by Carolyn O'Neil
Food lovers know a trip to Napa Valley is a celebration of both fine wines and fine cuisine. Chefs in California's wine valley compete for connections with local farms, who often deliver the morning's harvest right to the kitchen door.
But another thing the wine country's chefs have in common is a love of rabbit. Chef/owner Michael Chiarello serves up a rabbit and pasta dish with wild mushrooms at his Tra Vigne Restaurant.
Chiarello, who grew up eating rabbit in his Italian family, said that he tried to take the rabbit pasta off his menu, but was met by a deluge of complaints.
"They don't taste like chicken," he says. "They taste like rabbit ... and rabbit is a very mild meat."
Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry Restaurant in Oakville prepares rabbit loin wrapped in wood-smoked bacon, and serves it with rabbit kidney, liver and tiny rabbit ribs.
"And it just becomes like a little rack of lamb," Keller explains. "A rack of rabbit."
At nearby stars Oakville Cafe, chef Peter Hall roasts a whole rabbit wrapped in pancetta and surrounded by autumn vegetables.
Despite its current popularity, rabbit hasn't always been a big seller.
"You could hardly give rabbit away," says Frank Messmer of Preferred Meats of San Francisco. "People were resistant to it."
But today rabbit and other game meats such as venison have found new fans.
"They've stopped thinking of them as Bambi or Thumper and started looking at them as healthy tasty meats," Messmer says.
And rabbit is hopping onto menus all over the USA. At the Hudson river Club in New York, chef Waldy Malouf serves up to 20 rabbit pot pies a day.
"Rabbit in general is very popular, high flavor meat with low fat content," Malouf says. "People have renewed interest in it as flavorful meat."
But a rabbit habit is costly, costing about three times as much as chicken. What used to be peasant food in Italy and France is now the latest star on upscale menus from New York to Napa valley.