When you read menu descriptions of wild-game dishes, it might conjure up memories of hunting season, or the chewy venison served for weeks afterward.

In recent years, though, flavorful, tender wild game has become an increasingly common centerpiece of entrees served at Portland-area restaurants. One indicator of the popularity of this seasonal trend is the lineup of local chefs who are facing off this weekend for the third annual Wild About Game Cookoff.

Chefs say the bold flavors of wild game are well-suited to robust ingredient pairings, such as mushrooms, berries and root vegetables. Good cooking is all about balancing flavors, after all, and wild game simply calls for ingredients that can enhance its taste without being overpowered.

"Restaurants that never thought they could sell game now have something on the menu this fall," says Geoff Latham, owner of Nicky USA, a Portland company whose local sales of game meat have increased about 25 percent over the past year.

The lean nature of most wild game can make it attractive for diners who like to eat well and stick to a diet, particularly those following the high-protein specifications of the Atkins plan. Latham says ultra-lean ostrich, for example, is popular with weightlifters.

Then there's the fact that game featured in area restaurants is likely to have been raised on small, local farms rather than massive corporate operations, like the meat suppliers detailed in Eric Schlosser's best-selling exposé, Fast Food Nation. It's possible, according to Latham, to trace the farm-raised game he sells back to the location where the animal was born.

Locally, the best-selling game meats are buffalo, which tastes like beef but is considered richer in flavor, and rabbit, which tastes similar to chicken. Game birds, such as quail and squab, are also popular with Portland restaurants, Latham says.

While other meats are available--Seattle-based Finest Exotic Meats offers bear, reindeer, rattlesnake and turtle--the more exotic game isn't yet a common menu option in Portland.

At some well-loved local establishments, cooking with game can't be considered a new trend. At Southeast's legendary Italian restaurant Genoa, for example, wild game is a regular presence on the menu, as game birds and rabbit are considered classics of traditional Italian cuisine. "We use rabbit a lot," says chef Molly Schaefer Priest, "because Italians love rabbit."

Genoa's menu, which changes seasonally, currently offers quail stuffed with porcini mushrooms and pancetta, while during the summer, guinea with pomegranate sauce was a featured dish. Schaefer--who won the game cookoff last year with a squab ragu served with gnocchi and sautéed greens--says wild boar is a popular dish during the holiday season.

At Esparza's Tex-Mex Cafe, on the other hand, the use of game is a break from ethnic tradition, yet in keeping with the restaurant's eclectic atmosphere. Owner Jose Esparza has been serving exotic wild game at his restaurant since it opened nearly 15 years ago. Among the most popular choices are ostrich quesadillas and buffalo enchiladas.

Alligator is occasionally included on the menu as a fried appetizer, especially for the restaurant's zany New Year's Eve bashes. "It's really good if you batter-fry it quickly," says Esparza, "but if you cook it too long it tastes like a rubber ball."

At Fife, which opened in Northeast Portland last year, chef Marco Shaw aims to make his bistro feel like a well-established institution by tapping into regional traditions. Americans--and especially Northwesterners--have always been avid hunters, which Shaw says inspires him to regularly include rabbit, venison and pheasant on the menu. On a recent visit, Fife offered braised rabbit with parsnips, cipollini and roasted potatoes, comfort food prepared with touches of gourmet sophistication.

Ultimately, this seasonal upswing in Portland restaurants toward serving wild game can be linked to the fervor chefs display for using local, sustainable ingredients. Wild game, after all, has always been a part of this region's most native cuisine.


2832 SE Belmont St., 238-1464

Esparza's Tex-Mex Cafe

2725 SE Ankeny St., 234-7909


4440 NE Fremont St., (971) 222-3433

Wild About Game Cookoff

The Resort at the Mountain, 68010 E Fairway Ave., Welches. 10 am-4 pm Saturday, Oct. 18. $10 advance, $12.50 at the door. Wild About Game Feast: 6 pm, $29.95. For information, call 622-3101 or visit www.theresort.com .

Judges include Philippe Boulot, executive chef of the Heathman, and Jamie Hibler, author of Wild About Game.