When he fires up his backyard barbecue this summer, chef Paul Rogalski will have a tough decision to make: bison or beef?
"I will probably be going for bison ...," he says, but adds: "I'm not going to lie, I'm probably going to have some beef on there too."
Bison has been a top-selling menu item at Mr. Rogalski's Rouge Restaurant in Calgary for years. Lately, the rich, red meat has become more popular than ever, as diners chew on its nutritional value, he says. Bison is high in B-vitamins and is often considered a leaner, healthier protein than beef. Many prefer its slightly sweeter, more robust flavour as well. Since it tastes very similar to beef, it doesn't require an adventurous palate to give it a try.
"It's not a scary flavoured meat," Mr. Rogalski says.
But bison won't likely become as ubiquitous as beef any time soon. Chefs and diners love the fact that bison aren't farmed on the same massive scale as cattle - the animals tend to be given more time to fatten up before slaughter, and aren't as heavily grain-fed, which yields a tastier meat. But that also means it isn't as readily available as beef, and can be much pricier.
At Cru restaurant in Vancouver, chef Alana Peckham says she usually serves bison only for special occasions, like Valentine's Day and wine dinners, because it can cost nearly twice as much as beef.
"Everybody is used to the way beef tastes now, which is not really the way beef should taste," she says, noting that factory-farmed cattle lack a hearty flavour. "Bison still has more of a natural flavour to it."
Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., says he has found that bison is also generally more consistent in quality than beef, since farmers aren't as rushed to get the meat to market.
"They don't ramp up production. When they have it, they have it. When they don't, they don't," he says.
Mr. Gushue and Ms. Peckham say they've had no trouble introducing bison to diners. The meat can be prepared in the same way as beef; tenderloin can be lightly grilled or served as carpaccio, tougher cuts can be braised, and even the animal's distinctive hump can be delectable, especially when poached in butter.
A year ago, to test customer demand, Mr. Gushue temporarily dropped beef from his menu altogether in favour of bison, and diners didn't bat an eye. "I had absolutely nothing but good reaction, he says.
Even a diehard beef-lover like Mark Schatzker, Toronto author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, says he would consider choosing bison over beef if it were easier to buy. Bad bison, however, he says, can be just as bad as poor-quality beef. And unfortunately, he says, a lot of bison are slaughtered when they're too young and too lean, resulting in a tougher meat.
"If good bison was readily available, I would have a pretty difficult choice on my hands," he says, noting that the most optimal bison meat comes from well-fattened animals about two to three years old. "It's Shangri-la. It's awesome."