I never wanted to eat my friend, the buffalo. I had the chance four years ago in San Francisco, when my cousins and I ducked into the famous Buffalo Burgers and all the patrons were chewing on—yep—buffalo burgers, but I declined. I declined many times after that episode: at barbecues, health fairs and hippy-dippy get-togethers. I even refused a buxom girl whose disappointed face told me that was the last rejection she would take.
I knew of buffalo's benefits—delicious, low in fat and cholesterol, usually hormone-free and raised by small farmers. But I couldn't bring myself to eat the gentle beast. I'm a cuisine liberal: to dine upon the buffalo would be, I felt, to partake of one of our worst national sins—the mass slaughters of the mid-1800s that William T. Hornaday, founder of the American Zoo and author of the 1889 report The Extermination of the American Bison, called "a disgrace to the American people in general . . . it will cause succeeding generations to regard us as being possessed of the leading characteristics of the savage and the beast of prey—cruelty and greed."
A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Rendezvous, a gorgeous restaurant in San Juan Capistrano. It's housed in a railroad car with the feel of a speakeasy: finely upholstered booths, candlelight, curtains, vintage pictures and ads, impeccably dressed staff familiar with everything from the best Cabernet (Silver Oak) to the rail car's age (83). The menu says Rendezvous specializes in New American cuisine, a term usually used only to justify double-digit French fries.
But there it was on the menu: the very American bison rib-eye.
I asked the waitress about it. "Amazing," the Rubenesque beauty exclaimed, as if it were the one sure thing in her life. "Chef does amazing things with everything," she continued, referring to Peter Arachovitis, who honed his chops at Vine in San Clemente and the Laguna Beach location of French 75 Bistro.
Before I decided on the bison, though, I needed a soup. The waitress recommended the off-the-menu avgolemono, the famous Greek egg-lemon soup. I expected the bitter, watery slop you get at so many Greek restaurants, but was mesmerized by what the waitress described—and then delivered: a thick, sumptuous chowder bobbing with buttery orzo pasta and two luscious chicken dumplings.
I considered getting another appetizer—perhaps Arachovitis' Kobe beef slider or some graham cracker-dusted calamari—but the entrées promised more intriguing home-style combinations. Chicken and ham with truffled mac and cheese. Pork tenderloin with a corn porridge. Salmon in a Moroccan sauce. And any serious foodie should trek down here just for the Rioja-braised lamb shanks with toasted orzo pasta.
But the allure of the bison rib-eye was simply too much. The menu described it as crusted with chicory coffee bits, bathed in a wild mushroom ragout and accompanied by green chile-spiked mashed potatoes. The waitress's spot-on avgolemono recommendation suggested I'd be a fool to allow personal politics to come before what seemed likely to be the meal of the year.
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The bison rib-eye arrived looking like a slab of asphalt on a plate, but the meat was as tender and luscious as the best prosciutto. Strips of fat ran from the sweet chicory crust to the center, adding to the bison's natural juicy sweetness. The mushroom ragout was musky and played off the chicory crust to create something approaching bliss. On top of the bison rib-eye was a bacon chip, the best beef jerky of my life.
I asked the waitress to box the rib-eye so I could save room for the cobbler. True to Arachovitis' aesthetic, he tweaked this all-American treat by combining rhubarb with strawberries and topping the beautiful mess with a scoop of sweet-corn ice cream. The taming of the American West also laid waste to many of our native corns, whittling down nature's cornucopia to a bland generic; eating this nutty, sweet, chilled treat reminded me of what once was and could be again. I thought about that again the next day, when the reheated bison rib-eye stampeded over my tongue again.
RENDEZVOUS, 26701-B VERDUGO ST., SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-1006; WWW.RENDEZVOUSSJC.COM. OPEN MON.-SAT., 5 P.M.-10 P.M., SUN., 4 P.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $50-$100, EXCLUDING DRINKS.