A mouthful of wild boar belly gets a gossamer clam and fennel fumet, poured tableside. It’s inspired by clam chowder—and brilliant. Brittany Conerly

From the Dining Critic's Notebook

Behind the Review: Carte Blanche Exalts Wild Game

At the Lower Greenville restaurant and bakery, chefs Casey and Amy La Rue proffer wild-hunted meat on the plate and in pastries.

In our Behind the Review series, we bring you the extras, the sprinkles on top, the talking points that went unaddressed, the tidbits that end up on the cutting-room floor in our research and reporting. Here, then, is the post-review course. Enjoy!

In my review of Carte Blanche for this month’s issue of D Magazine, I wrote about the hybrid restaurant by husband-and-wife team Casey and Amy La Rue. That it’s what they’ve been building toward since the duo met in Phoenix in 2014—he a savory chef, she trained in pastry. That big wooden doors (from the Lower Greenville space that used to be Mudsmith) open in the morning to a vision of a pastry counter. That in the evening, servers in black vests usher diners through tasting menus of five (on the shorter end) or more than a dozen courses.

Theirs is a beautiful, rustic-chic accomplishment. But two things that distinguish them are worth emphasizing.

One is Amy’s absolute gift for pastry, about which I wrote, but it bears repeating that “the delights of vanilla-scented pears sunk with cream cheese into Danish pastries; chocolate and frangipane folded into bronzed croissants; and crullers whose eggy interiors resemble eclairs” beg for your consideration. The crullers in particular are ethereal, based on a pâte à choux dough, a recipe she perfected during quarantine. The croissants crackle. On weekends, 1,300 individual pastries—scones, cookies, and boar-in-a-blanket bites—waltz out the doors. You want to be among those who arrive early when shop opens.

The other is the meat question. Casey is not the first, nor will he be the last, to take a long, hard look at fine dining’s love affair with beef and come out in favor of wild game. New York City’s Eleven Madison Park recently made a splash by segueing to a meatless menu. Its chef Daniel Humm cites sustainability concerns—though a beef-tenderloin-sporting private room menu raised many an eyebrow. For years, soapbox crusader Dan Barber has been a beef-canceling champion and sustainability sage.

Here in Dallas, Graham Dodds has been vocal about attempting to cut down on the energy-inefficient protein, limiting its footprint for environmental reasons. While Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin has been trumpeting the gospel of wild boar and recently published The Hog Book, a brilliant cookbook that daringly, deliciously stares down the problem of feral hog overpopulation in Texas—by putting it on the plate. And Tim Love has made wild game his jam from the beginning. But it’s another thing to be exclusive, excluding all else.

Casey is not the first, nor will he be the last, to take a long, hard look at fine dining’s love affair with beef and come out in favor of wild game.

What you find at Carte Blanche is antelope, elk, venison, wild boar—a treatise and disquisition, in elegant sampler form, of the wild-caught proteins our state affords. Only the duck breast on the menu is farm-raised. The seafood, too, is wild caught, which means that the fish change frequently. But that is the ethos.

Essentially, to sink into it is to understand how wild proteins can speak to you.

The decision came, for Casey, when the duo was still in New Hampshire, working at a small tasting-menu property, and when he made the rounds at the end of one meal, a woman wanted to know why they served beef. How they could, in good conscience, do so. It got him pondering. “I thought about it for a while after. I mean, it is a big question: Why are we all still serving the same thing?” When he and Amy dined at Barber’s famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns before leaving New Hampshire and opening the next chapter in Dallas, he added that experience to the query he was already cogitating. “It really stuck with me,” he says.

“The larger the animal, the more it takes to raise the animal. The cost of resources per pound of meat is a lot higher” as you go up the size scale, Casey is not the first to point out. Theirs is not an aim to go vegan by any means. However, “as far as choosing a farmed protein animal, [beef] would be the worst.”

 

And, really, it’s about flavor and new experiences. Approximately two hours east of Austin lies the rolling, hill-locked heart of our state’s most sought-out purveyor of wild game. Broken Arrow Ranch partners with ranchers all over south and central Texas to field harvest axis, fallow, or sika venison, blackbuck and nilgai antelope, and boar year-round. Stock shifts with the hunting season. To source from them is to be in touch with the natural fluctuations.

Wild boar belly, Casey will tell you, is his favorite, but also the biggest learning curve, as it is patently not pork. “Normally, you can get a full two-inch pork belly, and it will take four hours [to cook],” he says. “A half-inch boar belly, and it’ll take eight hours.” Why? The animal is moving, the muscle is firmer and worked.

Antelope is similar to veal, mild and pink. Elk tastes like iron-rich beef.

He’ll sous-vide the boar belly to tenderness, then finish it over pecan and mesquite. A subtle, tender morsel, it might get paired with a delicate clam fumet or, more recently, homemade sauerkraut, apple puree, and pickled mustard seed.

In the full tasting menu, antelope appeared on one of my visits in a devastating, chic trio: a loose, rich sausage; a grilled segment of loin; and a pithivier, a puff pastry (Amy’s doing) daintily filled with braised meat, with a bordelaise sauce and a sunchoke puree.

But more recently, the elk has been served in a sequence. Midway through a meal, Casey resets the palate. First an elk heart tartare arrives, cool, deliberate. Then “a broth from the bones, spiced kind of like pho.” Next is the entrée portion, all the better to appreciate.

Sometimes diners at Carte Blanche are discovering a protein for the first time. “Some people say, ‘I’ve never had it before. That was a fun experience,’” Casey says. But the picture is bigger. And in this he joins a larger conversation.

You might be a diner for whom the tartare checks an esoteric item off a list: “I had raw elk heart tonight.” And, sure, it’s about flights of fancy, if you wish. But it’s also the La Rues being extremely thoughtful. And creative. And that’s better still.

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