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Where's the Bison?

The Denver Buffalo Company has rounded up more than bison for its revamped menu.
Q Crutchfield

It's lean, it's healthy, it's hairy, and it sure makes for a more marketable mascot than some thick-headed bovine that doesn't have sense enough to gum the people injecting it full of hormones.

It's buffalo -- or, to be precise, bison -- and the list of reasons to eat it is as impressive as the figure these American legends once cut on the wide-open plains. Bison meat is so lean (typically 97 percent lean, as opposed to 80 to 90 percent with beef) that it's almost fat-free, and it's lower in calories and cholesterol than beef, not to mention one of the best sources of iron in food form. It also tastes great: sweet and subtly rich, it lacks the bloody, meaty flavors that so many folks love in beef but possesses a refined quality that's appealing in its own right. And since these massive animals won't let humans come within ten feet of them without threatening to gore a groin, no one's jammed a needle into their substantial hides -- which means no hormones or chemicals played a part in the meat that lands on your table.

But despite an ongoing buffalo-boosting campaign by such organizations as the National Bison Association, buffalo lags far behind beef in popularity. And it's not just diners' lack of familiarity with the beast that accounts for this. Buffalo is also danged expensive.

Part of the reason for the meat's high price is that the herd is still growing. These days there are an estimated 350,000 buffalo in the States, with about 3,000 of those on public lands and 7,000 on Native American lands. The rest are privately owned, and while that number has increased steadily, it's a slow process: Each buffalo cow produces only one offspring per year, and some of those have to be held back to keep producing. (Until recently, no cows were slaughtered, but the NBA says that could change as the demand for the meat rises and the number of buffalo holds steady.) And starting up a buffalo herd is a very expensive proposition: At $800 per bull and $4,000 per breeding cow, one buffalo can cost as much as four to ten cattle.

The ratio isn't quite as bad for one buffalo steak to one beef steak, but eating buffalo can still be a very pricey proposition.

So when Joe Daniel, longtime executive chef at the Denver Buffalo Company, left the restaurant (on friendly terms) earlier this year, DBC managers decided to step back and take a long look at what the restaurant had become -- and where it could go. And the ideal destination would be to make the restaurant more than just an Old West-style must-stop for out-of-towners, who appreciate the life-sized diorama of a wild and wooly mountain man taming stuffed wild beasts almost as much as they enjoy eating slices of those very same wild beasts. "Years ago, we absolutely refused to serve anything but buffalo on our menu," says Buffalo Company vice president Ed Morrissey. "Over the years, we added a few things here and there, but we were very stubborn about being buffalo purists, if you will. And so if you wanted to bring a group of people in to dine with us, and three of you wanted buffalo and one wanted beef, well, obviously, we lost that argument, because you were going to go where everyone would be happy."

And there were plenty of other high-end restaurants all too willing to make those groups happy.

To expand the DBC's offerings, the restaurant brought in chef Thomas Burke, who lasted just long enough to help revamp the roster before going back to his hotel-restaurant roots. But then DBC lured David Oliveri over from the nearby Basil Ristorante, and he took Burke's basically sound recipes to an even higher level. Oliveri's emphasis is on sauces and good-quality ingredients, and his knack for working with rich, multi-layered flavors has pushed DBC's allure well beyond buffalo.

So did the fact that DBC's parent company, DBC Holdings, bought a wild-game company last year, inventing a new food label, New West Foods, to market wild game to grocery stores and specialty food companies such as Balducci's and Dean & DeLuca. But there's still plenty of wild game left in the DBC's kitchen. "Buying that wild-game company changed everything," says Morrissey. "It gave us the opportunity to really experiment with other types of meat, and it changed our focus from just being about buffalo to trying to make ourselves an overall Colorado experience."

And so the sausage roundup ($11.95) offers not only lean, virtually grease-free and deeply savory buffalo sausage, but also some tasty game versions that include elk and rabbit. The appetizer also features a slice of buffalo carpaccio, the sweetest version of raw meat you'll ever taste, as well as a small smoked buffalo tongue, along with condiments of cornichons and cream cheese. Throw in a mound of corn relish with a chile kick and a slab of soft-centered polenta, and this is grazing paradise -- and a bargain to boot.

The sausage roundup is just one of the improved starters at DBC, which bolstered its happy hour and bar menus in hopes of enticing downtown types to drop in -- and also drop some cash. (The drinks alone, especially the well-mixed Manhattan, are worth a stop.) We also munched our way through a plate of tender prairie oysters ($7.95), the perennial frat-boy-prank favorite of buffalo testicles sliced into medallions and deep-fried with a light, crumbly coating; we encountered a different kind of nuts with the almond-fried shrimp ($10.95). The tender shrimp, each covered with golden almonds, came with both a strong cocktail sauce and a respectable Cajun rémoulade that lacked the mayo-gooey trappings of versions trying to appeal to the common palate. The most interesting snack, though, and the one that strayed the furthest from old DBC offerings, was the smoked mountain trout ($11.95). The fish was presented not as a big, dry fillet plank, but as slivers tucked into cups of Belgian endive, then drizzled with a balsamic reduction and a raspberry coulis; a cream-cheesey blob in the middle of the artfully arranged plate added a rich, creamy element to the mix. Nice.

Several additions to DBC's entree lineup were just as well-conceived. The grilled duck breast ($22.95) brought delectable slices of duck ringed by succulent slivers of sweetened skin and napped in an Amaretto-kissed sauce of sun-dried cherries. The tender, mildly gamey elk porterhouse ($34.95) actually consisted of two steaks, each perfectly grilled to our "rare" specification and sitting atop a pool of Wild Turkey demi-glace so sweet and rich we could have poured it over ice cream. An order of ostrich medallions ($26.95) brought three fine slices of bird brushed with vermouth, which overrode the meat's natural tendency toward blandness and gave it a slight bite that went well with the accompanying onion-heavy salsa cruda.

As good as those dishes were, though, the main attraction at the DBC is always going to be buffalo -- and the restaurant more than lives up to its name. The tenderloin filet ($38.95), while more expensive than any other filet I've found around town, was also tastier. This was a stunning piece of meat, cooked impeccably medium-rare, dripping with juices and so buttery-textured that we could pull bites away with a fork. A DBC signature dish, the buffalo prime rib ($33.95 for a ten-ounce cut), was a two-inch-thick slab of slow-roasted meat, also fork-tender and eye-rollingly flavorful, served with a cup of its own juices. On the side came a cute little bubble of Yorkshire pudding and a helping of creamed spinach that would make any Southern cook spinach-green with envy.

After all of these meaty marvels, desserts were a disappointment. The pecan pie ($5) was dry, boring and utterly lacking in sweetness -- where was the Wild Turkey sauce when we needed it? And while a peach bread pudding ($4.50) sported a great bourbon-spiked caramel sauce, it was otherwise dry and boring, too. Neither were worthy endings to the meals we'd so enjoyed.

Oh, give me a restaurant where the buffalo prices don't roam into car-payment territory and I'll be the happiest diner on the planet. In the meantime, the Denver Buffalo Company makes it worth your while to dine on the wild side.


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