles. Currently on the menu: seared and roasted strip loin over smoked onion broth, broccoli rabe, roasted heirloom peppers and tris di pasta. $35. 142 W. 10th St., louronyc.com
Gotham Bar & Grill: Alfred Portale puts venison on his menu every fall/ winter. Currently on the Thanksgiving menu: Iowa-raised venison chop with braised red cabbage, dates, celery root, juniper berry balsamic reduction. $135 Thanksgiving menu, plus $15 for venison. 12 E. 12th St., gothambarandgrill.com
Park Avenue Autumn: The re-opening of Park Avenue restaurant as Park Avenue Autumn (and then Winter, Spring, Summer) brings with it fall favorite foods and decor. On the menu until Nov. 30 (the restaurant will be closed until Dec. 2 when Winter will be unveiled): New Zealand Cervena venison tartare prepared tableside with pistachio, dried cherries and coffee oil and served with rye bread. $18. 360 Park Ave. South, parkavenyc.com
Dovetail: Michelin-starred restaurant Dovetail serves venison in the fall and winter seasons. The current menu features venison with saucisson poivre (French sausage), salsify and black trumpet mushrooms. $48. 103 W. 77th St.,