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.

You can tuna fish, but can you fish a tuna?

I've eaten one tuna melt in my life (at Barriques, was pretty tasty). I've never made one. I'm no connoisseur, but I know this was not the template for traditional tuna melt. But christ if it wasn't one of the tastiest sandwiches I've made at home. Ever. And I like to make sandwiches. I do it respectably well.

I used American Tuna. In the Madison area, you can find it at Woodman's. It's not cheap; it costs $5 per can. But open it up and you'll see the difference. Hardly any water, packed tight. Aroma and taste are FISH, not FISHY. And the albacore from American is procured responsibly. No mega-trawlers. No drag nets. Pole caught. And if it means something to you, it's all done by Americans in the US of A.

Starkist tuna (albacore, really) costs a fraction of this. You might think it wasteful or unfrugal to spend five times as much for what seems like the same thing. Again, I refer you to the taste and aroma, texture and low water volume. If you need more convincing, Slate.com wrote:
A new study warns that overfishing has shrunk marlin, swordfish, and tuna populations by 90 percent since 1950. Given the crisis, why does a can of tuna still cost under a buck?

Because the species that end up in your tuna casserole aren't the ones being severely depleted.

As visitors to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market can attest, a choice southern bluefin can fetch upward of $40,000—a price that makes it an uneconomical choice for, say, Starkist's Chunk Light tuna. That's why big-time canners instead prefer smaller, less flavorful species. Albacore, the so-called chicken of the sea, is what you'll get if the tin says "white meat."

A recent study by the WorldFish Center estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, prices for tilapia, carp, and other low-grade fish could jump by 70 percent, in real terms, by 2020. On the canned front, albacore, skipjack, and yellowfin stocks are generally considered "fully exploited," meaning that a marked increase in annual catches could, eventually, put an end to your supermarket's two-for-a-dollar deals.
(emphasis mine)

If you're not thinking about sustainability, responsibility, and the health of our world's oceans when buying seafood, you're neglecting a very important issue. The new documentary film The End of the Line can tell you what you might not realize is the case.



The sandwich I made, at home, for about $3 worth of ingredients, would likely cost you $7 for the same ingredients at a local cafe. Think about that before you bemoan the cost of a $5 can of American Tuna. More importantly, don't focus on the dollars and instead think about what an ocean devoid of abundant life would be like for the health of our planet. It's a change you can effect in your own life, and trust me when I tell you that it'll taste better to eat right.

Is the death of the newspaper REALLY that bad?

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Today, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer folds, and not in the way it's always folded (a tired joke in the newspaper industry, I'm sure). It will be an online-only publication from now on.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to file for bankruptcy earlier this year. Locally, the Capital Times was pared down into a shadow of its former self. The LaCrosse Tribune and now the Wisconsin State Journal have both switched to narrow, thinner editions.

I write for a paper (had you heard? was my self-promotion not loud enough? if not, please check out the links in the upper-right hand corner of this page); I don't want the journalism industry to fail. I don't want blogger schmoes (ahem) and 24-hour cable news to be the sole purveyors of what's happening in the world. They've got tinted glasses that I don't have an interest in looking through.

So I ask this question with all the necessary sensitivity and self-interest: is it that bad if newspapers stop being newspapers?

There's the comic analysis that would tell you that there's no futuristic movie or TV show that shows people reading newspapers. They've all got tablet computers or holographic heads-up displays in their self-piloted Tom Cruise-mobiles. But why shouldn't that be a goal?

Yeah, print is nice. I'm a librarian. I know that sooner or later, I'll be the guy reciting "First they came...", and books will turn into an electronic medium only. Hello, Kindle 2.0?

Isn't that just nostalgia, though? Don't you think people said that telephone would be infinitely worse than telegraph? Touch-tone phones worse than rotary dial? Ashley Tisdale's new nose worse than her old one? You bet they did! (gotta move on past the HSM reference) But I'm sure I'm not alone in not wishing for a return to waiting 5 seconds to dial the first 1 after the 9 in 911.

Less paper will be used. You can't really argue with that. I'd like to think that bailing out the newspapers would be a better expenditure of money than bailing out the internal combustion engine industry, but the fact remains that cars maintain relevance. Newspapers...well, newspapers have been much less than relevant in recent years. Even the relevant ones publish their content online almost simultaneously with the print edition.

My sticking points are A) the loss of jobs, and B) the threat this decline poses to journalism at large. Maybe that's the bailout I want; save the jobs of good journalists around the country, so that people can continue to have solid knowledge and updates on the real world at their fingertips.

Even if their fingertips stay clean in the process. I was a paperboy too, you know, and I hated newsprint.

I've got a burnin' yearnin'

Transient

Once upon a time, I read about Murayoshi charcoal products. It was in Men's Health, or GQ, or some such silliness. It's pretty awesome stuff, though. Oak wood carbonized in whole logs rather than little chunks.

So way back when, I sent Murayoshi an e-mail. They encourage it on the website, to determine pricing and shipping costs. It got bounced back, mailbox full. Sent another one a couple weeks later. The same response.

Repeat that 4 times over the last year or so, and you've got my current situation. Does anyone know of another US retailer of bincho charcoal? Or how to get through to Murayoshi?

ILLin' like a villain: Zwarte Piet edition

In an unblinkingly colonial and insensitive tradition, the Dutch believe that St. Nick travels with a young black companion named (uncreatively) Black Peter. St. Nick gets the credit for the goodies, Peter carries the switch by which the bad kids will be punished in their sleep.

Growing up with this as their childhood tradition is why the Dutch need pot and hookers.

Happy St. Nick's! Put out your shoes, and settle in barefoot for this week's brief glimpse into the interlibrary loan habits of Wisconsin's finest inmates.

Paper Pop Up, by Dorothy Wood. (Forget the actual content of the book. These jokes write themselves, kids.)

Someone Else's Puddin', by Samuel Hair. (The hip-hop community has officially run out of slang.)

Bodyslick, by John Sibley (Urban lit authors have officially run out of material. Take some time, read the description. I'll wait here. Tell me if you could ever take this book seriously.)

Throwback

Gas is now under $2 per gallon in Madison ($1.85 in St. Paul! $1.77 in Memphis!). Honestly, I don't think I ever expected it to drop below $2.50 for the remainder of the decade. I know it's a very lay opinion, and not based in any keen understanding of petro-theory, but still. I figured the taste of profits would be too sweet to turn down for the producers and refiners of oil.

So now we're back to paying an accurate price for what we're getting: no national health care. No free higher education. Not even a properly-segregated fund for infrastructure development.

Get with it, (majority of) America. Europe isn't paying $5/gallon for funzies. They're paying for more services than just the right to tool around aimlessly in a car. It's too bad this isn't a position the Obama Administration could latch onto. People just aren't ready for it, and that's a goddamn shame.

More shout-outs

This week's international shout-outs:

Lazio (Rome), Italy: Once again, a foreign Google search on keywords related to animal cruelty and National Geographic brought someone to my site. Sorry I wasn't what you were looking for!

Victoria Point (Queensland), Australia: Same deal. Amazing!

Brampton (Ontario), Canada: Thanks for reading the Top Chef recap. Other than my regular column, the recaps are easily the most fun I'm having in writing right now. I hope you didn't come here hoping to read good things about your hometown girl, Lisa. She's a horrible woman!

La Paz, Boliva: Come back soon, once you catch your breath from the short visit (did the rest of you know that La Paz is the world's highest altitude capital city?).

Espoo, Finland: Stick around and read some more LOST stuff next time!

Also, a hearty American how-do to Rhode Island, the District, Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware ("I want to visit a screen door factory!"). Come back often, it soothes my ego.

International shout-outs

Inspired by my internet buddy Kathy, I hooked myself up with a Sitemeter account. Shout-outs are already in order.

Caieiras, Brazil--What's up? When are you guys gonna get LOST Season 4? Sorry we whacked Rodrigo so quickly.

Plymouth, UK--Futurama just ain't as good as it used to be...

Nykping, Sweden--I think you found me via typo, but I hope you enjoyed what you saw!

New York, New Jersey, Kansas, Cali, Tucson, Charm City and the rest of the US of A visitors, don't think I haven't noticed...come one, come all.

Monkey see, monkey don't

I suppose the time for being surprised by American scientific willful ignorance has come and gone, but color me surprised at American scientific willful ignorance.

The setting: I was processing a donated book for inclusion in the collection here at work. It's titled ape•man: the story of human evolution. It's based on a BBC documentary, and here's the cover:



You'll notice that the link goes to the Amazon.co.uk site, because this is the cover of the US edition, which was released after the documentary made its way to the TLC network:



Yep, that's right. ape•man became Dawn of Man, and I don't think it was to eliminate the unusual character or unconventional capitalization.

The really unexpected part of this stupid story is that it didn't take place during the W presidency. The UK edition was published in February 2000, and the US edition followed in June 2000.

What this really shows is that the United States has been on an academic decline for longer than the W regime, but it has been because of entities like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Christian Coalition, and Bill Donohue that we have been forced to accept a simplified and often falsified version of scientific reality.

There are more apes that come to mind when the subject of science trumped by faith comes up:

Now soliciting tickets to Bali

Travel Channel's "No Reservations" with chef Anthony Bourdain has cursed me to live a half life full of misery and desperation.

To learn the reason, you'll have to watch the episode in which Bourdain travels to Indonesia and samples the cuisine and sees the sights of a number of locales on that nation/archipelago.

(to see that episode, click here. you'll need a high-speed internet connection, or a LOT of time.)

The island: Bali. The eatery: Babi Guling Ibu Oka. The dish: roast suckling pig.

(photo thanks to Hugo Kitchen)

Perhaps a little bit afield from the usual BBQ pork plate seen in the US, but overall not all that unusual. But skip to the 26:43 mark in the video I linked above, and watch the care that goes into the cooking. Watch the glee in Tony Bourdain's eyes (not exactly a chipper individual, Tony) as he is served this specimen of pork. Listen to the skin, for the love of bacon!

Suffice it to say, I will not lead a satisfactory life until I have tasted this paragon of Indonesian culinary ingenuity. Tony's got it right. It doesn't appear that one can be truly happy without it.

So, if anyone's got a couple grand they don't need, and want to send me (+1, of course) to the land of roast suckling pig (not to mention the land in which my father was born and raised), I'd be honored to accept the gift.

Excellent news if you're not Taliban, or maybe even Buddhist

News agencies are reporting that there is a UNESCO-funded effort to gather up and sort the fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. This is an important precursor to rebuilding the statues.

I was about as disgusted and furious as I get when the Taliban mortared the 1500-year old monuments in March 2001. Of course, this shows that I'm not really a Buddhist, but a Buddhist sympathizer. A true Buddhist wouldn't really be all that hurt by the Taliban's actions. I just can't detach myself from the concepts of permanence and desire.

Zen Master Lin Chi said "If you meet the Buddha (on the Path), kill the Buddha!"

Sorry, your holiness, but fuck that.

Click here to find information on donating to UNESCO's World Heritage Fund.