Doing the Quebec Sugar Shack at Pied De Cochon's Cabane A Sucre (2017)
Since it's now mid-February, that means it is starting to become Mapling season throughout the Northeast and Quebec, and that also means it is time for the annual Au Pied de Cochon (PdC, for short)'s Cabane à Sucre harvest breakfast! It's one of the Montreal-area's toughest reservations (usually involving getting up at midnight on 1 December, cursing at the constantly-crashing website, and then waiting weeks for your callback on the wait list), but it really is worth the trouble, since it's one of the most amazing culinary experiences. When we last went in 2014, we had an amazing time. But there were two lessons we took from that experience: (1) to starve ourselves more beforehand, since it truly is a massively excessive amount of food, and (2) the experience you got as a party of two was just a fraction of the experience the larger, full tables got, since many of the items are best served up table-side (better to receive entire cakes than just slices, for example). So this time, when they opened up the waitlist in December, I immediately signed up for a table of 8 and got a combination of local and online friends to come up and join me. Thus, on 18 Feb 2017, we found ourselves again in the outskirts of St Benoit de Mirabel, QC in an enlarged sugar shack, waiting for items to arrive from the kitchen.
When dining at the Cabane à Sucre, it's important to remember that this really is more of a "feast" than just a large brunch, with the kitchen and dining staff laying siege to your table, hoping to wear out your defenses. Pretty much from the moment you sit down enjoying a beverage to the moment you wave the surrender flag during dessert, you will be plied with course upon course of food, much of it delivered in impossibly large portions. There are nominally four courses (an appetizer, a brunch course, the main course, and dessert), plus the optional meat pie, and each of these courses consists of several side dishes, so it's critical that you pace yourself, and make frequent use of the provided take-out containers, since you'll want to make sure that by the time the main course arrives, you've still got at least a little bit of stomach space reserved to enjoy it.
Before the first course arrived, like always, PdC has made up a list of primarily maple-themed cocktails available for your enjoyment during the meal, and this year was no exception. About half of our table ended up with the Maple Negroni, a pleasant variation on the standard Negroni using PdC's own gin, sweetened up just a bit with some maple syrup, and served in a glass with... a maple leaf. I rather enjoyed it, with the maple combining nicely with the vermouth and gin to make a well-rounded citrusy experience. Other drinks enjoyed at the table included a hipster-ish Orange Julep with maple served up in a can (those experienced with PdC know that he likes to do interesting things in cans, so it's a bit of an inside joke), and another maple and watermelon-based cocktail served up for two in a hollowed-out half watermelon (since nothing says "Winter in Quebec" like a tropical-drink-like watermelon!).
Once we started enjoying our dishes, we proceeded directly into the appetizers. The first appetizer was a series of their foie gras "cromesquis", little deep-fat fried cubes of foie. This dish is near-identical to the version served at the main PdC restaurant, with a slightly marinated cube of foie gras, heavily breaded in a crisp breading (at the Cabane, it is also dusted with maple sugar), and deep fried at a high enough temperature that the fat basically liquifies: you are supposed to pop the entire morsel in your mouth and let it explode. And explode it will, into an incredibly rich and intense explosion of delicious, molten foie gras. Do make sure to follow the server's instruction to do the entire morsel at once while breathing through your nose, lest the contents burst out of your mouth onto the table or your clothing. This was a good sign of the courses to come: decadent excess served up table-side.
The rest of the appetizers, were inspired by a recent visit by chef Martin Picard to Japan (a fact also reflected by the Cabane upgrading its toilets to fancy Japanese models, including a nearby translation of the English and Japanese instructions into French). This consisted of a trio dishes. First, each diner was served up with a skewer of yakitori foie gras served over a rich pork broth with house-made ramen noodles and a quail egg for a rich, ramen-like bowl of deliciousness, with the yakitori being a nice comparison piece to the cromesquis: a nice little skewer of nicely marinated and crisped foie gras.
Next was a rolled up chow fun noodle (also made on site) filled with a lightly marinated pork and lobster filling, with a maple miso glaze, topped with... more bits of foie gras. This was a very well executed dish, having perhaps the best chow fun I've sampled since the Ying Leong Look Funn factory in Honolulu.
A PdC cabane experience also usually features at least one raw salmon dish, and in this case it was an elegantly presented almost as a terrine on a giant frozen block of ice, with layers of radish, cucumber, and rice topped with a dome of minced raw salmon, covered with a gel layer and salmon roe, over which a rich soy, ginger, and maple sauce was poured. Compared to the terrine of 2014, this was a very enjoyable dish: the raw salmon combining sashimi-like with the cucumber, ginger, and maple to make pleasant forkfuls of salmon. I'd happily order more of this as an appetizer.
Rounding out this course was a service of a shot glass served overfilled with maple-infused sake in a weird container that's best described as a "maple bong". I had never thought that warm sake and maple would combine well, but this actually worked well and was a nice palate cleanser after the previous dishes, although at least two of the "bongs" did leak out sake over the table.
At this point, most everyone had already had enough food that if this was a "light lunch", we'd all be satisfied, but at this point the Cabane à Sucre was just getting started. The next course was the "brunch" coarse, and the cornerstone of this course was a gigantic smoked omelet. Basically, this was a sheet-pan-sized cm-thick layer of omelet layered with a cured pork layer (similar to Taylor Pork Roll) that was rolled up into a roulade and smoked outside on the smoker: as delivered to the table wrapped in paper, it had a distinct smoke ring to it. Sliced into individual pinwheels, and served up with a bechamel sauce, this was delicious, and one of my favorites. I don't usually like egg dishes, and particularly omelets, but the execution here was perfect: the egg smooth and not overcooked, the ham layer tasty and not overly salty, and the whole stackup nicely smoked. I'd gladly have this for breakfast any time.
Served up alongside the omelet was a rather large stack of thick fritter-like pancakes cooked up in duck fat. These were pretty much identical to the same item we had here in 2014, and were a nice crispy way to soak up some maple syrup and offset the smoky and salty notes of the omelet. Also present were baked beans (some of the best I've ever had), and a colcannon-like potato and cabbage blend served up in can labeled "Ceci n'est pas une conserve" (again, an inside PdC joke, since one of there normal dishes is a duck conserve served up in a sealed can).
Before the main course arrived, we had another intermediate course with a meat pie. An optional $72CDN add-on to the meat that had to be ordered at the beginning of the meal, this is one of the reasons why I wanted to come with a large group: there aren't sizes on the meat pie, you are either ordering the entire pie, or not at all. With 7 people, it was at least something we could theoretically consume. Quite frankly, this is basically the mother of all meat pies. To start with, this was a solid 12 inch pie, about 2.5 inches deep, with a thick, fluted flaked crust. The interior was basically "pork of all varieties", with a mix of pulled pork, bacon, and various bits of offal, all ground up with a mix of hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts. That was in turn topped with cheddar and an entire half-inch thick slice of brie (basically, slicing a layer off of an entire wheel). Add some more pastry, and then top that with an arugula salad dressed with maple vinegar. Yes, all of that was one dish, and it was easily 5 or 6 lbs of food.
But despite it sound like it was just everything (and a partridge in a pear tree) shoved into a crust, it wasn't. This was actually a very well composed dish. The meat and nut mixture was tasty, moist, and nicely textured, with this giving one of the better meat pie fillings I've ever had. The cheese layers added a nice bit of flavor as well, and oozed nicely down into the rest of the filling. And the pastry was spot on perfect: flaky layers with a nice buttery taste without being heavy or leaden. In short, this was pretty much the best meat pie I've ever seen. By a long shot. Worth every single penny.
Once all that was served up, then it was time for the staff to clear the table and bring out even larger plates for the main course, a trio of meat dishes. The first dish was bœuf bourguignon made with a 2" thick chuck roast. Aside from the unusual presentation (served up with a series of "flags" of beef carpaccio), this was basically a standard bœuf bourguignon made with a really, really rich, wine-heavy sauce with just a tinge of maple. But again, everything here was very well executed: the beef was falling-apart tender and absolutely infused with the sauce, with the marrow of the central bone melting out over the rest of the dish.
Next was a chicken with Madeira wine sauce and lentil risotto. This was an interesting combination, since most of the dish was either chicken stuffed with cabbage and pork, or cabbage rolls stuffed with chicken and pork, but the result was a relatively pleasant roasted chicken with a very tasty risotto and a somewhat sweet (and maple-infused, imagine that!) glaze. While probably the weakest dish of the day, this was still quite enjoyable.
Finally, the piece de resistance. This time, Pied de Cochon went with their namesake: a giant pied de cochon! A giant, maple-glazed, smoked pig trotter stuffed with a ground spiced pork mixture to the point the trotter was practically bursting, and the entire thing cooked in the smoker to the point of having the perfect glazed skin perfection. Subtracting the maple glaze, this is basically an oversized version of the same trotter I had experienced at the main restaurant, but there was something about the larger scale and the excellent smoked maple glazing that did take this dish to the next level. Add in a very nice cheddar barley risotto on the side, and this was a fine dish indeed.
Despite the fact that by this point we were almost food-weary and near-comatose, it was then time for dessert, again a several dish affair. The first dessert dish was actually pretty light. As served up to the table, this at first looked like the standard Canadian sugar-on-snow treat with reduced syrup drizzled over popsicle sticks so that you can let it congeal and roll it up to make a chewy treat. Here, there was a subtle difference: instead of being served up in a trough of snow or on a block of ice, here the "ice" was a gigantic, frozen cold slab of Himalayan pink salt, with you scraping up little bits of the salt as you roll it up for a salted-caramel-like treat.
Next up was a fairly straightforward choux pastry with a creme anglaise filling. While nothing out of the ordinary here, this was a very well-executed version: the choux pastry was nice and flaky and crisp, and the creme anglaise very rich and loaded with a lot of vanilla and a little bit of maple. Overall, this was probably the most enjoyable dessert for me. Also served up was a Canadian-style maple cheesecake, which was well received and very nicely maple flavored, with a flan-like texture, I enjoyed this one as well, but was starting to get a bit maple weary.
And there was also a lemon custard served up in a bowl with a biscuit. In most circumstances, I would have rather enjoyed this dessert, but I didn't think it paired particularly well with the rest of the dishes. It was definitely a well-executed soft and tangy custard, and was perhaps intended as another palate cleanser, but in my case, I think it wasn't a great pairing.
But that wasn't the last dessert. One of the hallmarks of the PdC Cabane à Sucre experience is that usually at least one of the courses has a theatrical element to it (previously, our experience involved a tableside flambee of duck breast, and an elaborate carving ceremony of a hay-smoked ham), and in this case, that fell to the last dessert course. We had first noticed it with another table, the last course involved the server coming out with a large wooden platter upon which were several thick birch sticks, a pile of maple leaves, and a large wooden mallet. The surprise here was that two of the branches weren't actually branches, but hollow casts of 60% dark chocolate, filled with a rich maple cream and white chocolate filling. The mallet was for smashing the branches into bits to turn it into shards of dark chocolate bark for scooping up the filling. Delicious, but really, really heavy.
And with that, we were done. Like "stick a fork in us" done. Each of us was not just full, but bursting full, as were the seven(!) foil takeout containers we had filled with the excess. And I'll have to say, it's quite the fun environment as well: everyone there is having a great, boisterous time, from children to seniors. Nobody left hungry, and indeed, some tables had even brought their own Tupperware for the extras. While it was a slight logistical challenge to get up there for us US folks (especially Kevin, who like our Montreal Death March made this a 48 hour visit), in the end, between the drinks, the optional meat pie, and various surcharges, this worked out to pretty close to $100 CDN (at current exchange rates, around $75 USD), which, for the sheer volume of food and the incredibly good quality, puts this at a nearly impossible corner of the price/quality/volume tradespace. It's literally one of the best culinary values out there (to the point where I suspect Martin Picard is doing this event more for enjoyment than profit).
And my suspicions were also confirmed, in that I learned two important aspects of the Cabane à Sucre experience: do go as a large group, you'll have a lot more fun. And do get the meat pie, it is worth every penny.
If I had to say anything negative about the whole Cabane à Sucre experience, it's actually a pretty minor beef: getting reservations is always a bit of drama. You get up at midnight. The website promptly crashes, and you spend the next several hours cursing at various HTML errors from the protesting server before finally getting on the waitlist. At which point you wait for several weeks, unable to make travel arrangements. But you know, in the end it works out. As long as I remember to set my alarm for 11:45 or so the night they open reservations (1 Dec for the Winter Maple Cabane à Sucre, 1 April for the fall Apple Harvest Cabane à Sucre). It's worth every bit of the hassle.
(more pics and info at offbeateats.org/2017/02/cabane-a-sucre-2017/ )