Worshipping at Montreal's Nose-to-Tail Temple
At Au Pied de Cochon, chefs down drinks, pig jowls are fried, and there's enough foie to kill Anthony Bourdain. Slide Show
To view a slide show of sausages, duck in a can, foie gras, and other dishes from Au Pied de Cochon, click here.
"I love foie gras so much that sometimes I think that my own liver must be a fairly decent size itself, and that I could perhaps whittle strips off it to supply the restaurant."
- Martin Picard
On Avenue Duluth Est in Montreal sits Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant diminutive in space but expansive in its appetites. There is no signage, but it's hard to miss: a line snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk, which is lined with potted fresh herbs that will soon be garnishing the plates of those fortunate enough to be seated. The restaurant has no front wall, only paneled windows that open up to the summer street, blurring the line where the restaurant begins and the sidewalk ends. A visitor might also encounter Martin Picard, the joyous, Falstaffian leader of the establishment, at one of the front tables, doing Irish car bombs with friends. One look at his ruddy, unshaven face being wiped clean after a chug, and you know you are in for an unparalleled experience, as well as a damn good time.
Au Pied de Cochon ("The Pig's Foot") is a nose-to-tail, "whole hog" establishment, with a menu heavy on feet, tongues, stomach, and the fat between them. A typical meal could begin with head cheese fritters served atop boiled eggs and sauce gribiche, followed by lamb's tongue in tarragon sauce, and then maybe a plate of oreilles de crisse—pork jowls that have been smoked and then deep-fried. Before the entrees have even arrived, one can handle more organs than the typical med student.
During the nightly trip from snout to hoof, Picard and his team most frequently stop at the liver, specifically the engorged one of a duck. Foie gras is everywhere—topping pizzas, adorning lobster rolls, bundled into maki, spooned onto buckwheat pancakes, and most happily stuffed into pigs' feet. (When Anthony Bourdain visited the restaurant for his show, "No Reservations," Picard instructed his brigade to "take the foie gras menu, and in any order, give [it to] him, and give him, and give him ... and when he dies, stop.") The restaurant's signature dish, foie gras poutine, has the potential to impede arterial flow if you just look at it, but it's merciful, thanks in large part to quality ingredients and superior execution. Like most dishes here, it benefits from being shared.
The restaurant, while inspiring pilgrimages of the food-obsessed, is unpretentious and irreverent. The showiest it gets is "Duck in a Can," a wink at the French curiosity of "canard en conserve," tinned portions of duck confit. Here it is something altogether more magnificent—a quarter pound of foie gras, half a breast of magret, savoy cabbage (cooked ahead of time in butter and lardons, naturally), creamy celeriac puree, and a glaze of balsamic vinegar and venison stock are all stuffed into a can, which is then sealed and cooked for half an hour. A plate is brought to the table, the can is opened with a hand-crank, and the duck breast and foie begin the slow exit from the metallic womb. It's hard to decide which is more surprising, the presentation or the fact that everything works—the breast is medium rare, the foie still firm, the cabbage with some crunch . It may not be much to look at (artful plating, in most cases, is not a priority here), but it is indulgent while being balanced.
There are plates for the less adventurous—steak frites and tomato tarts. But why go to Vegas and not play craps? Hooves, snouts, and gonads (of sea urchin) beckon. Dessert, however, merits a trip outside feast and fowl. Pudding chomeur ("Poor Man's Pudding"), a delightful custard of eggs, cream, and maple syrup, reminds you that you are in Quebec, and the maple tart is made for lovers of pancakes and syrup—like a pecan pie, but without the pecans and with a good deal of maple syrup in their place.
If, as one notable quack says, eating animal fat is an "addiction," then Picard is the Pablo Escobar of offal and lard, and his Au Pied de Cochon is the most glorious crack den imaginable.
36 avenue Duluth Est
Entrees $17 to $28; first courses $3.50 to $13
(If a visit isn't in your near future, spring for the restaurant's "album," which is so much more than a cookbook and will provide plenty of appetite for an eventual journey.)
Some readers may have noticed that just a few months into its life last summer, my American Food Tour mysteriously disappeared. Why? A general lack of Internet access combined with the need to keep moving forward prevented polls and trip reports from being posted in a timely manner, frustrating both readers and the writer in the process. Periods set aside to catch up were given over to time with family, friends, and most of all, food.
In short, it came down to a choice of experiencing the journey (taken on my own dime) or interrupting it constantly in order to catalogue it. While I opted for the former, the food tour nonetheless continued until early this year, and in the coming weeks—with the benefit of numerous notes, photos, and perhaps more importantly, time for reflection—an account of the best moments of the tour will be given. Thanks for reading the first time around, and here's to hoping you'll join us for a second helping, tardy as it is.