Friday, March 25, 2005

An Early End to Lent

Well, any motions we’d made towards following Lent this year got utterly destroyed early this week. OK, let’s face it, anyone who’s been reading “ endless banquet” over the last several weeks knows full well that we haven’t really been making too many gastronomical sacrifices over the past month and a half, so there wasn’t much of a fall involved, but nevertheless, this week was about as far removed from Lenten abstinence as you can imagine. Between Sunday night’s surprise birthday party, a fantastic meal of Endives au Jambon and other delicacies at Hermine’s on Wednesday, and the meal I’m about to describe, this was definitely a week of feasting not fasting.

There’s a scene in Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares where an aging, defeated-looking priest ushers a woman working for a London-based auction house through a veritable graveyard of Roman Catholic antiquities in the basement of a Montreal cathedral. As he leads her through the assorted relics—a particularly Québecois cinematic nod to the closing moments of Citizen Kane—he explains to her that this pile of Catholic cast-offs was a product of that moment in the mid-1960s when, as the Quiet Revolution reached fruition, Quebeckers quite suddenly stopped going to church. As we found out on Tuesday, a trip to Au Pied de Cochon (536 Duluth East) during Lent provides just as telling an allegory of Quebec since the Quiet Revolution. Martin Picard’s restaurant is emphatically Québecois, reveling in the energy and the flavors of the terroir, but with its copious portions of rich, meaty fare and its irreverence, Au Pied de Cochon has very little to do with moderation, with propriety, or with rigid traditionalism, and just days before Good Friday and Easter, this place was packed to the gills, absolutely bustling.

Michelle had been to Au Pied de Cochon a couple of times before, but I had yet to experience its magic. We’d been discussing where we might go for a birthday dinner à deux for Michelle’s birthday (you see, Tuesday was her actually birthday), and Au Pied de Cochon had come up as a possibility, but after having listened to some of her colleagues at Les Chèvres wax poetic on its merits last weekend, Michelle made up her mind. She knew just how good it was, but that conversation made her mouth water afresh. Then we picked up the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine. Au Pied de Cochon has received a great deal of press since it opened a few years back, but in this month’s issue it receives the stamp of approval from none other than Anthony Bourdain, who ranks it at the very top of his list of new North American restaurants who’ve rejected the icy formality and the pedantry of the high-end dining room and embraced something a bit more down-to-earth, something that has less to do with attitude and more to do with food, something that’s actually fun.

We started off with two pints of the house blonde and two orders of the cromesquis. Au Pied de Cochon serves foie gras about a dozen different ways, but the simplest and least expensive way they serve it is deep-fried, as cromesquis. We were asked by the waitress if we knew how to eat these little gems when she brought them, and she explained that you’re meant to pop the whole thing in your mouth, shut your lips tight, then crack the cromesquis with your teeth, letting the whole thing explode in your mouth. And explode it does… Next up we had the beet and chèvre salad, which sandwiched a crumbled fresh Quebec chèvre between slices of marinated beets, then threw in a puree of roasted beets on the side to round things out and give the salad depth.

Things got somewhat more extravagant when we got to our mains. Michelle was having a hard time making a decision, so she asked our waitress a few questions about some of the menu’s items. Her first question had to do with their Potée du PDC, and she apparently hit the nail on the head. This was our waitress’ favorite dish on the menu, and though she made a point of emphasizing the fact that it was an “indelicate” dish, her description was more than either of us could handle. Michelle asked about a few other dishes on the menu, but we both knew her decision had been cinched. I mean, how can you go wrong with the house puree de pomme de terre—made with garlic, cheese, and lots of olive oil—layered with a link of sausage, a link of saucisson, a link of boudin noir, and a hunk of pork roast? If that wasn’t enough, when the waiter took Michelle’s order, he casually asked her if she’d like a piece of foie gras added to the mix, and without missing a beat Michelle took him up on his suggestion. I was the foil to Michelle’s full-on PDC “sugar-shack-style indulgence” experience (as Bourdain puts it), ordering the deer steak & frites in order to see how Picard & co. handle “the basics.” Michelle’s Potée was wild. This was comfort food pushed to the limits. The boudin noir was maybe just a bit more than she could handle, so she sent most of it my way, but otherwise she mastered her potée quite handily. The saucisson was expert but unexpectedly kielbasa-like; the sausage was like a high-grade knockwurst; the roast was flaky and full of flavor; the puree was sheer decadence, dripping in garlic, fromage en grains, and olive oil; and that extra slab of seared foie gras put an exclamation mark on it all. The steak was a healthy cut of rare deer meat, dripping in jus, and topped with a small mountain of sautéed mushrooms, which came with a lovely paper cone full of perfect frites, with just enough skin on them to give them real flavor.

We contemplated having dessert—Michelle swears that the pouding chaumeur is the best she’s ever come across, and the best dessert on the menu, and Au Pied de Cochon is also famous for its tarte au sucre, which is one of my all-time favorites—but by that time, a brisk walk was what we really needed. And, after all, it was Lent—we had to show some restraint, right?

I can’t wait to go back, but I think the next time we’ll be more strategic: we’ll take one, maybe two entrees, share a main course, and try to save room for dessert.



Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've had the pouding chomeur by now. It is spectacular. They gave me the recipe when I was there (and a bit tipsy). Have made it several times at home to great success.
Worth a post, do you think?


aj kinik said...

Hi Martha,
We love the pouding chomeur at PDC, too. I always make a point of getting it, no matter how full I think I am, and I never regret it. That recipe showed up in Au Pied de Cochon: The Album, but maybe we'll try making some kind of riff on it sometime...

Anonymous said...


A wonderful site.! Any restaurant recommendations for crepes and
frog legs.

Will be visitng Montreal after so many years.


Sam in San Diego