A Dish That Gets Fuzzy Reception
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Chef Stefano Frigerio braces himself when he puts rabbit on the menu at Mio. It's only a matter of time before someone complains.
One diner scolded Frigerio by e-mail after seeing such a "nice, fuzzy" animal on the menu. Others protested right at the table. It happens enough that the Italian-born chef developed an unofficial rabbit protocol. When a guest complains, the waiter heads straight for the kitchen. Frigerio goes out to make his case: "I tell them I grew up eating rabbit and that it's my favorite meat. I explain that it's very lean, very flavorful and it tastes great."
Frigerio admits that he made few converts as executive chef at Mio (he resigned last week and will leave Aug. 1). Although rabbit ravioli with seared rabbit loin became a regular menu item when he took over the downtown restaurant's kitchen, it later appeared only on the tasting menu, which Frigerio says attracted adventurous diners, or as a special.
Chefs love rabbit. Some diners, especially the 2.3 million Americans who keep rabbits as pets, don't. And therein lies a potential for growing controversy. "In Europe, you eat rabbit everywhere. In America, it has been an elite meat," says Bob D. Whitman, a rabbit breeder and the author of "Domestic Rabbits & Their Histories: Breeds of the World." "A lot of Americans have Easter Bunny syndrome."
Rabbit isn't new to American menus, of course. Pâtés and rillettes were long a staple of old-school French dining rooms such as Jean-Louis at the Watergate, Le Pavillion and Le Lion D'Or. Rabbit also has been eaten widely in rural areas. But a new generation of ambitious chefs and well-traveled diners combined with the explosion of French brasseries in recent years has prompted its rise at city restaurants.
Dozens of Washington restaurants serve rabbit, and it's spreading beyond the to-be-expected fine-dining spots. Zola, which draws a large tourist crowd from the adjacent Spy Museum, serves the loin wrapped in pancetta with frisee, arugula and Parmesan gnocchi. At Rustico in Alexandria, there's rabbit terrine with beer-infused jelly and mustard. Chef Robert Wiedmaier, who owns Marcel's and Brasserie Beck, says he goes through 100 pounds of rabbit a week.
Those for and against rabbits-for-dinner divide neatly into two camps, and they all call themselves rabbit lovers. On one side are chefs and omnivores who see rabbit as a flavorful, healthful and interesting alternative to the omnipresent chicken. "It's a great option because it's lean, but when it's braised it's really tender," says chef Cathal Armstrong, who often serves the leg and loin with carrots, chanterelles and mustard sauce at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria.
Among meats, rabbit is a healthful choice. Agriculture Department statistics show that rabbit meat is lower in saturated fat than beef and pork and slightly lower in cholesterol than chicken. The breeds used for meat (commonly California, New Zealand or a cross of the two) are almost twice the size of typical pet rabbits.
It also can be economical. Christian Evans, chef at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, originally raised rabbits so he could use their manure to fertilize his garden in Kearneysville, W.Va. But he soon realized that with just one male and two females, called bucks and does, he could produce 300 rabbits a year, the equivalent of about 750 pounds of meat. "It's economical in terms of production and yield," Evans says. "And anytime I use rabbit, it sells very well."
Equally passionate are those who prefer to keep rabbit off the plate. Based on The Post's reader mail, an admittedly unscientific sampling, it looks as if rabbit has replaced veal as the most offensive meat. A small photo of fried rabbit legs in a review of Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City prompted a deluge of letters last year, including one from Gary Loewenthal, a vegan who keeps a pet rabbit at his home in Falls Church. "Ethically, there is no difference between rabbits and other meats, but psychologically there is," he said in an interview. He added that he boycotts any restaurant that serves rabbit.
More recently, Tina Klugman of Overland Park, Kan., wrote in to request that newspaper critics be forbidden to write about rabbit dishes. Reached by e-mail, the 30-year-old Klugman, who says she is not a vegetarian or "any kind of animal rights activist," said she sees rabbits as companion animals, not food: "I do think it's disgusting to eat bunny, especially after learning about their personalities. They are super-intelligent animals."
In particular, Klugman is bothered by the fact that the USDA classifies rabbits as poultry. As such, they are not subject to the rules of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which is designed to protect farm animals from unnecessary suffering. According to the Humane Society of the United States, most rabbit slaughters do not take place in federally inspected plants. "There is virtually no regulation for rabbits to prevent the worst abuses," says Erin Williams, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society's campaign against factory farming.
D'Artagnan, a national supplier of gourmet meat, foie gras and truffles, says it sells 1,000 whole rabbits a week, an increase of 20 percent over last year. (The sudden surge in demand took the company by surprise and created a shortage of rabbit meat in early summer.) Local rabbit sellers, too, have seen demand swell. Charles Longenecker, who has run Longenecker Rabbit Farm in Woodsboro, Md., since 1992, said that until recently, there was no market for rabbits in warmer months, "from the time school let out until the time it begins." This summer, he has sold almost 900 to his network of Maryland restaurants.
Farms that sell rabbits to D'Artagnan must sign a policy that requires humane treatment and slaughter. The rabbits receive no antibiotics and a vegetarian diet. "These are standards we have, not because they are pet bunnies in another life but because they are animals raised for meat that deserve humane treatment," says D'Artagnan owner Ariane Daguin. Longenecker's animals are kept in raised cages, which promotes cleanliness, and they have "plenty of room to move around," he said.
Some diners might never feel comfortable with rabbit. But to Restaurant Eve's Armstrong, for most it's a question of education. "It's not the same as a pet bunny," he says. "You'll get hate mail. People get freaked out that we're serving Thumper."