A few years back, my pal Donnie brought a “duck in a can” over to our house. It was a dish he had experienced at a restaurant in Montreal that had changed his life, and convinced them to let him take one home. He and his wife Monica had texted me photos from the restaurant of whole pig heads passing by their table on large platters.
The restaurant was called Au Pied de Cochon — “The Foot of the Pig” — and the “duck in a can” was duck meat, gravy and foie gras cooked in a can and then opened and poured over mashed potatoes and bread at table. A perfect example of Quebecois cuisine.
The restaurant’s chef owner, a chat named Martin Picard, was the first to create a contemporary, fine restaurant celebrating le cuisine de Quebec — French in style with a healthy infusion of Canadian rusticity and regional produce, sealed with a carnivorous bravado. With the addition of foie gras, he elevated the provincial specialty, poutine, to star status. He put duck in a can.
One of the first things I did when we decided to go to Montreal was to book a table at PDC, as they call it here.
The restaurant was a 40-minute walk from our hotel in Vieux-Montreal. A fine way to see the city, we decided. We wandered through the Montreal Jazz Festival and passed through the Latin Quarter, up some pretty tree-lined streets and then we were there — a small, open and unassuming restaurant on a neighborhood street.
We were a few minutes early for our 5-o’clock reservation and hung out in the chocolate shop next door. A line formed outside the restaurant, and by 5:05 we were seated and every table was full. Our toothy, jumpy waiter began rattling off specials in French, I apologized for my poor mastery of the language, and he switched over to an equally frenetic, almost equally unintelligible English.
There were twenty or so specials that it took him the better part of five minutes to get through, the only ones I remembered were a raw tuna appetizer and a poutine with squid ink sauce and fried capelins. The menu is organized into several categories: foie gras; cochon (pork); canard (duck); bison, beef and veal. There is no salad or chicken category.
We made a good guess from the “Vin de Monde” portion of the wine list — one of the less expensive options, a delicious McLaren Vale shiraz from Australia. Our meal began with a foie gras cromesquis, a little cube of breading that exploded with foie gras in your mouth. My wife made the mistake of trying to cut through her’s with a fork, and the foie all oozed out.
Next was a delicious salad (yes, we found one on the menu under the “Starters” category wedged between pickled bison tongue and guinea fowl liver mousse) of apple, blue cheese and endive, and that raw tuna appetizer — an extraordinary tower of bluefin and yellowfin tunas, beets, sushi rice and a flaky pastry, served with a squirt bottle of spicy vinaigrette.
Flynn and Imogen opted for the monkfish fish & chips, which arrived in towering paper cones taller than their heads. Willa got the gnocchi, which was prepared table side in a performance that captivated every table nearby — the pasta was swirled with pesto, morels and warm pasta water into a massive hollow parmesan cheese, where the dish came together as if by magic.
It was a two-bottle kinda night, and our second shiraz arrived with our main courses — a colossal plate of duck breast with mushroom sauce for Leslie, and a plogue à champlain for me. Mine was the only sensibly sized dish of the bunch, a small breakfasty tower of foie gras with buttery maple syrup, bacon, egg and buckwheat pancake which the waiter had described as an “appetizer portion,” but upon further consideration had conceded could be a main course based on richness alone.
We had promised the children some dessert, of which there were many tantalizing options. But we were all so stuffed we had to pass on confections such as the milkshake with PDF maple syrup toffee, maple poudding chômeur and sugar pie with two scoops for a single maple creme brûlée. The burnt crust tasted like marshmallow, the creme inside maple-ly and rich. I wondered if there wasn’t perhaps a bit of foie gras in the creme.
We thanked our wonderful waitstaff, bid adieu to the friends we’d made at neighboring tables including a nice family from Calgary, gathered our bags of leftovers and limped like gavage-stuffed geese out of the restaurant and back down neighborhood streets past the Latin Quarter, through the Jazz Festival and finally to our hotel.
Along the walk home, I received a text from Monica with a question about something. But my eyes had a foie gras glaze, I couldn’t quite make out what she was asking.
“Not now,” I replied. “I’m digesting.”