Pig out

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By Noel Vera

Restaurant Review
Au Pied de Cochon
536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal,
QC H2L 1A9, Canada

I REMEMBER Anthony Bourdain’s Quebec episode in his show No Reservations, quoting his host Martin Picard. “Tonight I will keel you,” Picard had said, to which Bourdain added: “these are words I don’t take lightly.” Picard proceeded to “keel” Bourdain with one spectacularly rich and extravagant dish after another, to end with the palate cleanser of a whole roasted suckling pig, bisected snout wrapped in 24-karat gold leaf.

“You can eat it and the day after you’re shitting gold,” Picard told his guest. I vowed ever since that someday somehow I would visit the scene of the massacre.

Thirteen years later and there I was at Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon, one of the pioneering restaurants that helped put Montreal on the international culinary map. It’s a relatively quiet little place: storefront of glass and wood that folded aside to let in light and air; street deck with tables; and — love this — planters full of herbs: rosemary, and cilantro, so forth. I peered closely at the cilantro: some of the stems had been cut. They’re not just decor; the herbs were being used.

Inside was simple: wide hallway with white ceiling, mirrored wall, wooden floor; the only sign of extravagance was the bar, a gleaming wood behemoth that dominated half of the bistro, the back wall an Aladdin cavern glittering with a rainbow selection of liquor bottles — if the heart of a restaurant is the bar, this had a huge enchanted heart.

We pored over the menu. No, we couldn’t order everything: I hadn’t the budget (24K gold leaf!) or liver or arteries. I needed to be selective, so I gave up ordering the cured foie gras and boudin tart or the mapo tofu and foie gras. (Tofu and goose liver? The textures are so similar — was that the point?) We settled on one relatively unusual starter and four classics. Drinks were a mojito, a lemonade sweetened with maple, and two glasses of water.

I’d noticed a big basket at the bar heaped high with what looked like boulders. The waiter took one boulder, sawed it in half, into wedges, served it to us — turns out they were bread with a finger-tappable crust, burnt almost, inside a pillowy crumb; with a ramekin of butter one can almost make a meal of it. “Careful,” I said to my dining companions. This was a preemptive strike; the actual assault had not yet begun.

It began with poutine. The Quebecois classic of a heap of french fries with gravy and cheese curds (basically chunks of squeaky cheddar) given a Picardish upgrade with even larger chunks of seared foie gras. The fries still had some crisp, the gravy was the richest I’d ever had (and I’ve had a few ’round Montreal and Toronto and a few travesties in the United States, even whipped up a version in my own kitchen). Turns out, yes, they incorporated foie into the gravy, hence the incomparably creamy texture and depth of flavor.

Tartare temaki followed, served on a little tree stump. Crisp cone stuffed with sushi rice, a peacock fantail of a lettuce leaf, fried string potato streamers, a quail egg crowned for easy pouring, and raw chopped red meat. Pour the raw egg on the meat, toss shell aside (of course), bite. Crisp nori and potato strings, tender rice, lean well-seasoned meat (it could have been beef or even tuna with its irony flavor but it wasn’t), raw egg (arguably the best steak sauce ever) for fattiness.

Oh, did I mention that the full name of the dish is tartare temaki de cheval? Apparently, it is available all over Europe, South America, Asia, even the Philippines (of course) — only we fry it and dip it in vinegar. The Japanese like to serve it raw; so does this place. The quail egg was a simple yet decadent touch.

The server then presented a knife with a thin blade, wicked sharp, bright plastic handle. I gripped it with one hand and looked about for something to stab.

Came the canard en conserve. We stared at the can that was printed front and back with funny cartoons. Were we supposed to puncture the can? Fortunately the server (helpful and friendly, though the French accent was a bit difficult to decipher) arrived in time with a can opener, explaining as he opened the tin that it’s half a duck breast, balsamic reduction, garlic, cabbage, carrot, celery, onions, and two sprigs of thyme stuffed into a can, boiled for some 27 minutes.

The server upended the can over a plate of toast and carrot puree: the contents landed with a soft plop. We stared at it: didn’t look like a lot — a slice of meat, a whitish roll of fat, a large slice of foie, dark gravy.

Turns out this may have been the single heaviest dish of the meal. The breast was a rare red, the way duck breast should be served — like prime steak. How could they boil this for 27 minutes and not leave the meat overdone? That, I’m guessing, is where the precise cooking time plays a role. The sauce was sweetly understated and a little tart, nice counterpoint to the almost overwhelming richness.

The foie had become both yieldingly, meltingly tender and startlingly resilient in the can; when I tried to slice it, the foie embraced the blade — it was like jello only a jello that wouldn’t cut, just swelled and slithered away. Had to chase it round the plate and pin it down with a fork before it gave up and allowed dismemberment.

In the mouth the foie just… faded, leaving a trace of butter on the tongue. The memory still haunts me weeks later.

The fat was fat; the knife blade bounced even harder off its mottled sheen than with the foie. I gave up; the biggest dish of the meal was arriving. “You, I — later,” I promised the slice of duck lard.

Finally the pied de cochon, the restaurant’s signature dish (this and the duck): an entire pig’s foot, partially deboned, stuffed with pork shank-and-foot meat, braised with mushrooms, onions, garlic, rosemary, pork stock and white wine, baked till the skin was crispy, then topped with two honking huge slices of seared foie.

The meat was falling-apart tender; you could taste the earthiness of the mushrooms, the deep funk of foie and pork stock, the crisp tartness of the wine. I swear they coated the skin with a spicy breading, though the Food Network recipe says nothing; Picard keeps some secrets, as would any chef.

At that point it hit us like a baseball bat to the belly: we were as tightly stuffed as this foot we were attempting to eat. And yet we wanted more: the sauce of both the canard and the cochon was addictive, like liquefied crack; I was tearing off pieces of the boulder — sorry, bread — and sopping it in the sauce.

We foolishly opted for dessert. Pouding chômeur, made out of stale bread and maple caramel, was invented by women factory workers during the Great Depression in Quebec. Unlike the other dishes, the pudding didn’t seem to have been fiddled around by the restaurant at all. It is basically a cake batter drowned in maple and cream, then baked till the cake rises up out of the thick sauce and browns. Was it delicious? It was a cake, in maple and cream — does the sun rise in the east?

Epilogue: About a week later, I broke open the leftover containers: basically a chunk of pork shank in sauce, a roll of duck fat in its sauce, and half a boulder. I warmed the boulder in a toaster oven, microwaved the others.

Whaddaya know? The food was, if anything, even more delicious. The sauce had melded; the flavors had deepened; the funk was more pronounced. The roll of duck fat I managed to slice thin with a serrated knife (note to serial killers and carnivores: fat and skin cut easier when the blade’s serrated) and laid on a slab of boulder, like lard on bread. It was a gorgeous bite of food.

Mark Twain once wrote: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.” Picard served us a barrel of food; the magic ingredient turned out to be the passage of days; things went much much better this time around.