Game On

Hunting for wild game around the valley

Game On

Hunting for wild game around the valley

BY Joohee muromcew
Photography by ashley wilkerson

The menu at Wild Sage includes a roasted baby beet salad with smoked goose, Chioggia beets, crispy beet greens, Point Reyes blue cheese, and crushed pistachio rolls.
The menu at Wild Sage includes a roasted baby beet salad with smoked goose, Chioggia beets, crispy beet greens, Point Reyes blue cheese, and crushed pistachio rolls.

Twenty years ago, when I was dating my now-husband, I was a young staffer at a glossy lifestyle magazine in New York City. I only remember the glamorous parts, including dinners at fabulous restaurants such as Raoul’s (steak frites) or Il Mulino (risotto porcini). Early on in our relationship, I saw a future with Alex, one filled with good food and drink. Never in a million glasses of champagne did I imagine that one day our good food would be wild elk, antelope, pheasant, and turkey that Alex had hunted. Even further fetched were the ideas that we’d store this good food in two freezers in our garage in Wyoming and we’d feed it to our four kids.

“Wild turkey.” Hearing that still sends a slight shudder down my spine, though I can’t entirely remember why. Now “wild turkey” requires a three-day hunting trip and two days to braise and coax it out of its shoe-leather toughness.

Fortunately, for diners in the valley, game meat preparation is a widely practiced, and perfected, art among Jackson Hole chefs. Game meat here has a range of interpretations that constantly evolves with the seasons. Complementing the herbal notes of antelope or tenderizing a chewy cut of elk into a velvety stew are commonplace skills in a valley chef’s wheelhouse. Game meat is to Jackson Hole what seafood is to Cape Cod. A highlight for many first-time visitors to the area is sampling game meat. Initial forays can be as approachable as a pizza topped with seasoned elk sausage or more adventurous, like bison tenderloin.

The Adventurous Gamer
Wild Sage’s intimate dining room—seven tables—at the Rusty Parrot Lodge is quiet and low-key. Still, it has one of the most adventurous yet refined dinner menus in the valley. During his tenure at Wild Sage, former head chef Art Jeffries put wild game front and center. “We’ve always had some game meat on the menu, but in the past few years, it has definitely become more game-centric,” Jeffries says. “Diners are becoming more sophisticated.”

Wild Sage’s game meat vendors are a hunter’s dream road trip: rabbit from Iowa, quail from Wisconsin, bison from Nebraska, and elk from Canada. The roasted rabbit loin is a favorite. The legs are confited and, saving the loins, the rest of the meat is ground into sausage. The loins are wrapped in the sausage, then roasted to medium-pink perfection. It is served over a black garlic pappardelle. Another favorite is the tea-smoked elk tenderloin, cold-smoked in-house with green tea. The elk loin is then pan-seared and served with a Thai-inspired orange demi-glace, a crispy scallion pancake on the side.

The Rusty Parrot Cookbook is a beautiful volume (see sidebar) to take home. For the home cook, it encourages liberal use of spices—a Wild Sage favorite is juniper berries. A standing rule? Unless it’s a braise or a stew, do not overcook.

Game with a Twist
Chef Jeff Drew’s wild game Korean hot bowl hits all the right cool-weather notes while doing a Wyoming take on a traditional Korean rice bowl dish (dolsot bibimbap). The bowl arrives with a satisfying hiss of rice sizzling to a crispy finish. (When your server warns you this bowl is hot, believe them.) Tender slices of venison, seasonal vegetables, and a spicy black bean sauce are meant to be mixed together. The last chewy-crispy bites are the tastiest. This is the perfect meal to enjoy at the bar. Order a Trout Saddle cocktail (Stoli Citros, fresh lime and orange juice, and a splash of cranberry) while you wait for your entree to arrive. Pair the main course’s spicy-savory venison and black bean flavors with an adventurous red from SRG’s extensive wine list.

Dinner and a Show
The Gun Barrel describes itself as “Jackson Hole’s legendary dining experience.” In this case, the hyperbole is called for. Housed in the former Wyoming Museum of Wildlife and Taxidermy, the restaurant’s lodgepole interiors still showcase some of that occupant’s original artifacts, artwork, antique guns, and mounted trophy game. A bison stands just inside the entrance, setting the tone for a dignified, no-nonsense dining experience. The elk chop is simply described on the menu as “a thick, mesquite-grilled chop.” Special-occasion dinners call for the eight-ounce buffalo prime rib, served with au jus on the side, or the mixed game grill—a paleo-cowboy fantasy of elk steak, buffalo prime rib, and venison bratwurst.

At Il Villaggio Osteria, the winter menu includes venison carpaccio with shaved Fiore Sardo, chopped celery leaf, and granola.
At Il Villaggio Osteria, the winter menu includes venison carpaccio with shaved Fiore Sardo, chopped celery leaf, and granola.

Unexpectedly Exotic
The well-edited wine list at Il Villaggio Osteria, with a focus on Sangiovese and Barbera, presents excellent options for pairing with their seasonally driven menu. Begin with chef Serge Smith’s chilled carpaccio of venison. Wild boar tenderloin makes for a secondi worthy of one of their fine Brunellos. Always finish a meal here with a house-made gelato sandwich.

Completely Classic
Swiss charm and fine dining meet at the homey Alpenhof Lodge’s Alpenrose at Teton Village. While the fondue dinners at the Alpenhof Bistro are irresistible, the menu at the Alpenrose includes an elegant antelope dish, wachholder antilope, prepared in traditional Swiss fashion with juniper berries, goat cheese, and fingerling potatoes.

A Wild Burger
For a straightforward introduction to game flavors, try Local’s buffalo burger for lunch. Made with buffalo that is farm-raised in Montana, it’s a juicy patty served with lettuce, tomato, and “special sauce.” A house-made pickle comes on the side. Go back for dinner and order the buffalo tartare, served with crispy potatoes and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Pizzeria Caldera’s Il Bisonte pizza pairs bison sausage with tomato sauce, mozzarella, yellow peppers, fresh red onion, and sage.
Pizzeria Caldera’s Il Bisonte pizza pairs bison sausage with tomato sauce, mozzarella, yellow peppers, fresh red onion, and sage.

Easing In
Whether you’re shy to sample new game flavors or not, one of the most delicious pizzas in town is the Il Bisonte at Pizzeria Caldera. Tomato sauce, mozzarella, yellow peppers, fresh red onion, and sage set a sweet, succulent background for mildly spiced bison sausage from the Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Company. Wash it down with a pitcher of Pako’s India Pale Ale from Snake River Brewing, and you can say you’re living, or at least eating, like a local.


 Get Game at Home

North American Elk Au Poivre
with Lingonberry Reduction

(Adapted from The Rusty Parrot Cookbook by Darla Worden and Eliza Cross)

Originally published with a parsnip puree accompaniment, this recipe also pairs well with roasted root vegetables or a fresh baguette. Medallions of elk loin are marinated, dredged in a fragrant spice blend, seared, and served with a peppery lingonberry reduction. If grinding whole spices proves too ambitious, try quality ground spices in similar proportions.

For the elk marinade:
2 pounds elk short loin, denuded
3 cloves garlic, halved
1 shallot, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 thumb-size lobe ginger, peeled and chopped
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
2 cups canola oil

For the spice blend:
2 star anise pods
2 tablespoons whole coriander
4 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

For the reduction:
5 cups apple cider
1 cup lingonberries
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns

1. The evening before cooking, marinate the elk. Portion the loins into approximately 8 servings. Mix the marinade ingredients and pour over the elk.

2. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning once.

3. To prepare your spice crust, first grind the anise pods into a powder using a spice grinder. Then add coriander and peppercorns, grinding to a coarser texture.

4. To prepare the reduction, combine the ingredients in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture is reduced by 90 percent and small, syrupy bubbles form.

5. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Heat a large cast-iron skillet.

6. Remove the elk portions from the marinade (discard remaining marinade) and coat the elk on all sides with the spice blend. Sear the elk on high heat, 2 minutes per side. Finish the elk in the oven to desired temperature. Be careful not to overcook. Let it rest for 4 minutes. Slice the elk on the bias and serve drizzled with reduction.