The Last Meal on Earth

Michael Nagrant / 06.28.06

Deep fried foie gras.

Deep fried foie gras.

Deep fried foie gras.

Two weeks after eating at in Montreal, this is the phrase that still flutters in the back of my consciousness. I can’t get it out of my head. Yeah, sure they deep fry everything nowadays, Snickers bars, Twinkies, pizza, and tacos, but who the hell is foolhardy enough to deep fry something like fattened duck liver? That’s like deep frying pure fat.

Martin Picard, the chef and visionary behind Au Pied de Cochon restaurant. That’s who.

In the kitchen, Picard doesn’t gild the lilly. He dips it in every precious metal, encrusts it with gleaming diamonds, and for good measure, triple wraps it in hundred dollar bills. In Picard’s world, serving a pig’s foot on an island of mashed potatoes whipped with cheese curds, and then stuffing that foot with braised pork shank, wild mushrooms and foie gras is normal. Offering no less than twelve dishes with generous portions of foie gras is standard. If you read my recent poutine article, you know there can’t possibly be anything more decadent in the world, except of course poutine with foie gras, which they serve. If that’s not enough you can order the “Duo” which includes the poutine and a hamburger, also served with a fat seared lobe of Foie gras.

The Au Pied kitchen in action

I’m not complaining. I am eating at Au Pied de Cochon, precisely because of this excess. Chicago recently banned the sale of foie gras, and I was curious about a place that served so much of it. After what I’ve seen, if some unsuspecting parliament minister even suggested such a law in Quebec, he might end up at the bottom of Lake Champlain.

It’s not all about duck liver, either. According to a recent Gourmet magazine article, in early May, Picard and his sous chef each grab five or six cases of wine and start at opposite ends of the St. Lawrence watershed, meeting, drinking, and cultivating personal relationships with the local fisherman. By the time Picard and the sous chef meet up a week later, they are out of wine. That’s a hundred and twenty bottles of wine if you’re counting at home. They do it all in the service of getting the best summer catch at the restaurant. Indeed, when we walked in, there was an aquarium chock full of fluttering plump shrimp and flopping lobsters on the bartop.

If a restaurant sets it’s seafood out so you feel like you’re browsing the jewelry counter at Tiffany and Co, you should probably try it. With this in mind, I started out with an appetizer of Pickel Point oysters harvested from Prince Edward Island. In the only feat of restraint demonstrated all night, the oysters were served on a bed of ice with a classic fuschia colored mignonette and lemon slices. After my first slurp, it was like I was standing out on a weathered dock rocked with salty spray overlooking the Atlantic.

While I was getting soft chomping on oysters, my father-in-law anted up by ordering the Cromesquis de foie gras, or the deep fried foie gras. It was brought to the table in a ceramic domed plate, and with a flourish, the waiter whisked away the dome, to reveal what looked like a lonely oversized raw sugar cube.

My father in law is not a foodie or a gourmand. It’s not that he doesn’t have a taste for the finer things in life, but he’s definitely at home with a nice thick steak. I watched him slip the deep fried cube in his mouth like a tab of acid ala Timothy Leary. A second passed, and a Cheshire cat grin was followed by a raised hand toward a passing waiter.

The waiter stopped, and my father and law barked, “Three more of these deep fried foie gras things, now.”

He was sure our entire table had to try it.

We sure did.

The Cromesquis was like chewing gum with the squishy liquid center, but instead of a cloying burst of minty liquid, you got a burst of warm port winey foie gras explosion.

One organ meat is never enough, and so I chose to go with the blood sausage pudding with foie gras for my entree. After a few minutes I was informed that they were out of blood sausage. I spotted something on the menu called “Plogue a Champlain” and I asked the waiter about it. He started muttering what sounded like the Hungry Man special from the local diner: pancakes, smoked bacon, deep fried hash browns, foie gras, and maple syrup. Bottom line: Denny’s needs to rethink their menu. The “Plogue” was a walk off grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning of a scoreless game seven of the World Series. With one bite, it was like my mom was making breakfast for dinner when I was a little kid….if my mom were suddenly replaced with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

My in-laws opted for the confit lamb shank, which dripped off the bone in sweet hunks.

My wife ordered up the Canard en Conserve, which is a Magret duck breast in veal demi-glace with sprigs of thyme stuffed in an aluminum can. After you place your order, the restaurant heats the can, brings it to your table, opens it with a can opener, and pours it out on a bed of mashed potatoes and toast. After a few bites, I figured I should give Wolfgang Puck a call. I wanted to know how something this good comes in a can, while Puck continues to shill the worst mass produced soup in the history of grocery.

The best part about Au Pied de Cochon isn’t even the food. Au Pied is more like a bar than a temple of haute cuisine. It’s a casual palace of blonde woods, tableclothless tables, and rockin’ folks. You can come as you are and eat how you want for a reasonable price. If I lived in Montreal, I could see myself here once a week, bellying up to the chef’s bar, pulling on a Quebec micro-brew like Griffon Blonde and sucking down fresh shellfish. This is the future of cuisine. Instead of chefs killing themselves because they broke a piece of the Louis XIV china and lost a Michelin star, they should start looking at what Picard is doing.

When I interview chefs, I am fond of asking them the question, “If you were on death row, what would be your last meal?” I figure this tells me something about the chefs. Are they sentimentalists aching for mom’s meatballs, are they comfort junkies dreaming of pizza or hot dogs, or are they truly haute at heart, hoping to go down with a ten course tasting menu? The truth is I never had an answer to that question myself. But now, if I end up taking out Rachel Ray in a blind rage, I can assure you, my last meal will be from Au Pied de Cochon.

Au Pied de Cochon is located at 536 Rue Duluth Est. Phone is 514-281-1114.