Enjoyed my fifth meal at Le Pied de Cochon yesterday and have decided it's time to post a report. Disclaimer: I know, though only to exchange niceties, chef Martin Picard.
A bit of background. Before opening LPDC, Picard was the head chef at Club des pins and, before that, Globe (back in its glory days). He also did a stint at Toqué!. Picard and his backers took over their Duluth Street digs, a former gourmet pizzeria, last fall. The pizzas are history; instead Picard uses the wood-fired oven to prepare his takes on French provincial classics like pot-au-feu and cassoulet and Québécois "classics" like poutine (made with foie gras) and pouding chômeur.
As Picard freely admits, the restaurant's concept remains a work in progress. But most of the principles are clear: Local ingredients, which they're making an heroic effort to source, are given star treatment. The menu changes constantly. Preparation is straightforward; the ingredients may be French but there's something fundamentally Italian about the approach. Flavours are strong and pure. Portions are generous. No concessions are made to health fads. And however serious the staff is about food, they display not an iota of pretension or fussiness.
The occasional miss notwithstanding, Picard and team regularly hit the bull's eye. Deep-fried zucchini blossoms are crisp, tender, flavourful and greaseless. A salad of "orpin" (a kind of stonecrop), gathered from the wild, blanched and garnished with sautéed onion and smoked pork, is a succulent knockout. Chomping down on a deep-fried cromesqui delivers a burst of foie gras essence. The brandade, a coarse purée of salt cod, potatoes, garlic and olive oil, may be the best in the city. A plate of mixed charcuteries is anything but ordinary: ethereal chicken liver mousse; smoky venison sausage; a chunk of rabbit terrine; slices of pickled venison tongue. Dandelion greens dressed in olive oil and lemon juice are topped with thin strips of the finest smoked cod I've tasted (the restaurant has artisan suppliers for its smoked fish and meats).
Meat lovers will find their fill, though not if they insist on beef or chicken. That the homey "assiette du cochon heureux," a thick pork chop atop a pile of choucroute, topped with sliced mushrooms and baked in the wood oven, is one of the restaurant's signature dishes says much about Picard's philosophy. The "barbecued" ribs, a lean rack of meaty venison spareribs coated with a slightly sweet, highly spiced sauce and baked six hours, are amusing and moreish. Picard has also brought with him the lamb shank confit he invented at Club des pins. A recently added section of the menu features salt-marsh lamb, a rare and expensive treat. A few duck and pasta dishes and risottos round out the terrestrial side of the menu.
If I can't tell you much about those, it's because my attention is usually drawn to the fish. One of the really exciting things about LPDC is its commitment to local seafood, a rarity in Montreal. Twice a week this summer, Picard received a shipment of fish and shellfish caught off the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence no more than 24 hours earlier. A baby flounder, baked in the wood oven and moistened with olive oil and diced tomato, had a sweet, clean taste and flaky texture that wowed the entire table. The three plateaux de fruits de mer were most impressive: mounds of crushed ice strewn with an assortment of raw and cooked shellfish; ours included razor clams, scallops in their shells, oysters on the half shell, periwinkles, briny arctic shrimp, white-shelled clams, grey-shelled clams, mussels, an insanely delicious Madeleinôt crab, marinated Maine conch, a couple of king crab legs, and more I'm surely forgetting.
Last night, the waiter explained that the Magdalen Islands seafood season is drawing to an end, though excellent oysters (a dozen with a glass of St-Ambroise Stout is my idea of heaven), scallops and fish from other sources remain on offer. Still, the menu did feature one Magdalen fish: a whole mackerel, stuffed with fresh tarragon, sitting on a bed of softened red peppers and onions, baked in the wood-fired oven and served with a side of fresh shell beans in a tomato sauce under a thatch of tiny haricots verts. Delicious!
If there's a weak link in the chain, it's the desserts, which come across as something of an afterthought. While good, the crème brûlée lacks the flavour and unctuousness of the very best. The molten chocolate cake is rich, decadent and a bit too cliché. And the lemon tart could use more pucker and less meringue. But the homemade sherbets are excellent, friends say the cheesecake is first rate and the pouding chômeur has developed a cult following. My favourite desserts to date have been an apple baked with cranberries and maple syrup and a ramekin of June berries topped with a barely sweetened batter and baked; their deep, pure flavours, unpretentiousness and seasonality seem totally in line with the restaurant's creed.
The constantly changing wine list has around 25 reds and slightly fewer whites, including many private imports. Mark-up is 200% across the board, alas. Still, several bottles are under $50. While the sommelier, Philippe, betrays a young man's enthusiasm for big wines, he's good at suggesting matches: a young St. Joseph achieved real synergy with the venison ribs, while Mellot's Sancerre "Cuvée Edmond" was a delight with both the plateau de fruits de mer and the baby flounder. Three or four dry wines, none of them plonk, are served by the glass. One night the white was a tasty private import St. Péray. Another night, the reds were a juicy Beaujolais and a chewy Dão. The eponymous house brew and various McAuslan beers are available on tap. Cider can be had by the glass. The selection of aperitifs and digestifs is small but enlightened and includes the occasional novelty: for a while in June, you could order an ice wine martini, which tasted better than it sounds.
Not everything is perfect, of course. With a view of the brick oven, the front door and sliding glass doors that open onto Duluth, the front of the restaurant is airy, bustling and full of interest; the windowless back is more like Siberia, especially if youre seated under the noisy air-conditioner vent. Service, while friendly, can be laid-back to the point of neglectful--you may find yourself having to request refills of water and pour your wine--and at peak periods on busy nights the staff seems overwhelmed (last night we ordered two cromesquis as palate teasers; when we inquired about them after our first courses arrived, apologies were profuse; five minutes later, one was delivered; when we asked about the second, surprise was expressed; number two arrived a few minutes after the main course was served, its purpose long defeated; we were charged for both). A round of LBV Port by the glass came from a bottle that had been open far too long. And people with conservative palates may be horrified by many of the dishes and the small selection remaining after theyve eliminated them. (A group of Americans I accompanied to the restaurant in May could barely hide their disgust at being offered venison, squid, foie gras, salt cod, tongue and fish and shrimp with their heads intact. Two sent back their salmon because it wasn't cooked a dry, flaky, pale pink all the way through. They also thought the following night's meal at Gibby's was fabulous...)
Prices are reasonable, especially in view of the quality and quantity of the food. You could easily pig out--a cromesqui, a first course, a main course, a dessert and a couple of glasses of wine--for under C$50 a person. Limit yourself to beer or cider, choose carefully from the menu or skip dessert, and your bill would run closer to C$30.
You've got to admire what Picard is doing. Instead of opening yet another bistro or Toqué! clone, he's put together a concept that's unique in the city and probably on the continent. Well, lucky us.
Le Pied de Cochon
536 Duluth East
Open 5:00 p.m. to midnight, closed Mondays. Smoke free.