The Distinguished Gourmand: Au Pied De Cochon

How do you describe one of the most unique, fun dining experiences you’ve ever had? It’s impossible to capture the camaraderie of the table, the excitement over hearing the various specials, the sights and smells of the restaurant, the conversation, the vibe…one of the highlights of my weekend trip to Montreal was Saturday’s dinner at Au Pied De Cochon. It’d had been described, in detailing the atmosphere, service and food, as a truly Parisian experience without leaving North America. Of course, combined with a menu paying homage to all things rich, fatty, and porky…well…the accolades are sure to be copious.

Located in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood (locals just call it the Plateau), Au Pied De Cochon sits quietly on Ave Duluth. There is no signage or facade to attract customers, just a small menu (in French) framed on one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in front, which allows passersby to peer into the restaurant. The fresh catches of the day (clams, mussels, lobsters, et all) are housed in tanks near the front entranceway. The open kitchen — with large wood-burning oven casting enticing scents through the entirety of the dining room — is the focal point. Fresh breads are pulled bubbling from that oven and set to rest in large bins so servers can grab at their leisure when you’ve finished your last loaf — and you will finish many of them. A long bar lines the narrow walkway to the rear of the dining room. There can’t be more than 20 tables here. Transport PDC from Montreal to Los Angeles or New York and you would never even dream of reserving a table. And the price of your meal would double, or maybe even triple in cost.

The meal. That’s the point of all this, right? Not the selection of Kentucky bourbons (a rare find in Montreal), the house-brewed beer, or the exceptional and friendly service. The meal is the thing.

The menu is laid out as follows: There are starters (“small bites,” we were told, none of which were really all that small), there are appetizers (large enough to be an entree at most restaurants), and then there are entrees. First, there is an entire foie gras menu. There is cured foie gras tart, foie gras poutine, foie gras terrine, apple foie gras, a foie gras hamburger, a duo of foie gras…about a dozen options where foie is the centerpiece of the dish. Then there’s the “cochon,” or pig portion of the menu. This includes house-made boudin (blood sausage), a boudin tart, a pork chop the size of your face, the restaurant’s namesake (Pied de Cochon, or foot of pig), head cheese, a stuffed pig’s foot with foie gras…it goes on. Then there’s poultry (“Duck in a can,” which is actually cooked and served in a custom can), bison and beef, fish, and of course side dishes and desserts.

We thought we had our order figured out before our waitress even arrived. And the less adventurous eaters stuck to their initial plans. There were three orders of Duck Magret in Mushroom sauce, there was that spectacular “Happy” pork chop, a salad or two…and then we heard about the specials. I’ll tell you the two or three we didn’t order before I share pictures and details of our meal. First, we passed on fresh-caught steamed clams in a beer and cheese sauce. We also passed on the tuna shoulder for six (here’s a pic of it on the neighboring table) which would have been amazing, and at $270 it was a reasonable entree for six diners. Lastly we passed on risotto cooked tableside in a parmesan wheel (picture here) with pan-seared foie gras. That would have served two people, and cost $100. Oh, and although we considered it until the very last minute, we passed on an entire lamb’s head and shoulder, which would serve two people and cost just $55.

We started, of course, with the pickled tongue. See that picture above the paragraph preceding this sentence? That’s it.

Then there was bone marrow topped with sturgeon caviar and maple sauce. This was my favorite of the starters/appetizers, though the tongue was divinely tender. The combination of the salty caviar with the obscenely buttery, rich marrow and the hit of maple sweetness was stunning. Of course, when you’re spreading it liberally on PDC’s perfect toasted french bread…it’s hard to find a tastier vessel for such a decadent appetizer.

Then there were sweetbreads, served in a rich brown gravy with girdled onions, mushrooms and sprouts. Again, the soft texture and rich organ meat was outstanding.

Our last starter was a Cochonnailles Platter, which offered a tasting of various terrines, pates and sausages. Served alongside more perfectly toasted, crispy french bread was a pickled hardboiled egg, a small serving of “stout jelly” (you know, like the style of beer?), a ham and parsley terrine, sausage and tongue, chicken liver, beef (or maybe pork?) drippings, they were all fantastic. I was partial to the tongue and the beef drippings, but others (the ham and parsley) left me a bit indifferent.

I guess our intermezzo was more Elijah Craig 12-year Kentucky bourbon. At one point Jon informed the waitress that Ian’s glass needed to be refilled every fifteen minutes whether he had consumed its contents or not.

The first entree to arrive was the cured foie gras and boudin tart. I only had one or two bites of it, but it was as rich and resplendent as one might imagine. The foie gras was as creamy and buttery as I’d expected. I could see how this would be a lot for one person, but then again, so is pretty much every dish on the menu at PDC.

Next came the Au Pied de Cochon melting pot. Delivered in a dutch oven, the thick stew was filled with pork sausage, blood sausage, pork tenderloin and pork belly atop a gooey, decadent pile of cheesy mashed potatoes. There were carrots and onions and herbs and spices, but the meats were the star. The blood sausage was expertly seasoned, dense and creamy. There was no metallic taste to it at all. It was fantastic. The regular pork sausage was delicious, the tenderloin was superb and the belly…well, as good as it was it couldn’t compare to what arrived at the table next.

Pig’s head for two. An entire pig’s head. Since the extravagance of pig’s head wasn’t enough, they threw a complimentary lobster into the swine’s mouth just because. I mean…it was, like, the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Knife through its head, cream dripping from the “wound,” an entire fucking pig’s head. With a lobster claw in a stew and the remainder of the crustacean in its maw. Set before me like Lord of the fucking Flies!

We started by carving off the left cheek. As soon as the meat hit the plate, it started jiggling to-and-fro, all fatty and rich and absurd. Have you had guanciale before? Well, this was like that in its purest form, only so much better. Pure porcine flavor. As porky and fatty and ridiculous as you could imagine.

We moved on to the ear. The skin was just a little bit chewy and crispy and — this is going to start like a variation on a theme soon — very pork-like. I was immediately ready to put down my fork and declare it the most insane meal of my life, but there was still more than half of an entire pig’s head sitting on the table so we had to do what we had to do…which was eat the rest of the head.

But first, a break for lobster. Which, sadly, was a tad overcooked. I took a hunk of claw meat and a little bit of belly/tail, and then it was time to return to the head.

The snout came next. Again, fork drops to the plate, can this get any better? But there’s still half of an entire head left. A second cheek, a second ear, all the skin…and then you left up the head and work your knife under the head to release all the jowl meat and head meat that’s been crammed in there. And then there’s the skin covering the head. and the entire jawbone nestled beneath the top of the head. And, oh look there! It’s another delicious tongue! I felt like I was on an archeological dig and everywhere my knife and fork went was a new and exciting discovery. Peel back some skin off the head and find yourself an eyeball! Split the skull a little further to see if the brain has been removed yet. by the end, our pig’s head for two looked like something you might spy in a quick instant on the side of the road in rural America. A skull picked clean by vultures and crows. And that’s exactly how I felt when my fork finally hit my plate for the last time. I was stuffed. I had came, I had dined, and I was most satisfied.

Was I full? Yes. Before the entrees arrived. Just the bone marrow, sweetbreads, french bread and platter of sausages and terrines would have been enough for me. The serving sizes at Au Pied de Cochon are nothing to sniff at. You’re getting your money’s worth when you order a dish off their menu. No, there was no room for dessert. But our meal did end with a palette-cleansing complimentary sweet/tart vodka shot. And why not? We deserved it. We had to work for it. We fucking earned that shit.

The most shocking part of the entire meal was when the check arrived. Including tip, it cost roughly $75 per person. That’s including all food and drinks. I was stunned.

Au Pied de Cochon reaches that rarified air I’ve only experienced at a handful of restaurants. My first trip to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Daniel, my first trip to Animal…a dining experience that will forever be remembered for its cuisines and the people with whom the meal was shared. Was PDC the best meal I’ve had in my entire life? Maybe. Was it the most fun? Undoubtedly.

Bark Psychosis – Blood Rush [MP3]

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