A great appearing act

Rabbit is one of the easiest animals to catch in the woods, but urban diners have had considerably less luck hunting the critter.

Rabbit remains frustratingly elusive on Asheville restaurant menus, despite growing demand for its famously nutritious flesh. Everything about rabbit screams local food: Its production is well-suited to small farms. It has a legitimate claim to an authentic Appalachian heritage, with wild rabbit serving as the showpiece for centuries of mountain meals. And it doesn't taste quite like anything emerging from the nation's franchised fast casual kitchens. Yet only a few local eateries offer rabbit dishes with any regularity.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

Still, folks who work with rabbit believe Buncombe County could be poised on the cusp of a rabbit boom, a development advanced by the recent loosening of restrictions on rabbit processing and the increasing talent quotient of local chefs.

"We've seen a tremendous growth from when we first started," says Walter Imladris, who's raised meat rabbits for seven years on his family's farm in Fairview. "Our customer base at first was European immigrants: We had French. We had Russians. Now we're seeing more and more interest from local chefs."

Imladris suspects the chefs expressing interest in his rabbit are as enthralled by the prospect of outdoing their competitors as they are eager to experiment with a new foodstuff. While almost every area restaurant serving entrees with double-digit price tags offers salmon and a ribeye, rabbit is "something that sets them apart."

"Asheville has such a good food scene that just being really good doesn't guarantee you business," Imladris continues. "Buying local vegetables and hamburger is no longer enough."

Unlike hamburger, though, rabbit is relatively pricey, with most restaurants paying more than $8 a pound for it, and it's a fairly demanding protein to prepare. A skinned rabbit can't be shoved into an oven like a chicken, or tossed on the grill like most cuts of beef. Each of its parts must be individually addressed, from its highly prized saddle to its delicate liver.

"A lot of people are afraid to figure out how to cook it," says Jacob Sessoms, owner of Table. "The best way to make it taste good and make money off it is to break it up."

At Table, Sessoms has served rabbit terrine with crème fraiche and watermelon mostarda; grilled rabbit legs with ricotta gnocchi; bacon and swiss-chard-stuffed and wrapped rabbit saddle with warm dandelion salad and braised rabbit legs with creamed collard greens. But his favorite preparation thus far has been Korean-barbecue style rabbit ribs served with house-made kimchi.

"The most fun thing we've done is frenching out the racks," Sessoms says. "They're really cute."

Sessoms can pry four entrée portions and two appetizer portions out of a single beast, using the same economical approach that Brian Canipelli advocates over at Cucina 24. Rabbit has been among the downtown restaurant's staples since it opened last year, with a rabbit pate surfacing on the current menu.

"I don't want to serve New York strips," Canipelli says. "I want to serve what's from here. We've had really good success with rabbit. There are little bones to work with, for sure, but I think it's great."

Imladris stresses chefs must exercise a fair amount of creativity when dealing with rabbit, since none of the local producers are equipped to sell just a rabbit's choice parts. While distributors like Sysco offer pre-packaged rabbit backs, local farmers deliver a rabbit in one piece.

"It definitely presents a challenge from the chef's perspective, but we're phenomenally lucky to have these chefs who are serious about buying local," Imladris says. "To have a local food scene, you need chefs willing to work on the edge."

As an example, Imladris cites John Stehling of Early Girl Eatery, who successfully tinkered with rabbit bellyflap.

"He came over and said, 'You've got to try this'," Imladris recalls. "They'd slacked it off and made rabbit bacon. It was out of this world." 

East Fork Farm's Steve Robertson, who sells rabbit to Table and Zambra — and, occasionally, Savoy — keeps a waiting list of tailgate market customers who've apparently recovered from the Easter Bunny syndrome that struck the rabbit industry a few decades ago, when even committed carnivores pleaded the animal was "too cute" to eat. Robertson estimates he has "six or seven" customers awaiting rabbit.

"It's delicious meat," Robertson says. "According to the government, it's the healthiest meat you can eat."

East Fork keeps just 10 breeding rabbits, providing a yearly crop of 300-400 rabbits. Although Robertson concedes the numbers are small, Greenlife Grocery — which carries his farm's lamb — has approached him to discuss adding his rabbit to the butcher case.

"We're wanting to triple our numbers," Robertson says.

Imladris Farms also has plans for expansion and is now building a new barn to house more rabbits. By next year, Imladris is hoping to produce upward of 1,000 rabbits annually.

Until this summer, most rabbit farmers kept their herds small to satisfy a state law that limited how many chickens and rabbits small farmers could process. But in July, North Carolina lifted the requirement that subjected rabbit processing to state inspection, since the policy could — in a roundabout way — effectively invite federal inspectors into the new small-animal processing plant slated to open in Marion. While the complexities of the ruling confuse even rabbit farmers, suffice to say the state Department of Agriculture wasn't too keen on the concept of hosting the feds at its rabbit-and-chicken facility, and so averted the situation by deregulating rabbits.

Nobody yet knows just what the change in law means. Farmers haven't approached the federal government to ask whether it plans to introduce its own inspections, fearing the answer might be yes. Will the state's stepping back inaugurate a new era in untrammeled rabbit farming, putting far more rabbits on the market — and on menus? Or will the Federal Department of Agriculture crack down on North Carolina's rabbiteers, making rabbit even more of a niche crop? Local gourmands, of course, are rooting for a rabbit revival.

"I don't know that there's a huge demand yet, but there's a decent demand," Robertson says. "People's eyes perk up when we tell them we do it."

Contact Hanna Rachel Raskin at food@mountainx.com.

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