Rabbit on the Rise: Local chefs hop on the bunny bandwagon

Looney Tunes – or was it Merrie Melodies?

Whichever. With macabre glee, Keith Brockman immediately dropped a Bugs Bunny reference in a discussion about rabbit: “Well, the braised bayou bunny bordelaise à la Antoine is a simple recipe,” he said. Then he launched into a machine-gun description of the braised rabbit dish at Sherlock’s Steak and Seafood, the relatively new Cottleville restaurant where he chefs, that would’ve flummoxed both Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd on their best day.

That seems apt. Rabbit-based dishes may not yet be supplanting pork here – bacon remains “the new bacon” – but no less an authority than Michael Pollan has been touting rabbit as a meat whose time has come at last. In that light, the popularity of rabbit dishes may soon grow for numerous reasons. First, rabbits can be bred and raised with relative ease. They’re also much cleaner and quieter than chickens, making them attractive to urban farmers. And compared to cattle and swine, they have a small environmental footprint. Finally, they can be used in hearty and varied dishes – and such dishes certainly enjoy support from culinary pros, who believe that rabbit could earn wider appreciation, if only it could overcome a few obstacles.

The first involves perception. Bugs. Thumper. Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Bunnies enjoy an almost unshakable status as the subject of children’s entertainment and as pets. As a result, Joan Lang – who co-owns Dreamland Palace in Foster Pond, Ill., and regularly cooks hasenpfeffer there – confessed to fretting about the kinder-cuddle factor. “I just took [that traditional German stew] off the menu for Easter. I just thought the kids would be upset,” she said, “’cause you think of the Easter Bunny and so forth.”

Adults, too, sometimes balk, noted Justin Leszcz. With his wife, Danielle, Leszcz owns and runs Yellow Tree Farm, which raised roughly 75 rabbits last year for culinary purposes. He cited the look of cooked rabbit as a potential problem. “I think it has to be prepared properly and almost spoon-fed to people,” he said. “And that’s what one of my chefs actually told me. He disguised it in a stew. Because … the trick to rabbit is taking it off the bone.”

Eleven Eleven Mississippi, in St. Louis’ Lafayette Square neighborhood, has featured rabbit on its menu almost since its opening in December 2003, noted executive chef Bob Colosimo, who focuses on consistent size and availability. Those factors, too, Lang identified as problematic; Dreamland Palace sometimes has difficulty obtaining the meat at all.

Finally, perhaps because of its relative scarcity, Lang described rabbit as “not an inexpensive piece of meat”; Brockman concurred.

Nevertheless, rabbit enjoys an abiding popularity at all three restaurants. “On an average, per week, I would say we go through 20 servings of it at least,” Lang said. Brockman, meanwhile, estimated that Sherlock’s plates perhaps a case every week and a half, and Eleven Eleven weekly averages “20 to 30 pounds, if not more, depending on the time of year and the business,” Colosimo said. (The Leszczes, for their part, put their mouths where their money is. “We eat, in our diet, a rabbit a week, and it’s wonderful,” Justin Leszcz said.)

Both Brockman and Colosimo characterized braised rabbit as something of a destination dish at their restaurants, in fact. “People say, ‘Well, we came here specifically for the rabbit,’” said Colosimo. And Lang related the tale of a Californian whose daughter lived here. “He’d call me long distance and say, ‘Do you have hasenpfeffer this week?’ And I’d say yeah, and then he’d fly into St. Louis, and he’d come here to eat.”

Among the three restaurants, preparation and presentation of the rabbit differ. For Dreamland Palace’s hasenpfeffer, for example, Lang marinates the thigh and leg meat for three days in a cold brine of vinegar, water, onion, sugar and spices. “With today’s way, [rabbits are] farm-raised; I wouldn’t think I’d even have to keep it in there for three days,” she admitted, “but that’s what my mother did, because basically those were wild rabbits, and you’d get the wild taste out and you’d tenderize the meat, because they can get tough.”

At Sherlock’s, meanwhile, Brockman sears the front and hind legs, as well as the tenderloin rolled in side meat, and then braises it all before plating the dish in a bordelaise atop egg noodles, accompanied by carrots, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli – a stick-to-the-ribs entrée. “No one has not liked it, which I thought would be the case more often than not,” he confessed. “But everybody who gets it likes it.”

Finally, at Eleven Eleven, Colosimo braises the seared hindquarters in a Chianti and veal jus reduction incorporating a mirepoix, and then tops the dish with a gremolada and serves it over goat-cheese polenta. His restaurant favors braising over other preparations, Colosimo noted, because “if you do try to sauté it, it can come out a little chewier, and we find that most of our guests want something that’s … almost fork-tender.”

Amusingly, perceptions of the meat’s flavor varied. In Lang’s view, rabbit tastes the same as chicken, an opinion Leszcz echoed. Brockman differed, though: “I wouldn’t say it tastes like chicken, because that’s what everybody says – but it doesn’t. It has kind of the same texture. The leg is the same texture as, let’s say, a chicken wing – but it’s its own thing.”

Many other rabbit-based dishes exist beyond those regularly offered at Dreamland Palace, Sherlock’s and Eleven Eleven, of course, and some of them periodically appear on menus or as specials locally: lapin à la cocotte, lapin à la moutarde. Late last month, for instance, Dressel’s Public House in the CWE hosted a special six-course dinner that featured pâté de lapin, rabbit confit pappardelle and smoked rack of rabbit. Diners interested in the meat simply have to stay vigilant. For instance, Leszcz noted, “Steven [Caravelli] at Sleek just mentioned to me, ‘Grow me some rabbit.’ And I was like, ‘How many?’ And he was like, ‘However many you want.’ So I’ll grow him a batch of eight to 10 rabbits.”

Such vigilance can pay dividends in taste. Brockman recalled regularly preparing a delicious-sounding rabbit pâté during his days at The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton. “We would get in two, three cases [of rabbit], and we would just keep saving the livers and the gizzards in the freezer,” he said. “And then we would pull them out, marinate them in a little apple cider and a little Calvados – apple brandy – and then put them into a country-style pâté. And it works really nice. It’s a real nice flavor.”

Although he called rabbit “a temperamental dish” with a tendency to dry out, Colosimo, who’s been preparing it for more than two decades, reflected on how much he enjoys experimenting with rabbit and praised it as “a great meat.” Brockman concurred: “It matures quickly, … you don’t have to feed it a lot – and boom, you got a meal.”