By Sarah Belk King
"Elk is lean, nutritious, and has tremendous flavor," says Andy Blanton, Executive Chef and owner of Café Kandahar in Whitefish, Montana. "But another reason elk is so popular on our menu is that it's indigenous to our landscape.'
The young chef's French-inspired cuisine is well worth the trip to the breathtakingly beautiful town just south of Glacier National Park. Cafe Kandahar is an intriguing restaurant: There's a delightful juxtaposition of white linen table service and hungry, ruddy-faced diners in ski clothes.
"We serve fine cuisine -- including a degustation menu with wines to match each course -- but we welcome everyone and anyone with an appetite!' says Blanton.
No tie, no jacket? No problem.
As an Easterner turned Westerner, I'll admit I'm a bit jaded. I thought Café Kandahar was just another mountain resort restaurant, with the requisite fondue, steaks, and double-stuffed potatoes. Shame on me. Chef Blanton's thoughtfully constructed cuisine will no doubt remain in my culinary memory forever.
Blanton graduated from the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, then worked at Commander's Palace and Brigtsen's in New Orleans. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, he has come into his own. To me, his fare is reminiscent of that of the young David Bouley, when he was making a name for himself at Tribeca's Montrachet in the 1980s. Blanton is a talent to watch, indeed.
But back to the main topic of this column: the majestic elk. "We serve it carpaccio-style as a starter, as well as a main course. Diners inevitably say, 'I had no idea elk could be this good!' " says Blanton.
Can't find elk at your local butcher shop? No worries. Extraordinary all-natural, grass-fed elk medallions can be procured from Montana Fish Company/Montana Beef and Game Company (phone 406.556.0200; ask for Kevin Stein or Travis Byerly).
For a slightly gamier texture and flavor, try elk ribeye steaks raised in Montrose, Colorado, available from Underhill Farms in Moundridge, Kansas (phone 888-361.3261). Whether you opt for medallions or ribeye, do order more than you think you'll need; both cuts freeze beautifully.
This easy, relatively quick dish is perfect for special occasions -- or for no occasion at all. The recipe can be halved or doubled; simply adjust skillet size and timing accordingly. Suggested side dishes: sweet potato puree, wilted spinach, and plenty of crusty French bread for sopping up the sauce.
- ½ cup port (Blanton uses ruby port, but tawny is fine, too)
- ½ cup dried cherries
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup minced shallots
- Pinch ground allspice
- 1 small bay leaf
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ cup water
- Four 6-ounce elk medallions
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place port in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, add cherries, and let stand at least 15 minutes.
Place 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add shallots and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes or until shallots are translucent; do not let the shallots brown. Add allspice, bay leaf and thyme to the shallots and stir to combine. Add cherries and port to the shallot-herb mixture. Add rice wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, sugar and water to the shallot-port mixture and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes or until mixture begins to thicken ; it should be moist but not runny.
Meanwhile, season elk medallions on both sides with salt and pepper. Place remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add medallions and sear on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. (Note: After 6 minutes total, the elk medallions will be medium-rare. If using elk ribeye steaks, you may want to add 1 to 3 minutes to the cooking time since they tend to be thicker than medallions).
Remove bay leaf and thyme sprigs from cherry compote. (Note: The compote can be made several days in advance and warmed before serving).
Place one medallion on each serving plate and top with cherry compote. Serve immediately.
2005 Amavi Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla, Washington
2005 Delille Cellars "Doyenne" Syrah, Red Mountain, Washington
2005 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
2005 Turley "Mead Ranch" Zinfandel, Atlas Peak
Photos by Sarah Belk King