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Published November 18, 2013, 05:16 PM

Game on: Local restaurant serves up something ‘wild’

FARGO - When restaurants want to highlight their use of locally grown items featured on a menu, many use the term farm-to-table to describe the fare.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

FARGO - When restaurants want to highlight their use of locally grown items featured on a menu, many use the term farm-to-table to describe the fare.

In an area with a large hunting culture, you might think a term like field-to-table, describing the freshly hunted game, would be popular too. But wild game and restaurants don’t go together.

How “wild” is that game on the menu? Not at all.

“Technically it’s illegal for restaurants to serve wild game,” says Matt Wald, head chef at Maxwells Restaurant and Bar in West Fargo.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) needs to inspect foods before it can be sold for restaurant consumption. All the game on restaurant menus comes from farms, not fields.

So when a restaurant, like Maxwells, advertises a wild game dinner like what is being served on Thursday night, “wild” is really just a marketing tool.“Technically it’s just a game dinner,” Wald explains. “But call it a wild game dinner and it sounds more appealing to the public.”

Wald was in the process of planning Thursday’s menu when he talked last Thursday, but he said the lineup would likely include rabbit, duck confit, smoked goose and wild boar.

Grant Larson from Fargo Cass Public Health says pheasant and even gator meat are other examples of approved and inspected game meat that he’s seen in local licensed kitchens.

While many will have their own freezers stocked with meat, he says game on the menu is always popular, because hunters want to see and taste how a trained chef prepares the dishes.

“People ask about how to best keep pheasant from drying out,” he says.

He also points out the food sources differ for the animals. Wild duck that hunters shoot live and eat off of ponds, but the ducks he cooks are corn- and grain-fed farm products.

“That’s why a lot of hunters want their duck cooked rare, because if you cook a wild duck past that, they’re going to be so tough,” says Nick Weinhandl, co-chef at the Hotel Donaldson.

He says the benefit of getting farmed game is getting a consistent product as the animal is regularly fed a healthy diet. The final product is game that is well-marbled with fat.

“They’re not penned up, by any means. They’re in a big, huge open field,” he says. “If you look at a lot of the wild stuff, it’s going to tend to be leaner and have that gamey flavor, a more wild taste.”

When cook, food writer and hunter Hank Shaw appeared at the Donaldson last month to promote his cookbook “Duck, Duck, Goose,” the signature items at the dinner were ducks from Wild Acres Farm in Pequot Lakes, Minn., and geese from a South Dakota raiser.

Weinhandl says they are considering putting Iowa’s Burr Oaks Farm venison on the winter menu.

For Thursday’s game menu, Maxwells will get their venison from Canada, Colorado or even New Zealand, the wild boar will come from Texas and the rabbits from the East Coast.

Though there is a familiar taste for venison, Wald says Elk is more popular at Maxwells. It’s been a longtime fixture at the restaurant, going back more than a decade to when the business was called Littlefield’s.

“It was one of our signature items and it was just something we decided to draft over to Maxwells and it goes over really well,” Wald says.

Weinhandl understands the need to get USDA approval on foods for health concerns, but feels it can be too limiting.

“I wish things were a little looser. I’ve had catfish out of the Red River and it’s some of the best, most delicious, clean tasting catfish I’ve ever had. Can we go down, catch some catfish, bring it here and sell it for our fish special of the evening? No,” he says. “I think it’s restricting. Who is it benefiting in the long run, it’s hard to say.

“It would be cool if we just went out, got a deer, cut out the loins and served it as a special for tonight. I think personally that’s pretty awesome. Hopefully that’s something that gets better understood in the future.”

If You Go

WHAT: Wild Game Dinner

WHEN: 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday

TICKETS: Dinner is $70 per person, $30 extra for the Jeremiah Wine pairing

While wild game may be banned from restaurants, organizations can serve dinners of hunted fare.

According to the North Dakota Department of Public Health, non-profit and public-spirit organizations are allowed to have wild game feeds twice a year.

Such dinners can only be held in currently licensed food service facilities, or an unlicensed facility equipped to handle food preparation and storage, like a community center or a church and that facility can only hold two a year. Hospitals, schools, nursing homes or other locations that cater to the susceptible cannot hold such dinners.

If a feed is held in a licensed food serving establishment, the wild game must remain separate from the food items the site regularly prepares. The wild game can only be brought in the day of the event and stored separately from all of the other products to prevent contamination.

Only “pure” meats can be prepared, no sausage or ground meats can be used.

Game must be cooked to 165 degrees.

Signs must be visible throughout the facility declaring that uninspected wild game is being served.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533