Nicky USA's Wild About Game is over - it's been over for a week and more - so I figured I'd better throw my notes into the ring before the statue of limitations has passed. For those who are as late to this party as me: Nicky USA is one of the major distributors of meat and wild game in Portland (and now in Seattle). Owner Geoff Latham (read our profile here) throws a multi-day party up at Timberline Lodge every year to showcase his chefs, let his purveyors sample their wares to the public, and most importantly, gives the restaurant industry an excuse to play "I'm drinking Wild Turkey" until their lips fall to their knees. It is, needless to say, a high point of the year for many.
Central to the showcase day is a chef's competition: Nicky-supported chefs from Portland and Seattle square off along geographic lines, with teams competing in rabbit, elk, guinea hen, and water buffalo categories. As a judge this year, I was privy to the full lineup of dishes, plated they way they were meant to be plated, served at the right temperature, and explained by the chefs. For my efforts, I got a swanky Shun knife, a bag of Jacobsen salt, and a few other things that would help me start my own well-heeled survivalist community in the woods.
The winning dish, by Aaron Barnett of Portland's St. Jack, was a technical marvel: a whole guinea hen leg, boned out and stuffed with a forcemeat of itself, roasted and basted and served with complementary liver and fermented plum sauces (see a better photo here). Presented as a single joint, with the claw proudly in place, it was emblematic of the season and the them. Most importantly, it ate beautifully thanks to a flawless execution. A perfectly-cooked ballotine that eats without falling apart isn't the kind of thing you can go and try back at home. Erik Van Kley (Little Bird) also executed a temperature-perfect roulade of rabbit, with four or five distinctly different bound muscles each cooked to an identical finish.
The dish voted crowd favorite had the advantage of eating well out of the small cups provided. Honors for that went to Harvest Vine's (Seattle) water buffalo in adobo with seared padron peppers and a toothsome coconut rice that ate almost like arborio. It was intensely flavorful but lacked the technical chops of its competitors, and back in the showers, there was some undisguised grousing about ring-molded food.
Chris DiMinno's (Clyde Common) Rossini-style trio preparation of water buffalo was also executed well, and at this point in the weekend it was clear that water buffalo is a meat that ought to enjoy a renaissance soon. It's beefier than beef itself, doesn't suffer from the leanness of elk, and Nicky brings theirs in from a carefully-vetted ranch less than an hour outside Portland.
Here's an example of a dish that was long on pretty - with its truffles and meandering berms and other forest-floor semantics - but fell short on flavor and texture. Ravioli hold for no man...and especially not for the queued-up hundreds.
Vendor highlights this year were Gregory Gourdet's demo of Snake River Farms wagyu, CHOP's new all-natural no-nitrate salumi, Bee Local's local honey demo (more on them next week), and Portland Creamery's cajeta, a goat's milk caramel which, when spread on chevre and bread, is a lucid kind of good.