Llama: It's what's for dinner

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Llama-raw-ma.
So I was touring a cold-storage room at Fortune Fish & Gourmet in Bensenville with my kids (it's summer, so they get to tag along on Dad's unlikely and occasionally gruesome field trips) when one of them cries out, "What is that?" Considering the crustaceans and cephalopods we've already seen, the note of alarm is a little surprising, but when I see what they're referring to—a plastic-wrapped long-necked quadruped of some sort, lying on a pallet—I see their point. What is it, a pony? A really long-necked goat? A chupacabra?

"Llama," explains our guide, Stacy Schultz. "It's for, oh, what's the place—"

"Frontier," I guess.

And sure enough, the next day I got a press release for Frontier's llama dinner next Wednesday. It's the latest in the series of whole-animal dinners chef Brian Jupiter's been doing at the West Town tavern and beer garden since it opened in 2011. Reader food writer Mike Sula wrote about Jupiter's game focus shortly after Frontier opened, but the meats he wrote about then—rabbit, elk, wild boar—seem downright tame next to some of what Jupiter's served in the two years since, such as camel, beaver, python, and most famously, whole alligator.

On that scale, Jupiter considers llama relatively accessible. "Llama's a red meat, very lean, good flavor to it, not overwhelmingly gamy or anything, so I think it's easy for people to accept once they do taste it," he says. He also thinks that the weirdness to American tastes of these game meats should be balanced by their naturalness—"These animals are all natural, very healthy animals. You don't worry about all the hormones and stuff because in essence, they're wild."

So where do you get whole llama, exactly? "Fortune found this farm, right past Milwaukee, called Pleasure Valley Farms," he explains. "And this guy is like the Llama King. He wins all these competitions for his llamas. He taught us so much about the animal, he shared some of his recipes that he likes to use on the llama."

Chef Brian Jupiter and an antlerlabra at Frontier.

Having acquired a llama, how do you cook it? As Jupiter noted, it's very lean, so "we're going to smoke the whole animal. We're going to wrap it, much like we do the alligators, in beef caul fat, just to lock in the moisture. We inject it, we're going to give the legs heavy injections just to make sure they stay moist throughout the cooking process. It should be good eating." He says that bringing in new proteins keeps his kitchen sharp—"It's a first time for all of us, so there's no egos, and no 'Oh, I've done this a million times.' That makes it fun for everybody."

I ask him if he's ever had protests over the exotic animals he's serving and he says no, but when I bring up one particular animal that is farm raised in the upper midwest but has also been the subject of a proposed Illinois ban—lion—he acknowledges sensitivity about the idea of serving it. "Even when we served bear, some people were freaked out by it. But a few other places started serving it shortly after," he notes.

"We are careful about what we source, and where we source from," he says. "We're not going after anything that's endangered, and we try to get as much a story as possible about the proteins we prepare. All the animals we use are eaten in other countries, or by some people—they're staples to them."

Frontier's llama dinner is Wednesday, August 28, at 8 PM, 1072 N. Milwaukee, 773-772-4322, thefrontierchicago.com, $65 per person.

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