Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Montreal: Au Pied de Cochon

Foie Gras Poutine

No matter what the official statement may read, the real reason for a visit to Montreal is: Au Pied de Cochon.

Maybe you've heard about it. Maybe you've seen it on tv. Maybe Tony Bourdain told you about it. Perhaps you've heard that it's the world's greatest homage to pigs and ducks. Or that vegetarians (never mind vegans) aren't catered to here. Or that the restaurant is on PETA's list of places to terrorize. Whatever you may have heard in those veins, it's all true.

If you're not a meat-eater, this is not the place for you. If you don't like pig, this is not the place for you. If you're worried about food fat content, this is not the place for you. If you detest and abhor foie gras, this is not the place for you.

However, if the thought of slow cooked pig in fatty matter turns you on, then this is the place for you. If not and you still decide to eat here: you're screwed.

Codfish Fritters

But really, how does one describe the experience of eating at Au Pied de Cochon?

"Orgy" comes to mind. Yes, orgy. That's about right.

Au Pied de Cochon is a veritable orgy of brilliant food. It's not fancy or fussy. It's not presented in a fine dining setting. The staff is dressed casually in black. The kitchen crew wears blue workshirts more at home in the garages of Pep Boys than in a professional kitchen. Everything is designed to be casual. To put the diner at ease. To relax and prepare the tummy for what's to come.

Ryan and some bread.

Maybe some of you have seen the No Reservations episode where chef Martin Picard instructs his kitchen to keep the food coming until Tony Bourdain is dead. "...Give him, give him, give him and when he dies, stop." Knowing our penchant for tasting menus, the possibility of dying at Au Pied de Cochon seems very real indeed.

Two years ago, during my last visit to Montreal, I tried calling for reservations and was denied each time. This time, I would not be denied. The original plan was to simply show up, by myself and wait for a spot at the bar, with the hope that a single diner willing to sit at the bar would somehow be accommodated. Happily, my friends had heard about my daring plan to eat an Au Pied de Cochon and made different arrangements.

Salmon Salad Special

The well-connected Sevan made the proper arrangements so that I would have a table for eight and I could invite whomever I desired. Crap. Now I have to find seven other diners... I know how hard it is to reserve a table for two here, now I've got a table for eight. My friend had pulled some strings to land me this table and I couldn't flop. The pressure was on. What I had expected to be a solo binge standing outside in the cold was now a full on battle to fill a large table with friends who would enjoy the experience of eating at one of, if not the best restaurants in North America. Crap.

Happily, Reg Barber and his daughter Julia are always up for a good spot to eat. Brent Fortune is always ready for a great meal. Add the illustrious roaster Drew Cattlin, barista entrepreneur Nic Fortin from Quebec City and visiting coffee enthusiast Ryan Lucas to the mix and we've got our table filled and the promise of a delicious night ahead of us.

Fried Headcheese Special

As we arrived, the place was packed. I shimmied my way through the people crowding the entryway to the hostess station. Maybe it's because they're French-Canadian, or maybe it's because they don't want to let some wayward passerby steal their table but these people were less than accommodating in letting me pass by. Remembering my lessons in French etiquette (and how brusquely the French barrel through crowds), I just gave out a loud "Pardon" as I barreled my way through the crowd. Strangely enough, there were no comments or reactions - guess it really is just the French in them.

Our Wines

As I waited for the hostess to return, some guy in a suit offered to sell me his table (a two top) for $250. I thought about laughing at him but I reassured him that our table was secure - I didn't bother to tell him that we had a larger table than he. I just didn't want to be a dick to him.

After a few minutes, we were invited to the bar and served a complimentary round of codfish fritters while our table was being prepared. Then once seated, our orgy began.

I have to admit, my World of Eating is a bit skewed than most. I'm used to going out with friends who are pretty adventurous about food and enjoy sharing everything. Not to say that my dining companions tonight at APC aren't like that, I just never know beforehand and worry that perhaps I'm essentially bullying everyone into eating the way I'm used to. Luckily, these guys are game and it's on.

Duck Fat Fries

Our server Oli tells us the specials. There's several and they're all sounding tasty and we go with all of them. It's simple, it's easy. There's the Salade Saumon (two of those), Croquettes de Tete (thank you) and Salade de Lard. Add on an order of the Duck Fat Fries, Poutine Foie Gras and we're rockin' and rollin'.

How about main courses? Hmm, we'll order those as we go, but Oli tells us that some of them require extra preparation time, like the Pied de Cochon stuffed with Foie Gras and the Canard en Conserve. Well, we don't want to delay our meal longer than necessary, so tell the kitchen to get to work on those. Don't know who's going to eat it but it's time.


Next up is the beverage selection. Drew goes for a really nice beer and the rest of us order both red and white wine. The wine list is extensive and just beyond my level of comprehension. However, Oli makes some suggestions and they're on the money. A few glasses of white and the 2005 Bandol Tempier for the rest. Very nice.

Not long after, our first courses start arriving. For a few minutes, it's a never-ending stream of plates flying over and landing on our table. It's a grand sight. The Foie Gras Poutine is a hit. It's decadent, delicious that promises the onslaught of heart disease. The Duck Fat Fries are good but I gotta be honest - I didn't think they were all that. Yes, they were good. Delicious even. But did I notice a discernable difference between "normal" fries and these fried in duck fat? Not really.

Later I would find out from the kitchen that they cut the duck fat with vegetable oil to increase the longevity and heat range of the oil. Don't know if that means anything regarding flavor since vegetable oil tends to be relatively neutral tasting.

The first round continues relentlessly. There's the salmon salad - slices of raw salmon in little mounds with just enough greens to pass as a "salad." Nice. When Oli said that one of the appetizer specials was "lard", I didn't bother to ask for a description or a clarification, I just said "oui!" Turns out that "lard" is actually their euphemism for big hunk of sliced bacon, smoked and succulent. Again, with just enough greens to pass for "salad" it was delicious. I think there must have been someone who once remarked that one can have "too much" bacon. Don't know who said it, but obviously that person isn't worth remembering with comments like that.

Yours Truly with Martin Picard.

The special that really put everyone off was the fried headcheese. Cubes of headcheese battered and deep fried served with some sort of sauce and some greens. Headcheese - it's enough to make people runaway screaming. Which is fine by me since I can eat their share. What started out as outright avoidance by some ended with the complete and utter decimation of the dish. It sounds nasty but once you taste it, it's as good as doing The Nasty.

Nic Fortin and Reg Barber.

Our first go around at ordering our main dishes was tempered with a "you have eight entrees and there's only seven of you" from Oli. Okay, nix the Boudain Tart and roll with everything else. Nice to find a server who actually cares enough to save your life from time to time, or at least so you can dine again.

Drew Cattlin contemplating the orgy of food about to come.

From the get go, the restaurant has been jam-packed. And it's obvious that reservations are a must. Don't have reservations and are dining alone? You might get lucky. No reservations and there's two (or more) of you? You're screwed. Might as well go to La Belle Provence 'cause you ain't getting in here - and it's only Wednesday.

Brent Fortune and Ryan Lucas.

It's busy. And the kitchen is quite small. There's a limited number of burners, a deep fryer some work space and a big brick oven. It's small and it's right behind the bar. In fact, the kitchen is part of the bar. I mention this because it's absolutely amazing the amount of volume this tiny kitchen is pumping out. And I do mean pumping. These guys are going full bore, balls to the wall and on overdrive.

The ever charming Julia Barber.

It takes 27 minutes in boiling water for the Duck In A Can to cook. It's at least some amount of time for the Pied de Cochon to cook. Just take those two items and multiply them by a portion of the dining room and the kitchen is easily screwed to the wall. I mean, how many Pied de Cochons can they cook simultaneously at one time?

In the distance, we spot Martin, the chef and owner of Au Pied de Cochon. Julia unabashedly asks that they summon him to our table. In a few minutes, Martin gladly complies and greets us. He seems like an affable chap and pauses for some pictures and to welcome us before moving on to the rest of the house. I may be bored with celebrities but I do find it exciting to meet the chef.

Pied de Cochon Farci au Foie Gras

The 5,160th Pied de Cochon stuffed with Foie Gras.

Not long after, the procession of main dishes starts to hit our table. First is the Pied de Cochon. There's a funny metal tag clipped to the end reading "5160." Evidently, Au Pied de Cochon tags each and every foot they serve and this is number 5,160. Wow, that's a lot of pigs. One Thousand Two Hundred and Ninety, to be exact. Later, we'll keep the tag and Julia will clip it to my shirt collar. A most fashionable accessory.

The foot is beautiful. Charred on the outside, moist, succulent and tender on the inside. There's a hunk of foie gras on the side and one inside. It's buttery smooth and covered with mushrooms and vegetables. It's good but the only problem is that I think it needs some salt to make the flavor pop. I start to worry that my taste buds might be going.

Cod Special

More dishes hit the table: two pork chops (great), the Morue special and the Epaule Agno (lamb) arrive. All of them wonderful - especially the lamb, which is perfectly seasoned. The meat literally dancing on my tongue.

Finally, the Duck In A Can arrives. The runner places the can on the table and opens it with a can opener, then pours it over some heavily toasted toast. The flavor is beautiful and wonderful. It's beyond expectation. I contemplate ordering just the uncooked can to take home for later, and the empty can as a souvenir.

Cote de Cochon

Things at the table quiet down slightly as everyone digs in and passes tastes of their dishes around. Each of us are hacking off a piece of this in exchange for a piece of that from someone across the table. It's how eating out with friends was meant to be.

Epaule Agno - Lamb Special

The side dish to the Lamb Special.

Opening the Confit en Conserve.

Here it comes.

Finally! Duck In A Can.

Later, Oli comes by to see if we're ready for dessert. We're not. A friend had shared a story about the last time he ate at APC and was so wasted by the experience, he couldn't work the next day. Don't know what he had but out multi-course tasting was just right. We were full. We had leftovers. We didn't need dessert. We were perfectly satiated. None of that groaning and walking around feeling bloated and ill like when you've eaten too much. The opportunity to eat "too much" was there, we just managed to avoid it and enjoyed the experience all the more.

From my seat at the table, I could spy into the rest room everytime someone went in or out and I noticed something. I could have sworn that I saw a sandwich prep refrigerator in there. A refrigerator in the rest room? No way. I had to go check it out.

Contemplating a great meal.

Lo and behold, there it was: a 27" Beverage Air sandwich prep refrigerator in the bathroom with stainless six pans. That's kind of odd, you say - happily, it looks like it was an old and non-functioning unit that they had turned into a hand towel holder and cleaning material storage underneath.

But that's not all. There's a small LCD screen facing the toilet playing Martin's tv show to while away the time ruling your kingdom. It's a nice touch and an idea for home.

By the time we left, it was nearing midnight and the kitchen was winding down. I picked up a copy of the APC Album (cookbook), chatted briefly with the kitchen crew and then we were flushed back out into the cold, wet Montreal night where a strange cabbie decided to take us to our hotel without bothering to follow our directions to the right hotel. Ce la vie...

Au Pied de Cochon
536 Rue Duluth
Montreal, QC