Cigar Aficionado

Connoisseurs of bold flavors know that game meat is the name of the game when it comes to exotic culinary experiences combined with health benefits. And delicacies such as deer and buffalo are old hat when it comes to eating meats with bragging rights.

John Telge started Arrowhead Specialty Meats, of North Kansas City, Missouri, by selling ostrich, but consumer demand led him to expand into elk, wild boar (pictured), kangaroo, rabbits and occasionally even bear and lion. However, disabuse yourself of the notion that these animals have been stalked and shot before arriving on your table. Hunters can eat and give away their own kills, but they can't sell the meat. Commercial meat must undergo USDA inspection when the animal is alive. Telge's meat is farm-raised from animals that are allowed to roam and forage for high-protein grasses and nuts. Beyond imparting special flavors, the process means the animals are not treated with hormones or subjected to the diseases associated with overcrowded feedlots.

Jon Bonnell, chef at Fort Worth's Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine, points out that the animals are also leaner because of an active lifestyle. With less marbling the meat can quickly dry out, however. For that reason, he says, "We don't let the customer order more than medium doneness. As soon as a lean venison backstrap [loin] gets some char on the outside, we pull it off the grill." The toughened meat flavors we think of as gamy, says Telge, come either from overcooking or the adrenaline that an animal that has been hunted secretes when wounded or panicked.

White-tailed and axis deer may have different flavors, depending on individual diet, sagebrush imparts its own flavor to mule deer. The name of the game is liberal spicing, Bonnell notes. A jalapeño and shiitake cream sauce, or a red wine reduction complements venison. Bonnell serves elk with an acidic tomato and chili pequin.

Sometimes Bonnell doesn't grill. He serves venison carpaccio, which he says is absolutely safe.

Deer and antelope bones simmer in stockpots from October through March at Henry's End in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Executive chef/owner Mark Lahm renders dark and savory game sauces updated from the classical French style. The specialty, though, is a rich turtle soup made with 15 spices, tomatoes and spinach. It's served with a bottle of sherry, so diners can spike to taste. "Diners are adventurous," notes Lahm. "But you have to source game carefully to be assured of good flavor."

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