Bunny Hop

Bunny Hop

Is rabbit the new other white meat?

I stopped into one of those ubiquitous, semi-seedy liquor stores on Adeline Street in Berkeley for a soft drink one afternoon. It was one of those shops that have a little of this and that, including random groceries and a deli counter featuring about three items, probably delicious but heretofore unknown to me. From the back wafted the most enticing smell of barbecued meat. Chicken, maybe.

I asked the guy at the counter, who was speaking in Farsi with his wife and little girl, what was cooking. “Rabbit,” he said. And a sort of synchronicity clicked in my brain. It seems that everywhere I go these days, there’s rabbit on the menu.

We went to dinner with friends at Boot and Shoe Service on Lakeshore, and enjoyed Southern fried rabbit as an appetizer—little savory nuggets in a crisp batter, tastier than any popcorn chicken. At Hard Water on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, we ordered succulent braised rabbit, falling off the bone, with buttermilk dumplings and sage. At the stellar new Thai place called Kin Khao on Union Square, “Khun Yai’s Green Curry with Rabbit” laves curry paste over the loin and saddle, Thai apple eggplant, Thai basil and bird’s-eye chili—then gilds the lily with rabbit meatballs in the dish, as well.

In the Russian River Valley, we ate the prix fixe at The Farmhouse Inn, and there it was, rabbit three ways: An applewood-smoked bacon-wrapped loin, roasted rack, and confit of leg with whole-grain mustard cream sauce and Yukon potato. Every bite was meltingly delicious.

Back in the East Bay, you can order an all-American rabbit Brunswick stew at Hutch in Oakland’s Uptown: braised rabbit with bacon, corn, butter beans, potatoes, carrots, and hushpuppies. Chevalier in Lafayette goes old-school classic French with its “Lapin Braise a La Moutarde”—braised rabbit in a Dijon mustard crème sauce with fresh fettuccini. And Trabocco in Alameda takes an Italian turn with “Chitarrine al Cacao”: rabbit ragú over house-made pasta with cocoa powder.

Rabbit is a regular and celebrated part of many cuisines. The French are well known for their love of le lapin, but so are many Middle Eastern, South American, and Asian cultures. From curries to roasts, stir-fries and stews, farm fresh or wild-caught, rabbit variations are gastronomically pleasing. One world culture that does not traditionally eat rabbit is Jewish, for whom it is treif (not kosher), and while Australians embrace the eating of rabbit, the British are less interested, often looking on rabbits as vermin, according to David Samiljan of Baron’s Meats in Alameda. Rabbit meat was very common during World War II, along with horse meat, when beef and pork were rationed and kept for the fighting troops. Ask an elder, and you’ll probably see a nod of recognition.

I first ate rabbit as one of five hungry children growing up in rural Sonoma County. What I remember most about rabbit for dinner is “four drumsticks, no fighting.” My sister and nephews raised rabbits for meat, and though none recalls the butchering with any pleasure, they say rabbits were easy to raise; the hobby became a source of income for my nephews in high school, when they sold to local restaurants.

Mark Pasternak of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio tells a slightly different story of rabbits on the grand scale. It’s important to remember that rabbits are mammals, and at the bottom of the food chain (they are one step above grass; everyone eats them), he says. “They die easily. They are prone to disease; they get injured easily, stressed.” So when you get 2,000 rabbits together, as in Pasternak’s rabbit barn, “Mother Nature thinks there are too many,” and rains destruction upon them. While backyard growers can do very well with rabbits, bunnies are difficult to farm on a commercial basis.

Rabbits are fairly low-impact to raise, since they can subsist on grass and vegetable scraps; packaged rabbit chow is not necessary if you have enough grass and scraps at hand. Children, the disabled, the elderly or people with very small backyards can all raise rabbits with ease, says Pasternak. His farm has partnered with people in Haiti to help teach about raising rabbits and the ease of raising this high-quality protein in a small space. Rabbits’ small size and relatively few needs make them a perfect fit for the urban farmer. “A single female [rabbit] can make as much meat as a cow on one-sixth the feed, or six times the meat, to look at it the other way around,” says Pasternak. Rabbits are a sustainable food source that breeds easily in captivity, and as semi-ruminants (like horses and turkeys), their meat protein is higher quality than full ruminants like cows or deer, he says.

My casual restaurant experience isn’t just coincidental. Local chefs, butchers, and regional suppliers of meat rabbits concur: There’s a new “other white meat” on the menu. Pasternak sells to Chez Panisse and French Laundry, to drop a few names. And the home gourmand is getting in on the trend as well.

Aaron Rocchino of The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto sells half a dozen whole rabbits a week from his butcher case. Most of his customers aren’t familiar with rabbit, but, he says, “A lot of what we do here between the butchers and the customers is to get them out of their comfort zone and try something different.”

Rabbit’s “mild flavor lends itself to just about anything,” says Rocchino. He recommends letting the season dictate the cooking style: In spring, cook your rabbit with new carrots, peas, favas, and greens, with a light, fruity olive oil. In winter, a one-pot stew or a braise with mushrooms, mustard, and crème fraîche might be just the thing. “Don’t let it be intimidating,” he says. “Give it a shot.” His butchers will cut up the meat or otherwise help in pre-prep for the nervous cook. To cap another trend, roast your rabbit wrapped in bacon. “The meat itself is lean, so cooking it slower will help. Low and slow is the best way,” advises Rocchino.

Rabbit meat is delicious, and does not, as many people assume, taste like chicken, nor is it gamey. “I don’t know if rabbit will ever get out of the shadow of the chicken,” says Samiljan. It’s more like turkey, he says. With a mild flavor that readily adapts to sauces, stews, grilling, and deep frying, rabbit is lean protein and highly versatile. There are four leg-thigh sections, with a dark meat flavor, and then a long loin or saddle, which is like poultry breast meat or pork loin—white, tender, but prone to drying out if overcooked. “I sell a lot more rabbit rillettes than [plain] rabbit,” Samiljan says. Rillettes are a rustic pâté made from meat that’s been poached in its own fat, then shredded and stored in some of that fat. (Since rabbit has little fat, you can use pork fat or lard; check online for recipes.) Rillettes are “meltingly tender and super delicious,” says Samiljan.

When I asked the liquor store guy where he’d purchased rabbit locally, he said, “Saba.” I didn’t recognize the name, but he helpfully added, “Near the freeway. 23rd Street. You can’t miss it.” And it’s true. Once you find your way to Saba, you’ll never miss it again. This abattoir is a bit difficult for the Western shopper, because we don’t buy our meat live, except maybe crab or lobster. Saba caters to anyone who wants live poultry or rabbit, and you can take it home to dispatch yourself, or the staff on hand will humanely slaughter your chosen meal.

Their methods are halal, and their stock is guaranteed fresh. I visited on an extremely hot day in April and the caged chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons, quail, and a dozen rabbits seemed warm (as we all were) but not in distress. They were in a shady breezeway, had food and water, and were living out their last hours no worse the wear for it. If you want the freshest of meat and want to dress it yourself, this is the place. As well, if you dress your own meat, you may use the blood, which you won’t find on store shelves; it makes the most authentic blood sausage, gravy, and cacciatore ever. (If you dress your own rabbit, you’ll also have the pelt and feet for crafting.)

There’s a lot to be said for nose-to-tail use of an animal you’re about to eat; it’s greener and more humane, not wasteful of the product or the life. All of it is usable. Rabbit comes with its kidneys and liver, as do most poultry; Samiljan gets ecstatic over the liver and praises it as “delicious.” Rocchino reminds buyers that rabbit giblets are bigger than poultry, so not to be surprised by that. Save the bones for stock, roasting them first to bring out a browner, caramelized flavor; you’ll still have a light stock akin to veal or poultry broth, he says.

As for the supposed difficulty of eating a cute, little bunny, Samiljan says, “It’s yummy. My kids really like it. We have a theory at Baron’s Meats: ‘The cuter the animal, the better it tastes.’ “

Which wine goes with rabbit? Rocchino cautions not to overwhelm the light flavor of the meat with a heavy wine. “Have the rabbit dish itself be the highlight, and the wine to help it along.” Samiljan recommends staying with a white wine, depending on the preparation. Your butcher or sommelier will be happy to discuss flavor combinations and enhancements at length.

If you’re nervous about trying rabbit for the first time, ask your butcher for suggestions. Internet searches for recipes yield a plethora of choices.

Boot and Shoe Service, 3308 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-763-2668, www.BootAndShoeService.com
Chevalier, 960 Moraga Road, Lafayette, 925-385-0793, www.ChevalierRestaurant.com
Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, 7871 River Road, Forestville, 707-887-3300, www.FarmhouseInn.com
Hard Water, Pier 3, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, 415-392-3021, www.HardWaterBar.com
Hutch, 2022 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-419-0622, www.HutchOakland.com
Kin Khao, 55 Cyril Magnin, San Francisco, 415-362-7456, www.KinKhao.com
Trabocco, South Shore, Alameda, 510-521-1152, www.Trabocco.com

Baron’s Meats, 1650 Park St., Alameda, 510-864-1915, www.BaronsMeats.com
The Local Butcher Shop, 1600 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-845-6328; www.TheLocalButchershop.com
Devil’s Gulch Ranch, Nicasio, 415-662-1099, www.DevilsGulchRanch.com
Saba Live Poultry, 845 Kennedy St., Oakland, 510-535-1111, OaklandSabaPoultry@gmail.com
Sunday Marin County Civic Center Farmers’ Market

Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, blogger and author. Read more at www.JuliaParkTracey.com or follow her on www.facebook.com/julia.tracey and www.twitter.com/juliaparktracey

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