5:56 PM EDT, October 21, 2012
JACKSON, Wyo. — If the antler door handles don't announce what lies ahead at The Gun Barrel Steak and Game House in this idyllic mountain getaway, then Winchester does.
Standing just inside The Gun Barrel's front doors, Winchester is 1,500 pounds of thick brown bison, sharp black horns and phlegmatic gaze in a dining room full of tourists. Don't worry; Winchester has long been stuffed and retired to bison heaven.
Also getting stuffed were the visitors at Winchester's feet, plates steaming with his brethren in the form of bison prime rib and sirloin. After chowing down, many guests posed for photos with Winchester and, for $13, the youngest diners walked away with small, cuddly versions of him to snuggle all the way back to the hotel (or ski condo).
Such culinary admiration for the bison — and elk and boar and pheasant and deer — is a way of life in Jackson.
Throughout this town at the foot of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, where the dining scene is rich enough to strike envy in cities 10 times the size, game meat is among the primary games. When I visited, Jackson's newspaper declared, "Bison hunt: 34 down," on its front page. A year earlier, hunters had killed only 19 bison (call them buffalo, if you wish) on opening day, making this year's start "a very good day."
If hunting game is in the fabric, eating it is just a small step beyond.
Game (though some is undoubtedly farm raised) can be found on Jackson menus three meals a day, especially dinner and lunch but also breakfast. It's as close as the wild game skillet (two scrambled eggs with bison and boar, seared heirloom tomatoes, and smoked cheddar) at the Silver Dollar Grill.
You can find it amid the haute cuisine (like the $54 cast-iron roasted elk chop at Snake River Grill) or in the art festival street food, which is where I found a Nepalese momo stuffed with free-range bison.
"We buy it because it is local and it is good," said Sange Sherpa, who owns the Everest Momo Shack.
One stall over, Firebelly pizza was serving up two different pies: one topped with cheese and the other with elk sausage. That was it.
"I try to source my ingredients as close to home as I can, and close to home around here is elk," Firebelly owner Karen Hogan said. "I also try to keep it healthy. Elk is low in fat and high in iron."
All that game serves a few purposes when it comes to visiting. It plays to what the tourists want as well as their perceptions of the West (good luck finding fresh elk back home, guy in the black Range Rover with New Jersey plates). From many restaurants' perspectives, it's also local, fresh and environmentally responsible.
Consider Karen Hogan: When she moved to Jackson from Chicago nearly 15 years ago, she was opposed to hunting. Now her opposition is to the beef industry, and she hopes her 5-year-old son will hunt. Not only is hunting part of the local fabric, so is eating what you kill.
"Every winter everyone's asking each other, 'Did you get your elk yet?'" she said.
That's nothing but good news for tourists eating adventurously. Bison burgers are everywhere, but the menus get far more creative, such as the "wild bowl of pasta," at Granary: sauteed elk and bison tips with garlic, shallots and wild mushrooms in a tomato-cream sauce.
It can also get a little spooky, as with the 10-ounce "Western game burger" at Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse, where the restaurant doesn't specify the identity of the game. The "game meatloaf" presents a similar mystery.
The newest restaurants carry game (Local serves perfectly seared elk medallions with lightly charred exterior), and the classic spots have it (Gun Barrel). It is also rarely the worst of what we think of with the word "gamey" — that is, chewy and redolent of recent death. The meat is usually fresh and lively.
"We do have our share of protein here," said John Koenig, restaurant manager of the mountaintop Amangani resort, where the one constant on a menu dictated by the seasons is Montana bison short rib (Amangani's dining room isn't always open to nonguests; call first). "But you have to know how to cook it and what to pair it with."
For instance, he said, game generally should be adorned with a bold sauce, be it salty, savory or sweet, to balance the intensity of the meat.
"Game meat means the animal was living life, and the flavor is from what they ate," Koenig said. "They're naturally seasoning themselves, but there's not as much fat to cook out."
You will therefore not see a restaurant in Jackson that encourages cooking game beyond medium rare.
"If you cook it past medium rare, you're cooking the flavor out of it," Koenig said. "You'll hear city folk say game meat is always tough or has bad flavor. That's because it was overcooked."
Indeed, during three days of eating game I always told the server to bring the meat cooked to the chef's recommendation. There were very few disappointing meals. The disappointment came when I encountered a menu without game. I can't imagine red curry elk at Jackson's Thai place can be that far away.
Get your game on
Five Jackson restaurants to check out for game* and beyond:
Snake River Grill (84 E. Broadway, 307-733-0557, snakerivergrill.com) — Maybe the most beloved restaurant in town by locals and tourists alike. Eat: cast-iron roasted elk chop
Local (55 N. Cache St., 307-201-1717, localjh.com) — Sleek, new "modern steakhouse" across from the town square is off to a strong start. Eat: seared elk medallions
Lotus Cafe (145 N. Glenwood St., 307-734-0882, tetonlotuscafe.com) — Fresh, creative and organic, full of locals and a menu with many vegetarian options. Eat: bison tacos
The Kitchen (155 N. Glenwood St., 307-734-1633, thekitchenjacksonhole.com) — "Refined yet casual" spot that's part of a well-regarded restaurant group. Eat: pan-seared red deer.
Snake River Brewing (265 S. Millward St., 307-739-2337, snakeriverbrewing.com) — After a long day of hiking or skiing, what could be better than a barbecue elk burger and fresh, local beer? (The Zonker stout is world-class.) Eat: barbecue elk burger
Many menus rotate, so game option could be different.
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