A Matter of Taste-The Summer of Foie Gras

Michael Nagrant / 08.08.06

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago. Pics are taken from my 12 course foie gras tasting at Avenues restaurant in May.

foie torchon
Asparagus with bacon bits, confit duck egg, and foie gras torchon

If karma truly governs the universe, then someday my prostrate body will be pecked to death by a quacking covey of bloodthirsty Moulard ducks. I am a foie gras eater.

I’m not an apologist for the force-feeding of ducks, but either you eat meat, or you don’t. I am not a social philosopher, a scientist or a duck. There is no referee to settle whether ducks have greater civil liberties than humans, pigs or cows, and it’s impossible for me to gauge pain within a species that differs biologically from humans.

foie baklava
Foie Lollipop on a bed of shredded phyllo with honey and pistachio with foie torchon on a spiced krispie with strawberry pop rocks and frozen yogurt

When I saw that chef Graham Eliot Bowles was offering a twelve-course foie gras tasting at Avenues restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel, I started shaking like a heroin junkie in a methadone clinic. William Blake said, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” and if I were going to explore the issue, Avenues restaurant would be the road where my own liver, engorged with the excess of a gastronomic bacchanal, would finally run out of gas.

scallops foie
Scallops, diced apple, micro-mint, rhubarb, in foie gras custard

The Avenues kitchen is a hearth of golden-toned tile. An army of copper pans catch the overhead light, casting orange reflections. The sauté chef sears off pink foie gras, ruddy lamb chops and milky turbot fillets. Over the course of my three-hour meal, she is always in the moment; her concentration never wavers from the first piece to the fiftieth. She bastes by repeatedly spooning the residual pan juices and coddles the meat with her offset spatula. I find out that she writes poetry, and I want to ascribe her treatment of the meat to an artistic sensibility, but the other chefs in the kitchen, none of them poets, act the same. The cooking is an orchestration of discrete repetitive movements: stirring, searing, seasoning and plating.

foie foam
Rabbit deconstructed five ways including bacon made from the skirt, loin, and stuffed saddle with foie gras whip cream

As I watch Chef Bowles contemplate a dish, the sauté chef tells me that Bowles encourages the staff to plate the same dish differently each time. She says, “You can see the artistry in everything he does.”

A beefy kangaroo carpaccio with zingy lime shavings, refreshing eucalyptus, juicy melon strips, smears of caramel, and crumbles of foie gras “snow” is served in a boomerang-shaped dish. If Foster’s is Australian for beer, this dish is Australian for “sublime.”

foie kangaroo
Rare prime beef is paired with molten seared lobes of foie, greenhouse spinach, and a garnet merlot reduction that tastes like mom’s cherry pie. You can taste the minerals from the soil in which the spinach grew.

foie milkshakeFor dessert, there is foie gras and raspberry milkshake. The glass is rimmed like a sweet margarita with fleur de sel and droplets of caramel. This is exhibit A in my case that everything tastes better with foie gras.

The heat lamps hanging over the pass are turned on only once during the night. This is not McDonald’s. Dishes pass precisely from kitchen to guest. You get lost in the craftsmanship, and were the food not a tasty spectacle, it would be beside the point.

For me, the foie gras issue comes down to a question of nobility between the Chicago city council ban and the craftsmanship of the Avenues chefs.

The ban itself is morally relative. How can the aldermen designate one form of animal slaughter as more torturous than others? How can they be meat-eating, leather-wearing legislators with no plans for other laws?

When I called the bill’s chief proponent, Alderman Joe Moore, and asked if he had ever eaten foie gras, he said, “I may have. I didn’t know what I was eating. But I am told by a friend of mine that dined with me at one of our trendy restaurants, a while back, this is before the controversy kinda blew up last year, that it may have been part of an appetizer that was served to us. But I honestly can’t remember it and I can’t remember what it tasted like.”

This Clintonesque waffling and judicious wordplay is disappointing. In contrast, when I asked Bowles about his decision to serve the Avenues meal, he said, “It’s our form of peaceful protest.”

turbot foie
Turbot, saffron, caper,raisin in foie gras vinaigrette

The Avenues chefs are resolute in their decision to cook meat, and they do so with exacting craft and ultimate care that reminds me of a quote from the great French chef Fernand Point: “If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.”

Chicago aldermen are not short on ceremony, but if they approached their jobs with the same level of passion and deliberation as the Avenues chefs, one wonders if there would be a hired truck scandal, budget overruns at O’Hare, or if we’d even have a foie gras ban.