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Not Your Average Bird

Western chefs generate buzz around game birds

Alicia Harvie

There’s a new game in town and it comes in the form of squab, pheasant, duck, quail, grouse, guinea hen, goose and even woodcock. The West’s most innovative establishments are making a splash among diners with an increasingly popular protein – game birds. Chefs looking to keep apace with the hottest food trends are taking note, embracing a more diverse array of proteins in their kitchens.

What differentiates game birds from poultry? Game birds are any bird hunted or otherwise not normally domesticated, unlike poultry which is by definition, “any domesticated bird used for food.” This is, in part, what makes their flavors so unique. “Game birds use more muscle than chicken, because they’re actually flying. There’s more blood pumping through them so the flavors are more pronounced,” explains Brian White, Executive Chef at Berkeley’s long-loved establishment, Lalime’s.

Fortunately for culinary professionals, today’s purveyor landscape allows them to have the luxury of sourcing from a variety of suppliers, including wild game distributors and farm-raised “game” birds sourced straight from the farm. Despite chefs’ increased access to game birds, diners are still not particularly accustomed to seeing wild birds on restaurant menus. While popular in European culture, game birds like squab, pheasant and quail can seem foreign to American palates. Consequently, these proteins often fall into the “special occasion” category whether cooking duck at home or enjoying quail while dining out.

“A big challenge is people’s lack of exposure to game birds growing up,” says Chef Teague Moriarty, who runs San Francisco’s Sons & Daughters along with Chef Matt McNamara. “You go to France and people are very comfortable with it being on the menu. But, once you get the protein in front of the diner, they really appreciate you allowing them to try it.”

Flocking to the table

Diners, it seems, are rapidly moving past merely trying game birds; many are becoming full-on fanatics. 

Executive Chef Julian Serrano, recipient of the annual AAA Five Diamond Award, has led Las Vegas’s Picasso for 14 years. Game birds are bastions of his menu, which offers items like foie gras au torchon in pineapple and port reduction or roasted pigeon paired with wild rice risotto. A particular hit has been his whole quail salad.

“You don’t see it this way in many restaurants: whole quail in a salad with sautéed artichokes and pine nuts,” Serrano explains. “It’s very healthy and very easy to eat. I’ve considered taking it off my menu several times,” he shares. “I can’t. People love it.”

Chef McNamara also notices the buzz around game birds. “It’s catching on. A lot of restaurants in San Francisco are utilizing uncommon cuts of meat and expanding diners’ palates. Game birds are part of this trend.”

Ravi Kapur, Executive Chef at San Francisco’s Prospect, explains “The access is better. There are farmers’ markets selling game birds and rabbits and goats. It’s not this exotic thing that’s only experienced in haute cuisine.” 

Game bird aficionado Chef White relates to the trend on a personal level. “It’s the flavor profile I love,” he confesses. “It’s so earthy, but very accessible even though it sounds exotic. I love using game birds because it gives you a chance to get poultry on the menu. A lot of diners don’t order chicken because they can go home and cook it as well as a chef. We drift toward game birds because they’re trickier to pull off and you can do a little show for the customer.”

Only for the French?

Do game birds only work on French menus? If California’s restaurants are any indication, the answer is definitively no. 

Executive Chef Scott Nishiyama is new to the roster at Mountain View’s Chez TJ, bringing his background in French and Japanese cuisines to the establishment. Chez TJ, offering “Contemporary French cuisine with an American twist,” is among the leaders in game bird utilization.

“We tend to utilize game birds more often in French cuisine,” he explains. “Things like squab, which we have right now at Chez TJ, grouse and guinea hens, their flavors go well with traditional preparations and sauces in French cuisine.” 

But the dishes Chef Nishiyama crafts are far from strictly French applications. “I try to take a different twist and present game birds in the context of French cuisines, but introduce flavors you don’t traditionally see there.”

Case in point? His squab paired with eggplant puree, minted garbanzo beans and soy and caramel jus. “The squab breast is seared and the leg is confit in fat so it’s tender, then glazed in stock. I try to introduce savory and sweet components to create balance. The eggplant is charred with a bit of hazelnut. The minted garbanzo adds lightness. I use caramel for background sweetness. So, the technique of producing the dish is entirely French. But, the flavors are a melding of Asian and Moroccan fare.” 

Chef Kapur echoes the benefits of an eclectic approach. His garlic-roasted quail is served with roasted
almond-fig salad, preserved lemon and tabouleh. “It’s providing a platform for contrasts in textures and flavors,” he says. “The sweetness of the fig and the charred, deep-roasted taste of the quail paired with preserved lemon and crunch of the almonds. All together it creates a harmonious balance.”

Others note the importance of adapting dishes to the warmer climates of California and Nevada. Ricardo Heredia, Executive Chef at San Diego’s Alchemy, admits “Game birds remind me of cold weather. Given San Diego’s climate, we have to think outside the box to bring these birds to the forefront of the menu. We’ll brighten a slow-roasted duck breast with lime and cilantro. We’ll utilize all the amazing citrus of this region: blanco grapefruits, Buddha’s hand, and so forth, rather than creating something slow-roasted or stewed.”

Birds of a feather

Which birds are sure to be a hit on the dinner plate? While all run under the banner of game birds, a chef would be foolish to treat pheasant or quail the same as grouse in the kitchen. “A lot of game birds are drastically different from one another because they vary in size and diet,” says Chef Moriarty. “It’s about what works best with that particular bird.”

Acclaimed Executive Chef Josiah Citrin, who has helped Santa Monica’s Mélisse secure two Michelin stars during his 11-year tenure, is a veritable expert on game birds. He provides a good overview of game bird species and their various characteristics.

“From mildest to strongest you have quail, partridge, pheasant, and then woodcock and grouse on the gamier side,” he informs. “Farm-raised varieties are generally duck, squab or pigeon, partridge, pheasant and guinea hen. Wild game is generally grouse and woodcock.” While Citrin himself is a huge fan of wild varieties, many chefs find that milder birds are more popular among diners.

“Quail is kind of an entry-level game bird because it’s mild-tasting, moist and tender,” says Chef Kapur. Steven Odom, owner of Manchester Farms, the largest quail farm and processor in the country, is, understandably, an avid champion of the bird. “It’s unique. Quail is very low in fat, even with its skin on. I see more and more people partnering it with other proteins. Quail and steak. Quail stuffed with lobster tail. I wish it were a regular on more menus!”

Chef White shares his enthusiasm. “Quail is a home run once you get it right. It’s not dry like some other birds and easier to cook than most. Plus, it’s like this perfect little appetizer. We prepare quail as a simple snack with a peanut mole.”

Others, like Chefs Moriarty and McNamara, prefer squab. “Squab is one of our favorites,” says Moriarty. “I like that it’s a bird, but really a red meat – perfect rare to medium-rare. It’s the best of poultry and meat all in one.”

“Squab stock is also the base stock in our restaurant,” adds Chef McNamara. “It takes all the good elements of chicken stock and raises it to another level.
We have a lobster dish stuffed with sweetbreads set in pigeon
jus. It’s awesome.”

Chef Citrin is also a fan. “We do squab with poached figs and couscous, paired with foie gras. It’s a great combination. Squab offers this beautiful flavor that’s lean and compliments the more fatty foie gras.
We take the breast, stuff it with the
foie gras wrapped in Swiss chard leaves and a whiskey whole grain mustard sauce. Then we poach it lightly and sous-vide it until the foie gras is just warmed through.”

He’s most inspired, however, by the wildest of game birds. “I’m more excited about the wild stuff, because it’s only here a few months a year, generally from September to January,” he explains. “At Melisse, we’re known for having rare birds, like grouse. It’s the most intense and expensive of the game birds – we sell it for $80 a bird. Its taste lingers, with bits of coffee and heather berry to it. We have some customers that fly from all over each year just to have our grouse.”

Selling it

With so many textures and flavors to choose from, it seems chefs have endless opportunities to find a game bird combination that works for their diners. “It’s not a tough sell once it’s on the plate,” says Chef White. But that doesn’t mean the sell is always easy. “People are just not used to game birds or have preconceptions of it being too gamey,” Chef Nishiyama comments. “But prepared the right way, they’re just a fabulous
addition to a menu.”

Chefs Moriarty and McNamara have worked on bringing game birds to a more casual dining setting. “The idea for Sons & Daughters is to put high-end ingredients on the menu, but keep the price point low enough to afford it and the environment casual.”

How can game birds work in this context? “Audience is your biggest challenge and you have to guide them subtly,” offers Moriarty. “When someone comes to us and sees pigeon on the menu, that interests them. But, you have to bring something familiar to unfamiliar ingredients. We once did a Kentucky-fried quail for a brunch menu to play on fried chicken and waffles. That’s a great way to approach it.”

“When I was trying to find a way to sell people on quail,” Chef White offers, “I came up with pork belly ravioli. We braise pork belly with breadcrumbs, chop it up and place it on soft pasta dough. Then we lay the quail over that, adding ground porcinis and cherries. This helped introduced quail in a more familiar

Words of wisdom

Given the tricky nature of working with game birds, how should a chef get started? “Start with pheasant or partridge. Practice to understand the way the meat cooks,” says Chef Citrin. “Then you can transition into the gamier birds. Also, it’s important to cook most
birds on the bone so they don’t dry out and retain that gamey flavor.”

Chef Moriarty offers a different perspective from his time at Sons & Daughters. “The only way we’ve created a menu we’re happy with,” he offers, “is by plating it again and again and tasting it again and again. Cook these birds as many times as you can afford to before selling them.”

Perhaps the easiest advice comes from Chef White, who is nothing but enthusiastic about the benefits game birds can bring to an establishment. “I can’t fathom not experimenting with game birds,” he shares. “If you’re a chef and you have a passion for what you do, you want to explore everything. Just try it.”

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