THE MARK of a chic dinner party this year is an entree of game, far more interesting and flavorful than baked chicken or roast lamb but no more difficult to prepare. "There's a tremendous emphasis today on America's indigenous products, and we have certain species of game available here that are not native to any other part of the world," said Judith Jones, senior cookbook editor at Alfred Knopf and coauthor, along with hunter Angus Cameron, of The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook.
Dominique D'Ermo, whose restaurants here and in Miami offer such exotica as rattlesnake, said venison and game birds are now menu mainstays. "People have had enough filet mignon for a while," said D'Ermo. "They like the richer flavor of game meats and birds."
Birds and meat sold in supermarkets are farm-raised on grain and corn, and the meat is generally mild. But if you're given game bagged in the wild, ask some questions.
"Especially with wild birds, the age is important," said Jones. "An old bird without a layer of fat will be essentially too tough to roast, but will be delicious braised; and a deer shot during mating season when they have been doing a lot of running will need more larding to moisten the well-developed muscle . . . "
While small game birds can be roasted and sauced in a manner similar to chicken or Cornish hens, most meats -- such as venison or elk -- are tastier with long marination. For venison, try red wine, vegetables, herbs and juniper berries. Slow-braise a roast, but cut a tenderloin into medallions to sear.
The balance of the menu should remain hearty. For a first course, a creamy cheddar cheese soup or a rich, spicy p.at,e are good options. Or combine the first course and salad on one plate: Place grilled quail quarters in a leaf of bright red radicchio, sur- round with mixed greens such as watercress and bibb lettuce, and add a tangy vinaigrette to both.
For a larger bird -- such as a partridge or pheasant -- or a game meat dish, a touch of sweetness is good foil to the hearty flavor. In Germany, braised red cabbage, steamed parsley potatoes and saut,eed apple slices are the traditional side dishes.
Garnish with saut,eed wild mushrooms, such as shiitake and chanterelles, or serve braised or steamed wild rice in lieu of potatoes. At the Coach House in New York, owner Leon Lianides serves wild rice with venison, but pairs braised pheasant with sauerkraut and roast wild duck with fresh quince sauce.
Offer a hearty Italian barolo or a California merlot. End with spiced apple tarts or simple baked apples with whipped cream or ice cream.