I've never been one to subscribe to thought of exotic game being taboo. I think you should try a food at least a handful of times before making up your mind that it's not for you. After all, there are some chefs that can transform things you've never liked before into a dish you'll adore. Gamekeepers Executive Chef Craig Fitzgerald is one of those kind of chefs. It really doesn't matter what he makes, I'll try it. I trust him immensely with my taste buds.
He took over as Gamekeepers Executive Chef about a year ago after working in Pittsburgh, where he attended culinary school and interned at 11 Restaurant, and then onto Boca Raton where he worked at Cafe Maxx with Oliver Saucy. Thankfully for us, this St. Ignatius grad came back to the Cleveland area because he missed the seasons and his family. Upon his return he has worked at Three Birds in Lakewood as well as West End Bistro right next door to Gamekeepers.
Chef Fitzgerald is admirable for far more than just his talent in the kitchen. He is a genuinely nice guy. Inspired by working for former Gamekeepers Executive Chef Alonzo Norman and seeing that a you didn't need to be a tyrant to earn respect, he has continued on that path. It must be contagious because everyone on staff at Gamekeepers has a great attitude and becomes a quick friend.
Recently, I got to enjoy a preview of Gamekeepers new Summer menu items. Since Craig took over as executive chef, he has been reintroducing more game meat to the menu. Aside from that he has is a commitment to fresh, quality and local ingredients which really shine through in the artfully plated dishes. "I'm trying to bring it back to the idea of Gamekeepers. The field and stream kinda deal. We live in a great state where we can get local produce, local meats, you can forge for things right outside in your backyard and that really appeals to me. A good product, prepared fairly simple so you can taste it," Craig explains. Taste it I did! Here is a rundown of my meal:
First Course: Appetizer Trio
(Emu Empanada | Crispy Pheasant Thighs | Fried Green Tomatoes)
The empanada dough, based on a pierogi recipe once given to Craig, is so light and crisp. Its a perfect balance of dough to filling without a hint of grease that you'll often find with an empanada. The pappadew pepper is a tasty treat and I couldn't leave a drop of the black bean puree behind.
The pheasant thighs with a maple and jalapeno glaze are crave worthy for those of us that love a little heat with our sweet. Pickled red onions keep it fresh and bright.
Once told by a sandwich shop owner that he believes about 1/3 of the population dislikes tomatoes, I consider myself solidly part of that group. I try them a lot and every once in a blue moon I can enjoy a nice tomato because it's been done so incredibly well. I consider these fried green tomatoes to be in that well done category. Meaty tomatoes with a thin breading and a house made buttermilk ranch. They are as enjoyable as I can imagine tomatoes to get.
Second Course: Chilled English Pea Soup
I had the pea soup the first time I went to Gamekeepers and I was very excited to have it again because it stayed with me. After the peas are blanched there is no additional heat applied to this simple pea and olive oil soup. Accompanied with a tasty piece of prosciutto that a used as a delightful spoon.
Third Course: Cumin Carrots with Garlic Sour Cream
This dish is a treat! A tasty cold vegetable dish is a real rarity in restaurants. I love that a restaurant focused on game is churning out such delightful ones. The cumin sets it off as exotic and the crushed dried chick peas give it a crunchy texture that blends well with the garlic sour cream.
Fourth Course: Tuna Ahi Wonton
I've found tuna to be something that takes some finesse to make well so I don't order it too often, but my trust in Craig pays off because this is an incredible disk. This tuna is so incredibly light that it melts in your mouth. Along with the crunch of the wonton and the pop of the caviar I am so glad I got to enjoy all this dish has to offer.
Fifth Course: Venison Tartar
Tartar is not something I shy away from. I was introduced to it as a kid which makes it familiar to me somewhere deep in my psyche. This is truly some of the best I have had. You'd expect a gaminess from a venison tartar, but there is honestly not hint of it. The pickled grapes are so delightful I could eat them alone all day. They add a burst of sweet with each bite.
Sixth Course: Seared Halibut
Halibut is such a lovely light fish. This is seared so beautifully on top of fresh corn, topped with pea tendrils and a cream on the side to pour in for a creamed corn experience.
Seventh Course: Duck Breast
I adore duck so this was one of my favorite dishes. To me it tastes like duck bacon with its nice crusty exterior and tender juicy center. Aside from the tasty duck the fingerling gnocchi are unbelievable! They have a nice sear on them which compliments their smooth texture.
Eight Course: Elk Loin
Elk is something I don't have any experience with outside of eating it at Gamekeepers, but I found it to be bold in flavor and tender in texture, complimented by white asparagus. It is something I wouldn't hesitate to order again.
Night Course: Gingerbread Pudding
Gingerbread pudding with ice cream and caramel sauce! What a nice comforting dessert to close out the end of the evening. It settles in your stomach like a warm hug.
Can't forget the drinks! They have a great wine and cocktail list. For something really unusual try the Fireball! It's got Sriracha and pickle juice. They have the most incredible cocktail cherries and make an awesome Old Fashioned with them. They are also really good at just hearing what you like and making you something you'll like, which I really appreciate.
I highly recommend heading to Gamekeepers if you're looking for a quality meal made by one of Cleveland's best chefs, served in a gorgeous space (the patio is incredible), by a staff that you'll become instant friends with. Its an A+ experience all around and relaxed enough that you'll feel right at home.