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Cathal Armstrong, riding high with his venison saddle
Last Friday afternoon, I watched Cathal Armstrong slice the sirloin out of a venison saddle so deep-purple it looked like the Restaurant Eve chef was butchering Barney.
The saddle comes from Shaffer Venison Farms in central Pennsylvania, where the owner plants specific trees and shrubs on which the deer forage for their diet. What’s more, Armstrong adds, the animals are humanely slaughtered at Shaffer, which means the processed meat won’t be flooded with the adrenaline of stressed-out deer.
Adrenaline-drenched meat, in turn, “gives you a slightly bitter flavor, which you won’t find in this piece,” Armstrong says.
As he trims the silver skin away from the Shaffer meat, which is just three days off the hoof, Armstrong points out the lack of intramuscular fat. He believes this is a selling point. I confess that I’m confused. Isn’t prime beef graded on the amount of intramuscular fat? Isn’t fat, as everyone has been saying for years, where flavor comes from?
It’s a different kind of flavor profile, Armstrong responds. “You’re gaining some flavor from the fat, but losing it from the meat.”
To prove his point, Armstrong slices a piece of venison sirloin, as thin as carpaccio, and I pop it into my mouth. Unlike the fatty richness of beef, this meat has a distinct sweetness to it, maybe even something I’d call a mineral-ness. Its texture is soft, too, with only the faintest amount of chew. You could never slice beef just three days off the hoof and eat it raw. You’d still be chewing three days later.
Because the meat is so flavorful on its own, Armstrong doesn’t like to mess with it much. He gives it a healthy dusting of seasoning and then sears it in a black metal pan over the hottest part of Eve’s French-graduated hot-top range. Once the meat is seared on all sides, Armstrong moves the pan to the cooler, outer-edges of the stove and starts preparing a simple sauce made from shallots, red wine vinegar, and dark, unadulterated venison demiglace.
When the venison reaches the proper temperature and rests for a few minutes, Armstrong slices open the steak to reveal this small bulls-eye of color, which moves from pink at the edges to dark red to a center of bruised purple. The meat is almost too gorgeous to eat.
But we eat it anyway. Before I can even say that it tastes like beef, Armstrong chimes in: “It has a nice beefy flavor, but it’s not beef.” Its flavor also stays on your palate long after you swallow.
So why does most venison taste gamey and not like this? I ask Armstrong. “It comes from [deer] eating junk from the side of the street,” the chef responds. “Deer will eat anything.”
Plus, he says, the Shaffer deer are constantly using their muscles, which pumps more blood through them and creates more flavor. Armstrong, in short, is dismantling the whole fat-equals-flavor argument. And his venison is Exhibit A.
If you don’t believe this, you can find out for yourself at Eve. The venison is part of the restaurant’s current tasting menu. But it won’t be for long. The meat will only be available for another two or three weeks.