Hawaii’s Pineapple Island Has Some of the Best Venison in the World
Here's where to eat it
Endless poke bowls, fresh fish, Kona coffee, macadamia nuts and pineapples galore—these are a few eats that come to mind when you think of Hawaii. Venison, however, should be added to this list. Yep, that’s right: Head to the tropics to eat insanely good deer meat. This is a lesson I quickly learned after devouring a few venison sliders from Malibu Farm at the Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i. "We have access to delicious seafood right off our shores, and it’s truly a gift as a chef to be able to source 100-percent organic meat harvested right on island,” says chef Kemar Durfield, chef de cuisine of the resort’s culinary operation and a big-time venison user.
Little-known fact: On Lānaʻi, a former island-wide pineapple plantation, Axis deer outnumber the locals by a long shot, with some 15,000-plus free-range deer frolicking around the island. “Our herd began with an introduction of a mere dozen animals that were brought to Lānaʻi from Molokai in the early 1920s,” says Anela Evans, cultural liaison at Pūlama Lānaʻi.
With no known natural predators, the ever-growing deer population has a major downfall. “The deer and their overgrazing have been a major factor that has led to the devastation of the island’s ecosystem,” Evans says. “Ungulates (hoofed animals) like axis deer cause massive erosion and run off of soil,” meaning, while a great source of game and protein, the deer are causing ecosystem degradation.
In spring 2016, Pūlama Lānaʻi’s first mobile processing unit entered the space, allowing their game management team to conduct night hunts once a week and process venison for use in restaurant menus on the island. “An FDA inspector must be present on the hunt as well as when they are in the mobile processing unit butchering the meat,” she says. “They have specific and strict guidelines that they must follow. This effort is in conjunction with their efforts to control and manage the deer population.” A lottery system during deer hunting season is also managed by The State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, along with private hunting opportunities. In recent years, multi-day hunts have become a popular pastime for off-island residents and tourists as well.
But why does the venison here taste so fantastic? “Their diet is reflected in the super clean and pleasant flavor that is not at all overpowering or gamey,“ says Durfield. “The flavor complements most ingredients it’s paired with.” On Lānaʻi, Evans tells us they enjoy kiawe (mesquite) beans, Christmas Berry (Brazilian Pepper) and a wide range of plants. “When they get brave, they venture into people’s yards and will eat ti-leaves (they love ti-leaves) and everything they can get their paws on, such as vegetables, fruits, and flowering plants.”
While poke and fresh fish can be readily found on Lānaʻi, venison is popular among locals. “Some popular ways that locals prepare venison are teriyaki style and stir fry,” Evans says. “Lānaʻi folks enjoy Kilawin made of venison—raw meat sliced thinly, then soaked in vinegar, onions and garlic. Another popular preparation that I make with venison is jerky, sliced thinly so that it’s almost like chips.”
From jerky to venison pastrami and everything in between, here are some of the island’s most prized venison creations.
In town, chef Jimi Lasquete’s signature venison loin dish lives up to the hype. A succulent, pan-roasted venison loin is doused in a black cherry cabernet demi-glace, accompanied by root veggie hash and seasonal veggies. Just remember to save room for mud pie.
Prior to Larry Ellison purchasing 98 percent of Lāna‘i in 2012 from Castle & Cooke, Inc., dining options were relatively limited. Now there are several notable dining options at Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i alone, including a Nobu outpost. Here, try chef’s tataki style venison or grilled venison chops with anticucho sauce—or go all out and book a 15-course Teppanyaki experience with chef Hung Nguyen. The perfectly seared slice of venison needs no dipping sauce as it’s amazing in its own natural juice.
Grab a few slices of venison charcuterie, cheese and a croissant off the buffet for a delightful European-style breakfast. At dinner, ONE FORTY turns into a posh steak and seafood spot. The Lāna‘i venison steak comes equipped with a roasted tomato polenta cake, arugula, freshly shaved parmesan and a delicious sherry veal reduction that really brings out the meat’s rich flavor. Ask the sommelier for a stellar red wine to pair with the meat.
Get a taste of venison in true sports bar culinary fashion by way of venison pizza (with delectable venison sausage) and a solid venison patty burger topped with venison pastrami, Gouda cheese, grain mustard, coleslaw and Thousand Island aioli, served on savory pretzel bun. If pasta’s your vice, choose the pappardelle made with heartwarming venison Bolognese sauce.
A poolside order of venison sliders crafted with caramelized onion, Havarti cheese, spicy aioli and a pickle, served on country wheat toast, is as satisfying as it sounds. Or, opt for the blue nachos piled high with venison, cheese sauce, crème fraiche, black beans, green onions and, naturally, a house-made roasted salsa.
As its name implies, score a coveted outdoor table to soak in the most stunning island views, all while noshing on a Lanai Ruben sandwich. The venison pastrami sandwich, stuffed with Gruyere, smoked Gouda and obligatory horseradish and Thousand Island dressing, is a stand-out.