It’s time for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, and that means serving game to the camouflage crowd. Except that chef Marc Collins, co-owner of Circa 1886, says that he’s noticed lately the SEWE folks have become a bit less adventurous.
Never mind, chef Collins is still serving game for SEWE and beyond. This year, it will be antelope.
Collins says that he has antelope on the menu whenever he can, SEWE or not, especially because one local gentleman orders it whenever he comes in, no matter how Collins serves it.
Collins prefers to cook with the loin and says this antelope in unlike any other because of the way it is handled. The antelope served at Circa 1886 run free on several ranches in Texas that have partnered with Broken Arrow Ranch to manage the antelope population.
A certain protocol is followed to ensure the antelope doesn’t experience stress when it’s taken.
“People who don’t like game don’t like it because the animals tend to stress out (when they are hunted) and release endorphins through the muscle tissue that gives you this gamey flavor,” Collins explains. “... This is what meat should taste like without stress.”
The process creates antelope meat that Collins says has a “very clean profile with a lean, beefy quality.” In fact, Collins says this antelope is the perfect introduction to eating game because its taste is so delicate.
Collins will be serving antelope paillard (pounded thin and quickly seared) for SEWE, and he shares his thinking in matching flavors with the meat as he prepares a loin.
“I think of things they eat, like grasses, bits and pieces off trees,” Collins says. “So I’ll use juniper, which goes well with game, blackberries because fruit goes well with game. Then nuts are good, so I’ll use a little pecan vinegar in the sauce and some fresh green asparagus to cut through all those flavors. And I’ll do a potato and pepper hash to bring it back to its Texas roots again.”
The result, seared and left medium rare, is a tender and rich piece of meat that is, as Collins has promised, just barely on the wild side of beef.
Antelope may be the “gateway” game meat, but Collins has served wilder fare. He has put kangaroo from Australia on the menu (“A little bit like a pork or turkey mix,” he says), done as racks much as one would cook lamb. He has served buffalo from a farm conglomerate out of North Dakota and quail from Manchester Farms in South Carolina. Bison showed up as short ribs, and elk has been featured for certain game dinner events at the restaurant, as has alligator and camel pate. Broken Arrow has supplied wild boar shanks that Collins served as osso bucco.
Before he came to Charleston, Collins was a chef in Texas, and he says he served black bear there.
Collins says he does have limits on the wildlife he will serve.
“When it gets into an ethics issue, where people will shy away, I try to watch that,” Collins says. “I’ve had the opportunity to do lion and I kind of feel like, ‘Eh, I’m not sure how that would be perceived,’ so I tend not to take that jump.”
He also has no desire to serve ostrich, not because of ethical reasons but because he just doesn’t like it.
For those just tiptoeing into eating game, Collins suggests, “Be open to new flavors, new tastes, and be open to getting the chef’s recommendation on how it should be prepared because that will give you the very best experience. If you like everything medium well, you’re probably not going to be satisfied unless you know that it’s not going to be super-juicy. I mean, I have no problem with people ordering medium well, it’s not going to upset the chef, but just know that it’s going to be dry.”
Collins says his own favorite is one not seen on his menu.
“Caribou,” he says. “It’s hard to find here. It tastes more intense. It’s lean, healthy. It’s like the best steak you’ve ever had, times five. Really rich and bloody. You’ll fall in love.”
And, Valentine’s Day, or SEWE, or not, that really is the point.