Wednesday, March 21, 2007


When GrasGuy was just out of college, an exotic meal usually meant a trip to the local Taco Bell. For the rest of my life I will remember one fateful day when I made a run to the border to pick up a Taco Value Meal and Seven Layer Burrito. When I placed my order, the counter person non-chalantly replied "we're out of taco meat." It was the first time in my life I could truly say I was dumbfounded. "Taco" Bell out of "TACOS". Imagine going to a Dunkin Donuts and being told they only have cookies, or finding a Burger King without a beef patty in sight. Imagine the horror.

Had I been a man with ambition, I would have petitioned for legislation requiring food service outlets to, at bare minimum, provide the product that is in their name - I was living in Washington, DC at the time. My organization would be called F.O.O.D., Foodies Organized and Opposed to Deception, and we would stop at nothing to bring truth in advertising to the fast-food community. Sadly, for an aimless 23 year old bridging the time between happy hour and a night on the town, this sort of civic action was not to be. So I ordered a Chicken Burrito and wrote off the incident as a once in a lifetime irony that I would soon find out makes a really dull cocktail party anecdote.

Oh how wrong I was (the part about the irony, not about people trying to avoid me at social occasions).

Flash forward 13 years and I've dragged my seven months pregnant wife to Montreal for one reason and one reason only - Au Pied De Cochon. Few restaurants - let alone one only five years old - can claim such a legendary status in a city's culinary landscape as Martin Picard's temple of comfort food and overindulgence. And surely none have so wholeheartedly given themselves over to the wonder of Foie Gras in such abundance as this bustling little eatery. I've read that Picard serves more Foie Gras every day than all the other restaurants in the Quebec province combined. If it's not true, please don't correct me because I don't want to know.
With reservations made weeks in advance - just to be on the safe side - my wife and I bundled up and made our way through the frigid late-November streets, seeking out the warm embrace of Au Pied De Cochon's open kitchen on the other end of town. Relieved to hear that they had our reservation, I was initially disappointed to see that we were being seated at a cramped two top adjacent to the very busy counter where the waiters pick up their orders. Once we settled in, however, I realized that we had front row seats for a runway show like no other. Plate after piled-high plate pouring out of the kitchen, things we'd never seen before - like Duck in a Can - and things we couldn't identify but wanted to devour just the same. Big messes of ingredients that looked more like leftovers than fine dining, but just as appealing.
One dish that was unmistakable was the one I came all this way to try, the Au Pied Du Cochon (Pig's Foot) stuffed with Foie Gras. As I gave the menu a perfunctory once over - I knew what I was here for months ago - foot after wonderful foot marched out of the kitchen while we waited for our waiter to arrive. I'm not even sure I let my wife order first before bursting out with "I'll have the Foie Gras stuffed Pig's Foot please," to which he replied with a bit of a French-Canadian accent "No, I'm sorry, but we are out of the Pig's Feet tonight."
I was flabbergasted. (I know this for certain because that's the first word I thought of. Didn't even need to use the thesaurus to come up with it. It just came out.)

I asked the waiter for a moment so that I could regroup, my wife looking frightened across the table, not sure what to say to console me. How could this happen? I know Canadians eat dinner earlier than we New Yorkers do, but it was only 7:30pm, and we're not talking about an obscure menu item, we're talking about the restaurant's signature dish.

Never before had I taken a trip with such a singular purpose in mind, and I really didn't know how to proceed. Walking out was the first thing that came to mind, but what would that accomplish? With so much Foie Gras on offer, surely I could salvage the evening. So I grabbed the menu I'd barely glanced at before and madly searched for an alternative - irrationally thinking every entree was in danger of running out and that I needed to make a decision NOW.
The Foie Gras combo - a Foie Gras Burger with a side of Foie Gras Poutine - seemed the logical choice, but I was not being logical. Looking back, I'm sure that I was subliminally trying to sabotage the meal so that I could tell everyone what a terrible place this was. Searching for something less pedestrian I went with the Ploque a Champlain - a seared foie gras with figs, Canadian bacon and maple syrup served on a buckwheat pancake. It sounded similar to a dish that I had tasted in Seville, Spain, and seemed creative enough to showcase Picard's abilities as a chef. After giving the waiter my choice I immediately suffered a bout of order remorse. I'm a savory guy, not a sweet syrupy guy. Disaster surely loomed.

When the dish arrived it was much smaller than I expected. Compared to the monstrosities I'd been watching come out of the kitchen all night, the dish looked about the size of an Egg McMuffin, and thoughts of McGriddles danced through my mind. As I took my first bite, my wife carefully asked me how it was in the verbal equivalent of walking on eggshells. "It's OK," I grunted, not wanting to give any quarter. "I'm sorry," she said in that way she does when she knows she's lost me to a disappointing food experience. She's seen me in this state before, but never to this extent. But after a few of bites in the uncomfortable silence my assessment quickly changed. Though there was no follow-up question from her, I replied again, "It's OK, I guess. It's really not that bad. It's not what I wanted, but for what it is it's pretty good." "Pretty good" quickly became "great" and as much as I wanted to hate this place, I was won over by the unlikeliest of dishes. Mon Dieu.

Still, as rich as it was it wasn't very big. And like anyone else who'd seen Anthony Bourdain's orgy of food when he dined here on his TV show, I was expecting to leave with a belly as full as my pregnant wife's. Lucky for me she's a slow eater, so there was time to order another entree without leaving her completely out to dry. Although Picard doesn't make it with any Foie Gras, the Duck Confit Cassoulets I watched coming out of the kitchen looked great and no dish is more perfect on a cold Canadian night. Flagging the waiter over once more I told him my order and sat back, satisfied that the night was going to turn out just fine.

"I'm sorry, but we have run out."

No word exists to describe how I felt at this point (believe me, I checked the thesaurus this time.)

I told him to forget it, there was nothing else I wanted this time. Just bring the check.
As he walked away I literally brought my hands to the side of my head and dropped it to the table in disbelief. I'd seen one come out of the kitchen a few minutes before I ordered. How could they possibly be out?

Slugging down the last of my Pinot Noir, I tried to collect myself, not wanting my wife to suffer any more of my pain. When I saw the waiter approaching, I grabbed for my wallet hoping to make a quick exit from this nightmare.

"Sir, there is good news, we have found one more confit."

From anticipation to disappointment to surprise to devastation to joy all in one meal. Who knew the Canadians were so dramatic. Surely this wouldn't happen in Toronto.

I'm happy to report that the cassoulet was possibly even better than the Ploque a Champlain, possibly because I had another glass of Pinot as a precaution, but probably on it's own merits. I'd never had a dining experience like this before and I pray to James Beard that I never do again.
I'll always wonder what that Pig's Foot is like, and if I make it back to Montreal I'm sure I won't be able to resist going back to Au Pied Du Cochon to find out, but I won't be making the trip again just for that. I'm not sure that my marriage could take it.

GrasGuy wonders if there isn't still a place in this world for F.O.O.D. to provide the kind of surety in dining that consumers deserve. Yes, I'm well aware that the law would have had no authority in Canada and wouldn't have prevented this predicament, but surely if the United Nations refused to write a resolution to the same effect, a rider could be attached to the re authorization of NAFTA, couldn't it?

Until then I'll be sticking to restaurants named after people and places rather than foods. Unless, of course, the food is as irresistible as Au Pied De Cochon's, then I'll reconsider.

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