Cow, chicken and pig are so last year. The hottest restaurants and chefs are preparing wild game — especially buffalo.
Buffalo, or American bison, is becoming increasingly popular among those following the natural foods phenomenon. Unlike cattle, farmers typically raise bison without antibiotics, hormones or other growth stimulants, according to the National Bison Association. The reason is because the animals "grow naturally" in North America, according to the association’s Web site.
Bison was on the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, when estimates showed less than 1,500 bison left in North America — down from an estimated 70 million that roamed North America prior to European settlement, according to the bison association.
American Indians depended on bison as a primary food source, as well as a source for many other uses, which is why European settlers saw the benefit of thinning the herds. Bones were used for arrowheads, knives, pipes and shovels. Indians used buffalo horns for arrow points, utensils, medication and decorative headdresses. Bison bladders became medicine bags; hide was used for buckets, drums, ropes, saddles and snowshoes.
Now, about 500,000 bison live in North America, mostly on private ranches, according to the National Bison Association.
The association attributes much of its increased popularity to the fact that bison meat is naturally healthier than most meats — lower in both fat and calories. Bison is also sustainable, and it tastes very much like beef.
"It is one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had," said Lynn Miller, co-owner of La Rue 123, a fine dining French restaurant in the City of Fairfax. "It’s just so tender, and there’s no fat on it."
Miller first tried buffalo accidentally when she asked the chef of her restaurant to cook her a steak. He misunderstood and thought she asked for the buffalo tenderloin, which was a new addition to the menu. After she ate it, she went into the kitchen to commend the chef for her brilliant meal. When she found out she had just eaten buffalo, she was surprised and a little freaked out.
The meat was tender, lean and very similar to beef.
ACCORDING TO the National Bison Association’s data, a 3.5-ounce serving of bison packs 28 grams of protein, 2.42 grams of fat, 143 calories and 82 milligrams of cholesterol. Comparatively, the same amount of choice beef contains 27 grams of protein, 18.54 grams of fat, 283 calories and 87 milligrams of cholesterol. Bison also contains less fat, calories and cholesterol than chicken, swordfish, rabbit, lamb, pork and turkey, according to the data.
"A lot of people prefer it more as a dietary supplement," said Josh Hannabass, spokesperson for Cibola Farms, a Culpeper, Va. Farm that raises bison and sells a variety of cuts at the Burke Farmers Market. "It’s higher in protein."
Cibola Farms sells everything from buffalo sausage and hot dogs, to buffalo tenderloin, sirloin and ground meat. And it’s become quite a hot item at the Burke Farmer’s Market, said Hannabass.
"We’ve created quite a want for it," he said.
At La Rue 123, executive chef Huseyin Kansu said he serves game meats like buffalo and venison because he wants to be different. He said he wants to teach Northern Virginians how to eat, since large cities have already caught on.
"Game dishes in D.C. are best-sellers," Kansu said.
He attributes a lot of the game success in Washington to the number of foreign tourists who visit the city. Americans typically like to stick to simple American fare, like beef, pork and chicken, said Kansu, so it’s harder to get diners to try new things out in suburban areas like Fairfax County. But people are eating duck, pheasant, and foie gras, so Kansu is confident he won’t have a tough time selling buffalo either.
Buffalo meat is expensive though, since it’s usually naturally raised, thus not mass-produced. Kansu said he pays more for it than beef. "I’m not charging enough," he said. Cibola Farms charges $26 a pound for tenderloin cuts. Sirloin runs $10.79 a pound, and New York Strips and ribeyes are $14.78 a pound. Ground buffalo is $5.10 a pound, and top round roast and sirloin tip roast are about $9 a pound. Like beef, the consumer pay for the cut of the meat. Kansu serves the more expensive cuts, like tenderloin, because he operates a fine-dining establishment. To get a taste of buffalo for less, chain restaurants are starting to serve it too. Ruby Tuesday and Fuddruckers both offer bison burgers on their menus, for about $9. Ruby Tuesday has locations in Centreville, Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church. Fuddruckers has locations in Fairfax, Vienna, Herndon, Dulles, Alexandria and Arlington.
What a diner gets for his or her money is a red meat that is lean, rich in flavor and slightly sweeter than beef.
"It’s so delicious," said Miller.