My friend Ben's eyes roll heavenward and drool speckles his ChapSticked lips when he thinks of celestial butter.
“It’s a gift from the gods,” he says reverentially, like cavemen felt when they first made fire. Or wheels. Or wheels on fire.
“Them’s strong feelings about an engorged organ,” I reply.
“Foie gras,” Ben says as authoritatively as that Iranian president declaring victory, “is celestial butter.” Though I appreciate Ben’s ballerina-like leaps of verbal fancy, foie is not “celestial butter.” I’m no PETA activist decrying geese’s cruel treatment, as they gorge on grain and their livers swell like birthday balloons. (In fact, the gavage process would be a fine way to meet my maker: letting a farmer insert a feed tube down my esophagus, thus filling me with pork-and-chive pot stickers till I turn tasty and round.) My problem: Foie is too expensive to be tasty.
Skyscraping prices detrimentally impact my appetite. I find luxuries like truffles and caviar to be abhorrent indulgences, wrinkling my nose at their mere mention. Do tissue-thin black truffles turn the Waverly Inn’s infamous mac ’n’ cheese into an orgiastic pleasure, justifying the $50-plus price tag? Hell no. Let the swells waste their hard-earned sawbucks; I’ll content myself with jerky-chewy, caramelized roast pork at Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food (77 Chrystie St. betw. Hester & Grand Sts., no phone), costing just $2.50. This is America; there’s no need to spend a hundred bucks to have a heart attack.
However, greater powers occasionally force me to ingest overpriced food I detest. “It’s my bachelor party,” Ben says, “and I want to go to Au Pied de Cochon.” And so our celebrants make the Montreal pilgrimage via plane, automobiles (just seven hours from NYC!) and, for me, an Amtrak train. To commemorate Ben’s connubial bliss, we secured elusive reservations at chef Martin Picard’s landmark eatery, Au Pied de Cochon (translation: “the pig’s foot”), a shrine to the seductive pleasures of foie gras and swine.
Inside the narrow, chilly restaurant (the air conditioning ably combats the woodburning oven) we peruse menus that read like exquisite forms of vegetarian torture.
Everything is touched by animal carcass, including fries crisped in duck fat and salads topped with crunchy squares of breaded pig bits. “Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach,” I tell the assembled men, strapping on my hen-mother hat. “The food here is really, really rich.”
“Don’t let Josh bully you into not ordering what you want,” Ben snaps, clenching the menu like a weapon. There’s no sense in arguing with a man enmeshed in foie mania. The waitress glides over to recites specials. “The restaurant just bought a 266-pound tuna today,” she says, unspooling dishes—tartare, carpaccio—incorporating the creature. Swine, though, dominates the dinner order.
First comes the cochonnailles platter, a heap of homemade sausages, rillettes and other reconstituted pig parts that are both jiggly and scrumptious. The PDC salad is a plate of salad greens, walnuts, bacon-y chunks and a square croquette composed of pig-foot meat, fat and skin. “I doubt this counts for my recommended daily allotment of vegetables,” I say, spearing fried foot. The last wet rag of wilted lettuce is devoured, signaling the foie onslaught. The plogue a champlain constitutes a thick buckwheat pancake layered with thick-cut bacon, potatoes, eggs, maple syrup and foie slabs. It’s a superb mess, a farmer’s breakfast for an aristocrat. Less lovely is the pan-seared foie gras tout nu—in essence, naked liver. Ben has seconds. I barely finish my first.
Redemption, sweet fattening redemption, comes with the main courses. The au pied de cochon—omitting ordering the namesake would be tantamount to hitting Nathan’s and skipping frankfurters—is de-boned foot shards swimming in a gravy sea abutting a mashed-potato island. The duck fries are given a caloric booster by mayo plunges.
Nonetheless, the showstopper is the duck in a can—half a fowl, foie gras, balsamic demi-glaze and butter-braised cabbage that are canned and cooked. A tattooed server ceremoniously transports the can to our table. She opens it with a practiced flourish, letting the steaming union slowly escape onto bread and mashed taters, the can-shape mass disintegrating into a glorious heap. Though the glop recalls wet dog food, this does not belong in a plastic bowl. The duck is as soulful and complex as Marvin Gaye, as tender as a baby and as rich as Bloomberg. It’s fabulous and frightening, gout by the forkful.
“I thought you didn’t like foie,” Ben says, eyeing my meat-streaked plate. I swallow my pride and my reply, along with another chunk of canned pleasure.