Many people living in Utah associate rabbits with fuzzy, cuddly creatures like the Easter Bunny. Or, maybe even the wisecracking Bugs Bunny.
But few think of rabbit when contemplating the question, “What’s for dinner?”
Over the summer, Shana Hess, owner of Jasoh! Prime Dining and Brew Pub in Ogden, was out with a group of friends who were discussing rabbit dishes they had tasted and loved while traveling in Europe.
Hess posed the question, “Why don’t we sell rabbit on the menus here?”
Also in attendance that night, Dee Erickson, owner of Two Dog Wine, a wine manufacturer based in Bountiful, bragged that he could cook the best rabbit. Hess countered that she was sure her chef could prepare it better.
Erickson declared a cook-off to prove who was the best rabbit chef.
Hess accepted on behalf of her chef, Nathan Sheatzly, and he later agreed to the challenge.
“Rabbit prepared in a thoughtful way is an excellent culinary item. It can be delicious and affordable,” Hess said.
She decided to host the first annual “Rabbit Throw-Down in O-Town” last Wednesday, with the two chefs squaring off in the kitchen as a way to spark local interest in unique fare.
The evening began with Erickson introducing his dish — rabbit prepared two ways — quipping, “(Sheatzly) is a very creative chef. He’s going to be tough to beat, but not that tough.”
Sheatzly followed up by introducing his dish and adding, “I did rabbit three ways because he did it two ways and I like to one-up him.”
The banter added to the festive atmosphere as diners sampled the competing dishes, filled out scorecards, enjoyed live music and watched Bugs Bunny cartoons in the background. The restaurant interspersed the courses with some of its specialties, like its butternut squash soup and signature vinegars and oils.
Erickson presented a classic Northern Alsatian Terrine with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and thyme. He said the dish was partially inspired by his trips abroad to France, but, as with all of his cooking, it was also influenced by his mother’s advice to “take chances with spices.”
Erickson also prepared Roulade of Rabbit Loin, stuffed with spinach, wild mushrooms and Asiago cheese, topped with natural stock made from boiling the bones of the rabbit.
Making the dish required expert butchering skill to remove the loin meat from the rabbit’s back. That is the most tender meat on a rabbit, Erickson said.
He paired his rabbit dishes with Two Dog Zinfandel.
Sheatzly created two dishes from rabbit prepared three ways. His White Bean Fricassee contained braised rabbit as well as fried rabbit skins that added crunch and a bacon-like flavor.
He also served Chicken Fried Rabbit on a bed of creamed leeks with a zing of lemon.
Asked where he got his inspiration, he replied that he had created a dish about six years ago that included watercress salad, white beans, vinaigrette, braised rabbit and white bean ice cream, and he decided to do a variation.
His second dish, however, was a completely new recipe that he came up with earlier in the week, combining something unfamiliar with the flavor of a familiar comfort food.
Husband and wife Paul and Kim Hadley, frequent diners at Jasoh, said they ventured out to the throw-down to experience something out of the norm.
“I came for something fun, different and exciting,” Paul Hadley said.
“You need to put yourself out there,” Kim Hadley added, speaking of trying new foods. “Jasoh is an adventure in the meal itself.”
And the winner is ...
Jay Sheen, co-owner of Two Dog Wine, came to support his friend and co-worker. He described how Erickson fell in love with rabbit during multiple trips to France.
“He is such a talented cook. He took this challenge to heart. It’s amazing that no one has rabbit on the menus here. Rabbit is on every menu in France,” Sheen said.
The meal was topped off with chocolate hazelnut cheesecake and an announcement of the winner. It was a close competition, with scores tied in some of the categories.
Overall, the in-house chef won by a ... hare.
Which, of course, means there will be a rematch in the future.
Watch for details of future throw-downs at www.jasoh.com.