The Why: When I travel I do it primarily for two things – hockey and food – and when visiting the home of the winningest team in NHL history it only made sense to visit the most well-known restaurant in Montreal…twice…in the same night…sandwiching a game at the Bell Centre. Owned and operated by Martin Picard Au Pied de Cochon had been on my food bucket list for almost as long as a trip to see Les Habitants for obvious reasons…I just hoped my mother and picky aunt could find something on the menu they’d like.
The Reservation: Having made mention of this above I’ll admit the plan was a little convoluted, but it worked out perfectly – one reservation at 5:00pm for appetizers and entrees, a second reservation at 10:30pm for dessert, coffee, and maybe more. I knew we’d overeat. I was okay with this.
The Space: Located on what is essentially a side street amongst other stores and eateries the wooded exterior of APdC is quite unassuming and arriving early parking was a cinch. With doors unlocked we were the first to arrive and given our choice of seats we opted for a spot up front near the window of the long and narrow space. Wooden and rustic with an open kitchen spanning nearly the entirety of the space up to a long bar in back the only thing “formal” about the space is the linen napkins and stemware – the rest feels like a cozy cabin and a tribute to many things Canadian.
The Service: Superlative. From watching Chef Picard himself haul in a large case of Foie Gras and innumerable loaves of bread before stopping by to say hello to our primary server, a young blonde woman, everyone just seemed happy to be at Au Pied de Cochon – an atmosphere that was entirely in harmony with the food and extended from front of the house to the back both at 5:00pm and again at 10:30. With both the standard menu and a list of eight specials described at length and our time constraints noted with regard to preparation and presentation it would be hard to ask for better service than what we received at APdC – it was Michelin Star quality.
The Food: Complimentary Bread and Butter, House Muddled Strawberry Lemonade, Six Appetizers, Two Entrees, Three Desserts, and Coffee.
Fresh Bread with House butter: I have no idea where Picard gets his bread but they bring it in by the bushel and served up warm with unsalted butter the only challenge was not to eat too much. A crusty French baguette with good crunch and better chew plus a bit of salinity juxtaposing yeasty notes this was as good as much of the bread service in Paris.
Foie gras cromesquis: Think of these as liquid foie gras nuggets. Order them. Eat them. Bask in the gluttony.
Tomato Tart: Knowing my aunt would struggle with the meat-centric menu I also knew this would be right up her ally and as much as it may seem odd to order such a thing at Au Pied de Cochon I would strongly recommend it. Essentially nothing more than a buttery puff pastry topped with herbs, olive oil, a bit of gruyere, and incredibly fresh tomatoes the tart was acidic and bright yet creamy and balanced plus big enough to share and probably enough to serve as a meal for some.
French Onion Soup: Another order fitting my aunt’s palate, though certainly not traditional, was this pork and lard based French Onion soup. Generally not a fan of the classic form of this dish I think I actually enjoyed this dish the most of anyone at the table as the swine based broth was thick and full – almost like that of ramen – with plenty of fatty pork and root vegetables beneath the bubbling dome of cheese. Great on its own and more-so when used for dipping bread this is another great choice for those not wanting one of the more substantial plates on Picard’s menu.
Crispy PDC salad: A third dish I suggested to my aunt, this one was not quite as successful as those prior largely due to the “crispy;” a gelatinous pork trotter fried to a golden brown and for my tastes a perfect balance to the bitter greens and bright vinaigrette. Personally not a fan of mustard, particularly the pungent Dijon utilized here, what ended up happening was aunt enjoying the salad along with her soup while I de-Dijoned the crispy trotter and enjoyed it with a few leafs of green.
“The Monte Cristo:” One of the daily specials I somehow talked my mother into ordering this and although she was hesitant it ended up being a hit with everyone at the table. Limited to only “about a dozen” sandwiches that evening and featuring thick maple-custard dredged brioche French toast topped with imported jambon, local turkey, and a blend of Gruyere and Comte plus spreads of guinea hen liver mousse, maple butter, apple jelly, and caramelized onions there was really no part of the palate that this enormous “appetizer” did not touch on and with a drizzle of maple syrup to finish the plate the biggest shock was that every flavor came through with aplomb. Certainly gluttonous but entirely delicious this and what followed certainly displayed Picard’s propensity for ‘shock n’ awe’ cuisine but honestly, it works.
Plogue à Champlain: Admittedly possessing a substantial sweet tooth and a fondness for every ingredient present on the plate this composition of a buckwheat pancake topped with bacon, mashed potatoes, foie gras, Ile-aux-Grues cheddar, eggs, and thick maple syrup infused pork stock was #1 on my list of things to try order at APdC and without exaggeration I’ll simply say it is one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. A bit breakfast, a bit dessert, and entirely over-the-top savory this is probably the truest representation of what one should expect at Au Pied de Cochon and while I can’t say there is anything subtle about this plate it was much like the Monte Cristo in that everything present was noteworthy; an accomplishment that I personally consider validation of Picard’s skill of balance in the face of something that could seem sloppy and contrived under other circumstances.
Fried Chicken: Already realizing we had ordered too much even before our main courses arrived the fact was confirmed when two 18” platters arrived, the first my mother’s daily special of ‘whole’ fried chicken…and when the team at Au Pied de Cochon says whole they aren’t fooling around. Juicy and plump – apparently brined in a combination of buttermilk, maple syrup, and spices for the better part of the day – what was presented on this plate was a chicken coated head-to-toe and fried crisp alongside house peppered pickles, maple slaw, and onion rings. Again favoring gluttony (both in presentation and in flavor) over any semblance of restraint yet keeping an eye on balance what I particularly enjoyed about this dish was surprisingly the sweet versus savory interplay of the slaw and the pickles, both serving to as ample foil to the fried food, refreshing the palate and keeping things interesting with each bite.
Pied de Cochon: …and then there was this, APdC’s signature dish featuring a whole pig’s leg that was partially deboned and filled with foie gras imbued stuffing prior to being breaded and fried. Individually tagged and plated atop creamy mashed potatoes with a gravy of foie, lard, butter, onions, broccolini, and mushrooms plus a thick slice of seared duck liver on top this was pure debauchery and although it was slow going each bite brought me back for more, a journey that ended when only approximately 25% of the potatoes, a few bones, and a bit of broccolini remained – a feat that led our waitress to fetch Chef Picard who’d apparently suggested there was “no way were going to eat all that” when he saw our order and earned me a smiling nod of approval.
The Winter Sundae: With nearly 200 minutes of digestion while watching the Canadians and Lightning play an entertaining (if not meaningful) game we returned to the same table and the same server for a second round and after joking that I was going to order a second plogue as dessert I instead went with the old adage that there is always room for (maple) ice cream – plus maple cotton candy, maple toffee, house made salty caramel, a brownie, cranberry preserves, maple nougat crumble, and whipped cream. Creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty, chocolate, maple, and without a doubt “winter” – delicious.
Pecan Pie for two and Sugar Pie for two: At this point hardly paying attention to menu descriptions it didn’t seem illogical to order items made “for two” and unable to decide between the pecan pie or the sugar pie we opted for both…not realizing that they would arrive with a goblet of ice cream…each. House made like everything else at APdC and each warm, decadent, and irresistible I could see both the ladies eyes glazing over into food coma status with each progressive bite and despite the late hour an Americano became requisite – free refills on the house as we sat and chatted with the wait staff and a neighboring table while enjoying the flaky pastry and creamy brown sugar custards with the occasional bite of thick vanilla bean ice cream for good measure.
Cotton Candy: A parting gift from our server as we waddled from the restaurant just after 11:30pm a whirl of maple syrup was enjoyed the following day en route to Ottawa – a whisper of the meal that was and one of myriad maple concoctions making their way east as we headed back to Ohio.
The Verdict: While I can certainly understand some of the criticisms of both the restaurant and Picard’s personal style I could not have been happier with my visit to Au Pied de Cochon – it is comfort food taken to an entirely different level and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be – it was good enough that I went twice in the same night and good enough that my next trip to Quebec will be predicated by a visit to Picard’s Cabane au Sucre followed shortly thereafter by another visit to APdC for the duck in a can and foie gras and boudin tart…perhaps two if the pudding chomeur has made its return to the main menu by then.