The best meal I ate in Montreal was planned months in advance, inspired (predictably, if you’re a regular reader) by the Quebec episode of No Reservations, first aired in April of 2006:
Yes, I remembered this restaurant for three years, and jumped at the chance to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal just so I’d have a chance to eat there. Two Sundays ago we brought two friends along to enjoy the dinner with us and to have more dishes to sample.
As you can see from the video, Au Pied de Cochon looks like a neighborhood bar that also serves food. The place is loud and packed full of people, there’s French rock blasting from the sound system, and everyone is smiling. It didn’t take us long to figure out why, once we’d seen the menu and placed our orders. Here’s what we ate, in menu order, with low-light iPhone photos because I forgot to pack the real camera.
Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
This slice of what could also be described as a beet and goat cheese napoleon was served chilled. The beets had been lightly pickled, which allowed their taste to come through against the tangy cheese.
Blue Cheese, Apple, and Endive Salad
This salad was all about contrasts. Bitter endive played against sweet apples and salty cheese, while crunchy apples and endive played against soft, crumbly cheese – multitasking ingredients tied together with a light creamy dressing.
Crispy PDC Salad
This salad was the winner. Fresh, lightly dressed greens with sliced tomatoes, walnuts, and bacon lardons. The square thing on top? It was a slab of pig’s head cheese, breaded and deep fried, garnished with fleur de sel and mustard. Each bite of this little treasure yielded gelatinous goodness mixed with little pork scraps from the braised head. Because when there’s already bacon in your salad, more pork and gelatin makes it better.
Cured Foie Gras Tart
We had to order something with foie gras, and this was it. This deceptively simple looking dish was actually quite complex, both in construction and taste. The disk of pie dough was topped with bechamel, mustard, and Gruyere, then baked. Then a spoonful of mashed potatoes was added, then some meat demiglace, and only then was it finished with slices of salt-cured foie gras and some greens. Every bite of this little tart overwhelmed with its depth and multitude of flavors, including the subtle smokiness it acquired from the wood-fired oven it was cooked in.
Duck in a Can
Really. Duck in a Can. Here’s someone elase’s video of how the dish is served:
The plate onto which the can is inverted has a slab of toasted bread covered with celery root puree. Our can had a new label; here’s the front:
And here’s the back:
The ingredient list translates as half a duck breast (a magret is the breast of a duck that has been fed to produce foie gras), foie gras, balsamic meat glaze, butter-braised cabbage, half a roasted garlic head, and two thyme sprigs.
The can is cooked in boiling water, effectively creating a sous vide that produces a perfectly cooked, meltingly tender duck with a thick layer of fatty skin. The sauce that came out of that can is the best duck accompaniment I have ever tasted: dark, rich, and infused with the juices from the meat. The layer of toast at the bottom provided the necessary crunchy contrast to the softness of the rest of the components. And did I mention how good the foie gras tasted in that sauce?
She Who Must Be Obeyed succumbed to her attorney bloodlust and ordered the boudin, or blood sausage. It was a simple mixture of bread, onions, pork fat, cream, spices, and of course, pig’s blood, stuffed into sausage casings and simmered. These sausages were perfect, maintaining a soft, spongy texture that crumbled apart with gentle pressure. The spice balance cut through the metallic taste you can get from cooked offal, while still highlighting the main ingredient. The purple cabbage garnish was almost a crispy sauerkraut, with just the right amount of acidity to balance the richness of the boudin. We all fought over the last bits of this dish.
PDC’s Melting Pot
The melting pot was a straightforward braise of pork belly, pork loin, and smoked sausage with some root vegetables. Dishes like this are deceptively simple, but difficult to get just right, but this version was spot-on: each meat was cooked to its perfect texture.
Stuffed Pied de Cochon with Foie Gras
I ordered the dish the restaurant is named after. The video below shows it being cooked. I apologize for the jarring presence of Rachael Ray, but she had the good sense to eat at the same restaurant during her Montreal vacation.http://blog.belm.com/belmblog/video/apdc.flv&image
This dish was huge, served on a platter twice the size of the other dishes. The breaded and oven-crisped pig’s foot and shank is sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes, and covered with a thick sauce of mushrooms, onions, and broad beans.
What’s that dark brown disk on top? A slab of foie gras that was seared on both sides to caramelize the outside. Crispy, sweet, concentrated essence of foie surrounding a tender interior – the best foie gras preparation I have ever tasted.
And the pig’s foot? Cutting through the crispy skin at the larger end revealed the shank meat, some of the most intensely-flavored meat on the pig, which had been chopped and mixed into a stuffing. The bottom half was mostly bones, but interspersed throughout were pockets of unctuous gelatin produced as the cartilage rendered during the long, slow cooking time.
The sauce and mashed potatoes were rich and hearty as well, but there was no way I could finish them, or at least finish them and still have room for dessert.
I may revise my death row meal to include this dish as the main course, as long as I could still have the bone marrow from St. John as an appetizer.
Having already sampled the baseline poutine at a hot dog stand, we decided a side of high-end poutine was in order. We chose the regular version instead of the one with foie gras, out of fear that our hearts might explode. What we got were perfect hand-cut fries cooked in duck fat, fresh cheese curds, and a hearty dollop of real demiglace-based meat gravy. This is what poutine should always taste like.
Maple Syrup Pie for Two
We were all set to pass on desserts until someone (who shall remain nameless) saw those three words – maple, syrup, and pie – together. This mercifully small pie, which we divided into quarters, had a filling similar to what binds pecans together in a pecan pie. It was not overpoweringly sweet, but had a great depth of maple flavor, and again some smoke from the oven.
Raspberry Rhubarb Pudding
This pudding was a special not on the regular menu. It was a refreshing combination of tart summer fruit topped with a light crust and ice cream. It may not have been intentional, but it ended the meal on a light, palate-cleansing note.
Anthony Bourdain has said it all better than I ever could in his introduction to Au Pied de Cochon – The Album, the restaurant’s cookbook (which, of course, I bought on the way out):
Martin Picard has not forgotten. His restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal is a celebration, an ode to all things porky, ducky, fatty, and wonderful. A return to the hearth where we all learned to cook – a place where, through the careful application of heat, wonderful things happen. In an open kitchen, behind a long, customer-friendly counter, he has created one of the Western world’s few “Bullshit Free Zones”, a place where it’s all about – and only about – what’s delicious, pleasurable, and true – and where too much of a good thing is never enough.
I’ve already decided that I have to return for another meal. It’s only a five-hour drive each way, and I can do it in one day as long as I have a designated driver to take over when I collapse into a happy, pork- and foie-fueled torpor.
Until then, I can look at my other souvenir:
That’s number 7442. If you were sharp-eyed, you noticed that the tag shown during Rachael’s segment was number 4586, which means more than 2800 pieds de cochon have been consumed in the ensuing three years, or about three every night the restaurant is open. That also translates to many happy customers and quite a few one-legged pigs.