Climbing the mountain: my meal at Au Pied de Cochon

You may have heard that I got married back in July. It was pretty cool, if maybe a little predictable. I mean, we'd been dating for over 11 years at that point.

So anyway, for our honeymoon, we didn't want to do something with a big production value. Rome, Tahiti, Hawaii, New York...these were all out of the picture because a lot of the wedding had been DIY (well, more like DIH: Do-It-Herself) and we didn't want to have to plan a big trip. Nor did we want to feel compelled to do stuff once there. Thus, Montreal.

Montreal offered a good combination of a vibrant food scene (me, duh), and the ability to just laze around town, stop at cafés, and windowshop (Kristine, not that the two couldn't be switched to a certain degree). Plus, it's another station of the Anthony Bourdain cross.

I don't really apologize for being a bit of a Bourdain-chaser--any chance I can get to go to a place he's featured on No Reservations, I take. I don't see anything wrong or dorky or fanboyish about taking the lead of someone who's been everywhere and eaten everything. (Okay, maybe a little fanboyish, but it's not like I'm shopping at the place he buys his slightly-inadvisable horizontal striped thermals.)

The centerpiece of the Montreal episode of No Reservations was Tony's trip to Au Pied de Cochon, and his time spent with chef Martin Picard. Please to enjoy the video clip below.



Now, a smart food guy would see that he'd be in a city with a great restaurant like this, and maybe take the initiative to make a reservation a few weeks in advance. I would not be that guy.

We arrived in Montreal on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday night, I figured it would probably be a good idea to actually call and see if we could get a table. (To be fair, Kristine didn't think to make an advance reservation either.) APDC is somewhat notorious as a hard table to get, and a tough call to make; they don't spend a lot of energy on customer coddling or pretense. Or answering the phone during business hours.

So there I am, Tuesday around dinner hour, listening to an outgoing voicemail messag for perhaps the best restaurant in Montreal...and it's entirely in French. I don't speak French. Kristine couldn't forget her high school French fast enough. We're kinda boned.

I know, however, that they have an email address for reservations, and that their website offers a bilingual toggle. Fingers crossed, I send off an email that starts "Je suis désolé," and then tell them that I wasn't sure if leaving reservation requests on the voicemail was de rigeur, and we don't get cell phone service in Canada, and this is our room number at our hotel, and we're on our honeymoon, and could we possibly get a table any time between Wednesday and Friday night? I hit send, and I waited.

It was to our great relief, then, that about 24 hours later, we received a call from a lovely lady at APDC. Turned out, it was extremely fortunate that she called back as soon as she did; there was a misunderstanding that resulted in her thinking that we wanted a reservation after that coming Saturday, rather than before. But wouldn't you know, there was an available seating at 9:30 on Thursday. We're Eurotrash, we regularly eat dinner late--this was perfect! Yes please, merci, hang up, done.

We took the metro (this trip was both of our first subway rides, incidentally), walked a bit, and hovered outside the restaurant until closer to our reservation. Restaurants in Montreal all generally have wide-open facades, so that in good weather the dining space is totally open to the sidewalk. It's pretty cool, and creates a palpable atmosphere that washes out into the street.

Our table turned out to be directly behind the chair at which Tony Bourdain sat during his visit; Fanboy would have made a point of touching it or sitting in it for a picture, and I did no such thing.

Service was a little slow after our first beverage order, but we received multiple apologies from someone who carried himself with an air of authority, and actually got a couple beers on the house. The beers, by the way, were okay. St. Ambroise Pale Ale and a cream ale. Craft beer in Montreal appears to be a weak point.

Kristine and I were torn between going balls-out and ordering everything that looked good--and in turn feeling like sweet hell by the end of the night--or sparing our wallets and waistlines by picking winners and staying reasonably sensible. In the end, improbably, sensibility won.

Our order: tomato tartlet, fried zucchini blossoms, and the cochonnailles platter to start. The tartlet, about the circumference of your average melon, was buttery, hot and wonderful. The zucchini blossoms were lightly fried, like tempura, and crunchy. The star, however, was the cochonnailles platter, basically a cold-cut charcuterie plate of patês, boudin sausage, boudin noir, terrines, a zingy tomato chutney, and pigs' blood gelée. Kristine, taking a big step for her Fringe Foods-writing hubby, took an affirmative position on trying it given the esteemed surroundings.

Neither of us liked it.

Shocker, I know. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't because of any metallic taste, but rather the extreme saltiness. Moisture started seeping out of my brain to compensate.

Picking from all the main dishes is like Sophie's Choice, but only if Sophie had about twelve conjoined siblings. The namesake dish--a huge, stuffed pork hock--looks great, the sausage looks great, the pork chop looks great, even the house signature salad looks great (and from what I've heard, it is).

It's a good thing Kristine and I scoped out the menu in advance, because otherwise we'd have been those obnoxious tourist newlyweds who just volley "what are you having?" off of each other for an hour. Kristine chose the plogue à Champlain, a shameless example of vertical excess comprised of a buckwheat pancake, potatoes, cheese, bacon, foie gras, and a maple syrup and duck jus reduction. It's not a huge dish in terms of proportion, but try finishing it without being consciously gluttonous. I shudder to consider the calorie count.

There are many must-haves on the APDC menu, but the one that stuck out to me was the Duck in a Can. A duck breast, a thick slice of foie gras, veggies, herbs, and balsamic all get canned in the usual manner. It's about the size of a Chunky soup can. Your plate arrives dressed with a simple disc of buttered crouton topped with the house mashed potatoes impregnated with cheese curds--basically mashed poutine. The can arrives intact. The waiter opens your can, which has been pressure-cooked, and plops the contents onto your awaiting mashed potatoes. Fat and jus and veggies spill out across the plate, like a pyroclastic flow of decadence. Almost embarrassingly erect stand the duck breast and foie gras, perched jauntily in the potatoes. You're forced to gasp, but that's all right because the very air is thick with flavor.

Yeah, the duck is maybe a little tough. The foie gras, I'm kind of happy to say, isn't really my thing. But the overall flavor is immense, and the experience is a surreal combination of tacky and regal. Worth doing once, and any number of times over. At least, it would be if there weren't so many other dishes that merit ordering.

To say nothing of dessert, which sadly we just couldn't fit into our torsoes. But the real kicker is the bill. After tip, we ended up paying about $160 Canadian. Considering the source, the reputation, the portion, and the quality, you could expect to pay twice that amount for a similar meal in the States. An unbelievable bargain, even with two free beers.

I've since said that eating at a place like Au Pied de Cochon seems not unlike climing a mountain. It's not an easy place to experience, but from the top it's simple to see why it was so rewarding. We both loved it.

All my pictures are on Facebook, but I'll see about getting them onto Flickr to share with all y'all. You can always send me a friend request on FB, though--just attach a note to tell me you're a blog reader. In the meantime, you can take a look at our broader adventures in Montreal on my annotated travel map.