Venison dinner at Terroni

One of the best dinner experiences that I recently had started at 9am on a Wednesday morning when my friends Chef Marcel Vigneron and Chef Haru Kishi picked me up in their car to go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  They were on their way to the market for a shopping spree to pick up ingredients for a special venison dinner event at Terroni restaurant.  Marcel, along with 3 other local chefs, were invited to prepare grass-fed and humanely raised Wagyu beef and venison for a private dinner where chefs, wine distributors, food suppliers, restaurateurs and cattle ranchers gathered to enjoy an evening of good food and wine.  The Wagyu beef and venison, grass fed outdoors on free range pastures and raised without any additives, hormones, antibiotics or steroids, were supplied by Firstlight Foods and sponsored by local distributors Pilot Brands and Rocker Brothers Meats.

It was interesting to watch these 2 chefs toss ideas around and talk about menu inspirations as they rummaged through crates of organic vegetables, sniffed bunches of herbs and sampled ripe summer fruits.  Little by little, as our shopping bags filled up with vibrant produce, their dishes began forming in my mind and I couldn’t wait to see and taste the final products. Earthy chanterelle mushrooms, bright cranberry and calypso beans, wild arugula, purple ruffles basil, golden raspberries, fraise des bois wild strawberries, purple lavender blossoms and golden beets were just some of the items that they picked up at the farmers market.  Everything was brought back to Marcel’s kitchen at Bar 210 and prepped with the venison.

I love venison, especially when paired with tart berries, but it’s rare to find it on restaurant menus in Los Angeles.  There may be a misconception that venison is gamey, but good quality venison is lean with a delicate grain and clean light flavor.  In fact, venison is lower in fat than a skinned breast of chicken, low in cholesterol and higher in iron than any other red meat.   The huge venison saddle that Marcel received was a beautiful piece of dark red meat, and hardly had any odor.  The venison was skillfully broken down by these two seasoned chefs who worked with speed and precision.

Within 15 minutes the entire venison was broken down into beautiful pieces of strip loin, saddle and tenderloin.

My profession involves healing broken bones and sewing wounds back together, so it was a little disturbing to watch them crack the venison ribs and vertebrae with sheer brute force and throw them into a pot for a jus.  I cook a lot, so it wasn’t the concept that was disturbing, but the loud cracking and snapping noises from the butchering.  I quickly got over it when I started smelling the amazing aromas of the venison stock reducing on the stove.

The cranberry and calypso beans were boiled in a dutch oven with a bouquet garni and celeriac shavings while radishes, turnips, beets and daikon were shaved on a mandoline and pickled in rice vinegar.  Haru made puffed wild rice and amarinth seeds by quickly deep frying them in oil, while Marcel made puffed quinoa and beet root fluid gel using agar.

Both chefs cooked at full force with no breaks from 11am until 2am when the Terroni dinner ended.  Marcel and his sous chef Robert Montano even had to do dinner service at Bar 210.  The non-stop fast paced operations of the kitchen were exciting for me to watch as an outsider, but I saw first hand that the work is physically demanding and incredibly intense.  Multi-tasking over the hot stoves, running back and forth between stations, shaving, dicing, frying, slicing, boiling and poaching all while remaining mentally focused on menu ideas and time management to produce beautiful food for others to enjoy- it’s amazing that more chefs don’t experience burn out.

At 11pm, guests gathered around the large communal table in the Wine Library, a secret back room accessed through Terroni restaurant.  Terroni managing partner Max Stefanelli greeted guests at the doorway to the beautiful dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles while Ben Andersen from Rosenthal Wine Merchants NY showcased the various wines that were paired with each dish.   A group of chefs were in attendance- Josiah Citrin from Mélisse, Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe, Michael Cimarusti of Providence, Alex Becker of Nobu West Hollywood and Nyesha Arrington of former Caché.  One of the Truffle Brothers was there for the dinner, as well as the beverage director for the SLS Hotel, a few New Zealand ranchers, and Sarah from Tastespotting.

The first course to start the evening was Marcel’s venison strip loin carpaccio, seared with garlic and thyme, sliced paper thin and gently draped over wooden serving boards.  An assortment of beautiful garnishes brought vibrant flavors, colors and textures to the delicious appetizer: cranberry beans and calypso beans added an earthiness that anchored all of the contrasting acidity imparted by the pickled radishes, beet root and cipollini onions.  Pearly little beads of puffed quinoa titillated with their delightful crunch while golden beet root fluid gel, red beet root fluid gel and wild arugula added bright color palettes to the canvas.  Marcel put the finishing touches on the carpaccio with dots of golden egg yolk sauce before sending it out to the dining room.  Everybody sighed and swooned over this elegant and tasty dish.

My favorite dish of the evening was Marcel’s venison tenderloin tartare, hand cut with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The light flavors, tender meat and fine grains of venison make it an ideal medium for tartare, and Marcel used just the right amount of ingredients to bring a perfect level of acidity and richness to the dish.  A generous dollop of tartare scooped onto a crispy bright red beet chip, augmented by a smear of wasabi cream and garnished with slivers of microchives and aromatic lavender blossoms made for a little piece of heaven in one satisfying bite.

Chef Andrea Cavaliere, Executive Chef of Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, offered his interpretation of venison carpaccio with pressed eggplant caponata, blueberries, shaved fennel and orange salad, chive blossoms, parsley blossoms and Thai basil blossoms.  The flavor combinations in this plate were outstanding- the sharpness of the fennel and the tartness of the berries complemented the mellow flavors of the tender venison very well.

There were 2 other featured chefs presenting dishes that evening, including Chef David Féau, Executive Chef of Patina Restaurant Group’s Cafe Pinot in Downtown LA, who made an amazing wagyu beef tartare with parmesan cheese, shaved summer black truffles and a quail egg shot.

Chef Micah Wexler, formerly of Craft and currently at Voyeur, presented a roasted venison tenderloin in cinnamon broth with rhubarb chutney, middle eastern kibbeh, fresh dill and parsley.

Marcel’s entrée was a venison saddle cooked sous vide at 56 degrees, perched on a bed of delightfully chewy farro cooked with dried blueberries in venison stock, and topped with wild arugula and puffed wild rice.  His inspiration for the dish was to present the venison with ingredients that reflected its natural habitat, which is why he used wild berries, grains and greens.  A crispy celeriac chip and crunchy puffed amaranth seeds added great textural contrast to the medley of delectable fruits that embellished the creamy celeriac purée- golden raspberries, blueberries, black berries, plumcot cooked a la plancha, and bright fraise de bois wild strawberries.

Andrea Cavaliere finished the savory meal with a plate of luscious Wagyu new york strip and rib eye with potato purée, carrots and jus.

Terroni completed the decadent experience with a sweet glass of zabaione and sugared cherries.

It was a treat to be able to spend the whole day with chefs Marcel and Haru and watch the extraordinary transformation of basic ingredients into edible art.  I didn’t expect those small berries that we sampled at the farmers market that morning or the massive chunk of raw venison laying on the kitchen counter to translate into such a beautiful feast for the eyes and a memorable dinner.  It’s a special moment when food becomes a meal at the hands of a masterful chef, and the instant that you take that very first bite, you also become a part of that delicious moment.

Terroni Restaurant and Wine Library

7605 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 954-0300

Random trivia: Did you know that popular legend implies that steak tartare got its name from the nomadic Tatar people of Central Asia who ate raw meat?  They kept the meat under the horse’s saddles to tenderize it for as long as a day’s ride.  Western Europeans, who feared yet also wanted to be like the mighty Huns, started preparing raw meat and adding spices to it, forming the base for what would eventually morph into the modern version of tartare.