Easter bunny, medium rare: Chefs discuss serving rabbit

Last month, the New York Times ran an article about the increasing popularity of rabbits among do-it-yourself farmers. With Easter weekend afoot, The Hot Dish thought it a timely occasion to learn a little more about our cotton-tailed friends here in the Twin Cities. We checked in with some local restaurateurs about the appeal of serving rabbits--and whether they've ever had complaints from their customers about having the beloved pets on their menus.
"I grew up eating rabbit. I'm Italian, so it's kind of one of our staples" says Lenny Russo, the James Beard nominated chef of Heartland. For Russo, eating rabbit is in part a cultural thing, but he also points out that the leanness of the meat makes it a useful and versatile dish that is always popular when available. "It's got almost no fat. You just have to be careful, because it'll dry out and get tough."

Russell Klein, head chef at Meritage, makes the same point. "It's really nice, has a fresh flavor--as long as you don't overcook it. It's kind of mild, but far more interesting than chicken." Klein also points out that rabbit can make for a particularly dramatic presentation.

Erica Christ at Black Forest Inn says her restaurant's traditional hasenpfeffer (which translates to "pepper rabbit" in German) style of preparation adds to the appeal of rabbit on the menu. "We serve it with its own sauce and noodles, and there's whole pieces of it, it's not deboned, so it's a bit of an adventure," she says.

Klein and Russo prepare the meat in a variety of ways. Meritage, for instance, now has a crispy rabbit schnitzel, with a rabbit moutarde planned in the next week or so. Heartland, meanwhile, makes use of the rabbit in a variety of dishes, including as main dishes, first courses, and ragouts.

All three chefs say complaints have been few about the appearance of rabbit, although there have been exceptions.

"If I'm waiting on a family, it's an easy way to tease kids," jokes Christ. "The thing is, we're so extremely carnivorous [at Black Forest]. We don't have many vegetarian items, so it's kind of like, 'Where do you start [in criticizing the menu]?'"

Russo has had a bit more trouble than the others, though not at his current restaurant.

"When I was at the Guthrie, I got a spate of emails from crazed rabbit owners complaining that we're serving the third most popular pet in the country," he remembers. "I explained to them that these aren't pet rabbits, they're meat rabbits. [By that logic] anyone with a fish tank at home shouldn't eat salmon!

"I don't know, though," Russo adds with a laugh. "Maybe I'll get a bunch of flack for saying that."

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