Wild game and bad yak in BuckheadMonday May 3, 2010 09:00 am EDT
The hosts, owners and wait staff at Saskatoon are very happy to see me. Not because I'm a critic – there's no doubt that my secret is safe here – but because I'm a customer. Any customer. It's 7 p.m. on a Friday night and the dining room is empty, save for the looming taxidermied heads that peer out from the walls. With his penetrating gaze and considerable heft, Mr. Buffalo is especially impressive. Or something.
Saskatoon, named after a small bush native to northwestern America, has been in business in Greenville, S.C., since 1996. The original restaurant's website says, "After 13 years of success, the steakhouse franchise Saskatoon restaurant is now ready to offer other entrepreneurs a WILD and DELECTABLE Food Franchise Opportunity ... a chance to own a Saskatoon Franchise Restaurant!!!" Buckhead is the landing spot for the first franchisee, Yash Patel.
The décor at the sprawling Pharr Road space combines hunting lodge heads-on-plaques with vintage fishing prints and chandeliers made from antlers. The menu reads like any middlebrow Americana restaurant – spinach and artichoke dip, crab cakes, pecan-crusted salmon – but with a whole bunch of unusual meat dishes thrown in. Ostrich, elk and buffalo take their place beside the pork tenderloin and filet mignon.
"Are the sausages on the wild game sausage sampler made here?" I asked my very eager waiter (by the end of the evening, I knew all about his nieces, their prom dresses and his house-cleaning business, "just in case you ever want your house cleaned").
"Yes! Um, well, some things we get from special people. But some things we make here."
The sausages – duck, rabbit and venison – did not taste as though they'd been made there. They were uniform in their tough, hot dog consistency and overwhelmingly flavored with various spices. The rabbit tasted a lot like breakfast sausage, being shot through with a huge dose of sage. The venison tasted like soy and molasses. None of them tasted like the animal they came from.
Northeastern steamers combined clams and mussels in a butter (margarine?) heavy broth. They were as tough as erasers, and the shells of the mussels still sported their hairy byssus, the threads used to attach the bivalve to its rock of choice. Mmmmm, beardy.
An ostrich filet requested medium rare came out positively burnt, black on the outside and cooked through and through. The same with elk tenderloin. As a result, I can't really tell you what the flavor of the meat was. Whatever had been there was gone. I can tell you that the elk came with a "signature ginger demi-glace." And I can tell you that its cloying character was reminiscent of granny perfume.
All the game entrées come with mashed potatoes and a huge sprig of rosemary as garnish. Or you can substitute a different side for $2. I decided to try the three-cheese and mushroom polenta and was rewarded with two square patties of dry foamy mush, more suitable for the interior of a mattress than consumption.
If a restaurant could make such a mess of polenta, I wondered what else they could possibly screw up. Molten chocolate cake? You betcha! Tasteless cake with the attributes of a hot dish sponge surrounded a slick and syrupy "white chocolate ganache." It was a Frankenstein of a dessert, with none of that beast's latent charm.
I came across the franchise and Greenville restaurant websites after my first visit to Saskatoon, and it helped clear up quite a few questions. So it's a franchise. So the menu is almost exactly the same as the place in Greenville. So they're getting most of what they serve prepackaged off a truck.
This explains the polenta, the chocolate cake, and the ponzu and spicy Thai sauces on an appetizer of buffalo lettuce wraps, which tasted exactly like they were repurposed discount-brand marinades. What it doesn't explain is the meat and fish and their poor treatment and execution. Rainbow trout was cooked beyond the point of edibility. Our choice of "lemon pepper seasoning" (the other choice being a frightening sounding plum barbecue) was actually that stuff from a bottle called lemon pepper. No real lemon or pepper was present.
Saskatoon's story may be a comic-tragedy, but the lesson it teaches is actually a joyful one: For high-end dining, prepackaged restaurants just aren't good enough for Atlanta anymore.
In fact, the empty dining room at Saskatoon almost made me proud of Atlanta, and even Buckhead. I feel for Patel, who sunk obviously considerable funds into the endeavor, but only a little. Gone are the days when a concept alone could draw in crowds. Gone are the days when bottled sauces and giant rosemary sprigs were good enough. You can't just have an interesting cut of meat, you have to know how to cook it. To make it in this town, you might have to pay for line cooks who know what they're doing. You might actually have to make your own food.
One night, I ordered a special of yak after the server talked it up as being "not only one of the tastiest pieces of meat I've ever had, but also the healthiest!" You know when you go camping and buy a mediocre steak from the sketchy supermarket near the campsite, and you cook the steak over your campfire but the fire isn't exactly hot enough, so you end up with a kind of limp piece of meat that's too thin and not seared properly? Yeah. The yak was like that. And it ended up being a whopping (and initially undisclosed) $38.
As I chew my sad and floppy yak, I look at the poor buffalo gazing down on an almost empty room and feel guilty. I know he's not a yak, but still. No yak or buffalo should have died for this. This food, this place, is disrespectful to their spirit.