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TRIED & TRUE : It's All Big Game: Dining on Lion, Peacocks, Gators

This column is one in an occasional series of first-person accounts of leisure activities in and around Orange County.

November 17, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Times Orange County Edition

I'd been waiting years to use the line, and now I had my chance.

"I'll have the alligator," I said to the waiter, "and make it snappy!"

The occasion was the recent ninth annual Festival of the Hunt at Aurora Restaurant in Fullerton. For three days, one could sample such exotic fare as North Pole musk ox, lion, rattlesnake, kangaroo, peacock, ostrich, Rocky Mountain oysters and a game fish from the Amazon called pirarucu --more than two dozen wild things in all.

Greeting my wife, Kathleen, and me at the door were the sight of a stuffed grizzly bear and ostrich and the sounds of a yodeling accordionist; near a signed photo of Buddy Ebsen stood a musk ox, and, in fact, the whole restaurant was filled with stuffed animals provided by Bob's Taxidermy for the event.

It reminded me of those Japanese restaurants that display food in the front window to help you decide what to order. Opposite our table were a peacock and a bush pig. We imagined the head directly over my head to be that of a hyena, but chef Leo Holczer determined it was a kind of fox. An alligator, jaws agape, hovered over the next table.

Our jaws were similarly agape at the menu possibilities. Prices ranged from $4.50 for wild game consomme to $38 for moose loin; Holczer invited us to sample some of the more unusual items. Many of the entrees were served with potato William--in the shape of a pear--or spatzle, German noodle dumplings.

The aforementioned request for alligator was satisfied. Our appetizers also included rattlesnake on angel hair pasta and Rocky Mountain oysters remoulade. Alligator was tame and unassuming; rattlesnake on angel hair pasta proved more assertive, like slightly smoky veal. "Mmmmm," said Kathleen. "Good snake."

Rocky Mountain oysters had been pounded flat ("hopefully afterward," Kathleen noted). The mere sight of the oysters, a.k.a. bull testicles, in the shape of a pancake was enough to make one member of the male persuasion wince. Beneath the fried exterior the flavor resembled, appropriately, organ meats, such as brains. Food for thought.

The Amazon fish called pirarucu found its way to our shores this year; fileted thin and grilled, it was firm like a sea bass but more intensely flavored. Ostrich seemed the minute-steak of birds, a one-dimensional affair, but who cared given that Cognac plum sauce? Kangaroo rack chop was like a very delicate, very tender version of lamb chops.

We'd hopped at the chance to try kangaroo and had raced to sample ostrich. But we were more reluctant when it came to sampling lion--you can't hide your head in the sand about some issues.

"Not after those (TV) specials!" said my wife. We'd recently watched several documentaries about the noble creatures, and she's got a thing for cats anyway.

Holczer admitted that roast African lion is not a popular item. "For me, it is a mistake to serve lion," he said. "People are intrigued, but they always have reservations."

In other words, who's about to take a bite of Simba?

I was. I swallowed my own reservations along with a forkful of the king of beasts, and it tasted like . . . like . . . chicken! Just kidding. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It had a beguiling bitterness and marvelous complexity not found in beef and somehow tasted just as you'd imagine cat might taste.

I roared my approval.

Kathleen took a bite.

"I could eat that," she agreed enthusiastically.

According to Holczer, all the animals served, including lion, are hunted in strict accordance with conservation guidelines, and usually on specifically designated game ranches. And anyway, he pointed out, eating game animals is "as old as man."

"Early man was eating and wearing anything he could," Holczer said. "You're eating a game animal, or you're eating a cow or a chicken; what's the difference? It's an animal. Here at least we look for the unusual. Otherwise it's a McDonald's on every corner.

"By the way," he added as he headed back toward the kitchen, "the first man who tried chicken, he said it tastes like what--rattlesnake?"

Some of these animals taste the way they look.

North Pole musk ox proved a woolly affair, like an ox with mutton overtones.

Peacock was a morsel of kaleidoscopic splendor. It was the color and texture of turkey but offered an infinitely more intriguing array of earth and herbal flavors--a real eye-opener. It was also an eye-opener to be eating peacock while one was staring right at you.

The special game pfeffer-- a stew--incorporated lion, moose, boar, antelope and musk ox, and it became a game to pick them out.

We didn't try hare, buffalo, caribou or a host of game birds including grouse and wild turkey. Some we'd had before; others didn't seem all that exotic in this company.

But our horizons had expanded for sure. Turkey is bland contrasted with peacock, beef is bland contrasted with lion. And in fall or winter, at least, we'd probably choose a game dish over almost any other.

With one exception, I discovered.

"Nothing compares with chicken," Kathleen said. "Chicken is so . . . chicken ."

Half a dozen dishes, including alligator, venison and elk, remain on the menu through fall and winter; these range from $10 to $25. (Pastas can be paired with a variety of preparations, and theoretically, at least, you can have alligator gnocchi.) Holczer will serve some of the more unusual meats and game birds as revolving specials. Call ahead to see what's on the board.

Aurora Restaurant is at 1341 S. Euclid St., Fullerton. (714) 738-0272.

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