Hay-cooked ham, side of maple-soaked pancakes
I knew I was in trouble long before the 45 minute ride to the bucolic town of St-Benoit de Mirabel. Mainly because my body had been responding adversely to the suddenly massive amounts of butter, fat and foie. I had only been in Montreal for about two days, but already I had eaten poutine, Portuguese rotisserie chicken and a few quenelles of chicken liver mousse, on top of a Québécois feast at the legendary Joe Beef that will go down as one of my top 10 all-time. By the time I got to Maison Publique on Friday night, after a chilly day of walking around and exploring in the freezing rain, I didn’t feel very well. It only took a few dishes there – perhaps the creamy swiss chard or the cheesy baked oyster, as rich as Bill Gates – to push me over the edge and into the bathroom, where I hovered over the toilet like a 19 year-old at a frat party. Yet in a way, my Roman purge was actually helpful, as it got me ready for what was about to come the next day.
I had somehow convinced Montreal chef Normand Laprise (Toque!, Brasserie T) to drag me out to the legendary Cabane à Sucre, or Sugar Shack, run by Au Pied de Cochon chef/owner/crazy motherfucker Martin Picard. Laprise is a true gentleman of the first order, a French Canadian mensch if there ever was one, who had a gig to get back to in Montreal, but was more than happy to take a drive in the country to see his former employee, who in some ways, has eclipsed the master, only in the mythic orgies of food and drink that have become his calling card.
The Cabane is seasonal. They typically open in the fall during apple harvest (everyone in the province makes a cider, it seems) and the other busy season is during maple syrup harvest, February to May. During the season, the restaurant is only open Thursdays – Sundays, with a lunch and dinner service on weekends. But the other component to this working farm is maple syrup production, which becomes obvious in nearly every dish, along with a small contingent of pigs, who roam free, eat well and die in the service of their owner, who respectfully smokes and roasts them for his innumerable guests.
As you ascend the snowy hill, you’re greeted by a massive cast-iron smoker that resembles a locomotive engine. We politely ask the young cook (they’re all young and laser focused) if we can take a peek. The ducks, which I’ll be seeing a bit later – lit by cognac, injected with maple syrup and stuffed with porcinis, cream and cognac – are golden and as gorgeous as a Russian model. We walk inside the first door, to the kitchen, where a table of Laprise’s friends are already digging into whole foie gras lobes as large as Nerf footballs that have been stuffed with maple syrup, tucked gently into a hollowed-out sphere of bread with a glass jar of beans swimming in pork fat on the side, plus some eggs cooked in maple syrup and yes, additional maple sauce. As my eyes process it and the smell travels to my stomach, my brain says, rather quietly to me, are you fucking kidding me?
I keep seeing the cooks assemble this beautifully geometric wedge of something vaguely reminiscent of a terrine or a savory layer cake, but it’s a cake that a Québécois farmer would make if he staged with a sushi chef for a month. There’s a salmon-haddock cake, but also a thin layer of raw salmon, plus sushi rice and avocado (very un-province-like), as well as a beet-spinach-maple gelée across the top (vegetables!):
I stand for a moment, listening to the music playing on someone’s radio and just watching the brigade work its collective asses off, cooking family-style portions for large, communal tables of 10 at a minimum.
Laprise walks me through the kitchen, past an industrial-grade maple syrup processor, and into a cavernous, wood-paneled cabin, with a long bar off to one side, and a series of tables in the middle, each one packed with families, kids, relatives and food freaks who have traveled great distances in their SUVs and BMWs. Servers wear leather vests emblazoned with the Au Pied de Cochon name and the Shack’s logo of a fat pig strapped to a maple tree, it’s mouth agape, ingesting sap from an open tap.
As we sit, those previous courses we saw on the way in start arriving – the foie footballs and the fish/rice wedge – and they’re not pared down for our benefit. By the way, those foie lobes are nestled into a round bread coffin, with a perfectly smooth surface on the top portion, holding up a haystack of fried pork rinds with a sparkler jammed into the side of it. I’ve warned our server that I’m not going to eat everything and that they can really do half-portions if they like, but clearly, they want to show us the standard portions and the tinfoil to-go trays and brown paper bags are already showing up at the end of the table for the inevitable leftovers. The next few courses are a blur. A frisbee-sized omelet hides a layer of tripe, bacon and tomatoes, but the Rubik’s cube-like croutons on top prove formidable hurdles:
Then there’s that boneless duck, flamed table side with cognac, and that creamy, mushroom-based stuffing, plus a bowl of ink-black blood pasta. You read that correctly. They combine flour, pork blood and squid ink to make a pasta that would give Fergus Henderson a woody, then throw in some cheddar cheese for salty richness.
I met the descendants of my final savory course later, as they were lounging in a wooden cabin about a half-mile away, relaxing in the mud, eating as much as they wanted. They were awfully cute:
Back inside, the ham had been smoked and roasted in hay (what’s up, Publican..) then served with a mound of stubby, slightly crispy and totally sweet maple-engulfed pancakes, plus some Dijon and maple syrup:
By now, the end of the table is groaning under the weight of several take-out containers and doggie bags. Laprise is shaking his head with the biggest smile on his face, knowing full well this isn’t over yet, and continues trying to reach his former employee on the phone, to see if he’ll stop by to say hello. Then dessert arrives. In waves. First up: mocha and maple layer cake with maple jello, Joconde biscuits soaked in a maple liquor called Gelinotte, plus maple mousse and pastry cream:
Then a banana pie, filled with custard and banana pieces and topped with a maple meringue:
Finally, some homemade maple frozen yogurt, and that Québécois tradition of maple syrup poured onto snow, or in this case, maple toffee simply served on a bed of snow:
By this point, I want to make more room, somewhere in the deepest recess of my stomach. Thankfully, I don’t feel sick, but rather, content, and am hoping Laprise insists we get going back to the city, where he has a truffle dinner to preside over. I was more inclined for a nap, as we’d been at the Sugar Shack for at least a few hours by now. As we get up to leave, suddenly, the room bursts into the polite but grateful applause you hear on the 18th green at Augusta. The Man himself had entered from the back door. Martin Picard, in his blue ski vest and long sleeves, looking like he just rolled out of bed, presents himself, embraces his mentor and colleague, then promptly insists we sit down and drink a bottle of champagne. Are you fucking kidding me??