Nicky USA scores the third spot on my tip sheet’s list of meat markets, despite not having a retail store. But if you’re willing to buy a small freezer full of Kobe, quail, or kangaroo, there’s no more comprehensive source of edible flesh in Portland. They’re also the source for most restaurants’ game.
I attended this year’s Wild About Game celebration organized by Nicky USA and held at the Heathman and the Western Culinary Institute. This fifth incarnation was headlined by Alton Brown and included a cooking competition, book signings, a wine and game pairing seminar, cooking demonstrations, product tastings, and book signings. It culminated in a wild game “feast” — a multicourse dinner with a six different chefs preparing each course.
9:00 am is much too early for me on a Saturday, but I rushed from Vancouver and made it in about 25 minutes — only five minutes late after finding parking. Thank goodness I put in all those hours playing Pole Position as a kid. Luckily, Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, one of the few shows on the Food Network I make an effort to watch, was late as well. Alton Brown is the Bill Nye of the food world. His show is both funny and informative. While most shows just give recipes, cute hostesses with a bit of cleavage, and maybe a catchphrase, Good Eats actually teaches the viewer how to be a better cook. And the show is genuinely entertaining.
In person, Brown is much the same as he is on TV. For his demonstration, he prepared buffalo jerky much as he had prepared beef jerky on his show. Challenged, he said, by his wife to come up with a way to make the dried meat without purchasing a dehydrator, he devised a method using a box fan and furnace filters. Strips of marinated meat are laid between two filters which are then bungeed to the fan. The blowing air dries out the meat. He built one of these contraptions as the audience watched. The first time Brown tried it, he said that the next morning 75 dogs sat in his yard facing the fan as if praying to Mecca.
Everyone in the audience got a piece of the finished product, which was tasty, and then he answered questions. He was even funnier when entirely unscripted, joking with the audience. Afterwards, he signed books and took pictures with fans.
Following Brown’s demo, Caprial and John Pence made a dish of roast duck and butternut squash. I still don’t know if I like their repartee, but the food looked good. But Caprial’s duck dishes have always been my favorite items at her restaurant.
Nine chefs spent the day in the Heathman’s kitchen competing for pride and prizes. Philip Boulot of the Heathman, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, Jody Denton of Merenda, Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen, Kenny Giambalvo of Bluehour, Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez of The Harvest Vine, Thierry Rautureau of Rover’s, Scott Staples of Zoe, and Jonathan Sundstrom of Lark were each given a different game ingredient and told to come up with a dish. An all-star juding panel consisting of Melissa Clark, cookbook author and national food writer, Martha Holmberg, FOODday editor, Heather John, Bon Appetit editor, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of The Splendid Table, and, of course, Alton Brown tasted the dishes as the came out.
Ultimately, Portland was shut out. Two seattle chefs, Scott Sundstrom and Scott Staples took first and second, and Jody Denton from Bend took third.
Sundstrom’s winning dish (that Brown called clearly the best) had three parts: 1) Elk loin chop with celery root and truffle salt, 2) Elk liver with pearl onions and quince-vanilla bean gastrique, 3) Elk and wild mushroom crepinette.
During the time between the actual cooking and the announcement of the winners, Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place, Molly Schaeffer Priest formerly of Genoa (who I sat with at dinner and sounds exactly like Rosanne Rosanna Danna the more her Chicago accent comes out), and Jerry Traunfeld of The Herbfarm, paired wines with game for a dining room full of guests.
Upstairs was the “artisan marketplace.” Local companies primarily trying to connect with wholesale clients had their foodstuffs on display, giving out tastes. I stuffed my belly full of Salumi’s mole and lamb prosciutto. Damn those are good. I tried rillettes de canard from Fabrique Delices, chocolate from Pralus and Chocovic, and coffee from Ristretto Roasters. One of the more interesting items was a dry sparkling hard cider from Cyderworks. I don’t drink, but I found it drinkable without being sweet.
Later in the hall outside, In Good Taste had set up a temporary bookstore and several of the authors were signing books and talking with fans. Melissa Clark, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and Jerry Traunfeld, joined by Janie Hibler, author of one of my favorites, The Berry Bible, carried on a conversation about all-things food. If I closed my eyes, it was like I was listening to NPR with Kasper hosting a roundtable.
I don’t think this part of the event had been promoted adequately. There was never a line, except for two die-hards waiting for Brown to show up (apparently he didn’t know he was supposed to attend another book signing). Anyone who wants an autographed copy of any of these authors’ books should head on down to In Good Taste because I know they have plenty of leftovers that I’m sure will eagerly be snatched up by their students if you don’t get down there first.
For me, the evening ended with dinner. I hadn’t bought tickets, but Barbara Dawson and her husband (owners of In Good Taste) decided to enjoy some well-deserved rest, generously passing along their tickets to me. I called my wife, who joined me upstairs at The Heathman for the six course meal. When I handed the lady at the door our tickets, I asked where we could sit and she said anywhere. So of course I sat my wife and I down at the open seats next to Kasper. Ten minutes later we were being bumped, sent into the back with other rejects from the big peoples’ tables. It’s one thing to reserve seats for the VIPs, but next time I hope they’ll think about having someone or something actually indicate that the seats are reserved before people start picking their spots. There must have been 20 of us who were sent to the kids’ tables in back.
The menu with wine pairings, chefs, and brief comments follows:
Smoked Moulard Duck Breast with Celery Root Salad and Foie Gras Vinaigrette
2003 Francis Tannahill Dragonfly Gewurztraminer
Thierry Rautureau, Rover’s Restaurant
Essentially duck bacon and fantastic. One of my two favorite courses of the night. The foie gras vinaigrette provided a nice tanginess to balance the richness and smokiness of the dish overall.
Moroccan Quail Stuffed with Merguez Sausage and Grilled Lemon on a Bed of Cous Cous
2004 Solena Cellars Oregon Pinot Gris
Pascal Sauton, Carafe
The cous cous was very fragrant and studded with currants. The quail was very juicy, though the skin could have been crisped. The grilled lemons were fantastic, however, providing more sweetness than sourness and a breadth of flavor. This dish had a lingering spiciness that built over time.
Local Rabbit Braised in Bianco
2002 Domaine Drouhin Laurene Pinot Noir
Morgan Brownlow, clarklewis
A favorite for many people at the table, I found it rather boring. It was good, but essentially just braised duck with leeks and mushrooms in a meaty sauce. Very plain flavor, ultimately.
Applewood Bacon Wrapped Fallow Venison with Bourgon Glazed Acorn Squash, Wild Mushrooms and Sauce Grand Veneur
2002 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir
Philippe Boulot, Heathman Restaurant
My other favorite course. Even though we only had butter knives to cut with, the venison was rather tender and the bacon didn’t overpower it. Great smell. The sauce contained huckleberries. On the side was a terrific piece of acorn squash, cooked perfectly, and whose sweetness was accentuated by the bourbon glaze. I wish The Heathman had really exciting and wonderful dishes like this on its normal menu.
Assorted Peterson Imported Cheeses
2002 Solena Cellars Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
One cow’s milk cheese and two sheep’s milk cheeses. The sheep’s milk cheeses were more interesting. There was one ripe soft cheese and one aged cheese, neither of which were too muttony. For desserts we were given two truffles and one chocolate. There was a plain truffle, a hazelnut truffle, and a mint-filled chocolate. All were decent.
I had just a sip of each of the wines. The Gewurztraminer was the only one that I could truly stand, and even it I didn’t enjoy. I just don’t like alcohol. I could tell, having tasted a range of pinot noirs in the past, that both of the ones we were served were high quality. The cabernet sauvignon, however, just tasted like bitter chalk to me.
My wife and my intolerance for alcohol, though, was one fellow out our table’s gain. My wife must have loaded him up with an extra eight to ten ounces of pinot that she didn’t drink. He even had her refill her glass once for him. His buddy by the end of the night was calling my wife his “pusher.”