When The Chef Is Trying to Kill You
I recently took a long vacation with my family to Portland, Oregon, foremost to celebrate my brother’s college graduation, but perhaps more importantly — we being a family of New Orleanians — to do as much Pacific Northwest eating as we could manage. And I have to say, the food scene in PDX is inspiring. Plenty of high-quality, local organic product, talented cooks gunning for culinary innovation and fun, and, best of all, a low cost of operation that makes it easy for an up-and-coming chef to take a few chances on a new restaurant. If the proof of this experiment’s success isn’t in the pudding, per se, it was definitely in the outstanding ono ceviche we enjoyed at Andina, the grass-fed and finished strip steak at Urban Farmer, and of course the spiced boar collar and fish sauce fried chicken wings at Pok Pok. As I said: Outstanding. But it was on my last night of the trip, mere hours away from boarding a red-eye flight back to New York, that I confronted one of the most outrageously ballsy menu items I’d ever seen in my life. At the diminutive, elegant Le Pigeon, listed nonchalantly among the other appetizers, was this:
Foie gras jelly donut, $16
No way…could it really be? I spoke the words aloud, just to make sure something in my cranium wasn’t all tangled up like an Oliver Sacks patient, causing me to see things that weren’t actually there. “Foie. Gras. Jelly. Donut,” I said. And then, “Holy shit.” Now, I normally try not to swear in front of my parents, but some things just have to be said. I needed to order it – the decision was made as soon as I saw the words. I wasn’t really even in the mood for it, but when confronted with something so outrageous, all will power is lost. It’s as though the menu had performed the Jedi mind-trick on me: “You will have the foie gras jelly donut.” “I will have the foie gras jelly donut.” When the server came to take our orders, I pointed at the menu and asked, simply, “Seriously?” “Oh, yes,” he said. Oh well, I thought. I guess we’re going to do this.
When my appetizer arrived, it was both exactly and absolutely nothing like I’d expected. The fatty liver wasn’t incorporated into the donut — it wasn’t a foie-filled pastry — nor was it some sort of mousse cleverly disguised as chocolate frosting. There was no subtlety about the dish at all, which made it that much more brazen. It was, quite literally, a house made jelly donut topped with a generous lobe of seared foie gras, with yet another lobe of foie on the side. It was fried fat topped with seared fat, plain as can be. Just in case you don’t believe me, I have photographic evidence:
[Star of the hit new Fox reality show: When Appetizers Kill!]
When I’ve told people about this, once their incredulity subsides, they always ask, “Did you like it?” Well, yes, of course I liked it. Animal fat — particularly of the engorged liver variety — has a way of injecting itself directly into the pleasure centers of your brain, not unlike a marvelous drug. Which is pretty much the reaction I had after consuming the thing, an intense wave of pleasure followed not long thereafter by a sudden crash, and feelings of embarrassment and guilt. As I sat there, dazed and sweating, I felt hung-over, bordering on ashamed. “Dear Lord,” I whispered, “what have I done to myself? I still have an entree coming! Will I survive?”
Which is not to say that it wasn’t a uniquely wonderful experience. Le Pigeon’s executive chef, Gabriel Rucker — a 2007 Food and Wine Best New Chef — clearly knew what he was doing. He’s become part of a new breed of cook, the kind that brashly gives the middle finger salute to all conventional wisdom regarding food, health and nutrition. Like Mario Batali’s generous employment of lardo crudo or Au Pied de Cochon’s Martin Picard topping his signature poutine (french fries covered in cheese curds and gravy) with, yes, foie gras, Rucker joins the movement of culinary maximalism currently sweeping America’s food scene. Especially in Portland, as evidenced by the borderline insane “Voodoo Doughnut Cheeseburger” at The Original, and Voodoo‘s own Maple Bacon Bar. This trend is obviously a backlash, a thumbing of collective noses against years of picky eaters, sauce-on-siders, vegans and other dietary malcontents so frequently bemoaned by fine-dining chefs, as well as a celebration of that delightful category of ingredients that will likely send you — both literally and figuratively — to heaven. Moderation and good common dietary sense have no place here. Foie gras jelly donuts, on the other hand…
To tell you the truth, I welcome this change. True, stuffing your face with foie at every opportunity is probably not the best thing for your health, but you know what? It’s not your body that needs it; it’s your soul. A little fatty duck liver every now and again is a thing of divine pleasure, and if it so happens that it becomes the instrument of my demise, I’ll go to my maker with a five mile-wide grin on my face. But not until after I’ve had my entree: Roasted pigeon atop spinach, shiitake mushrooms, pepper jam, and – that’s right – a square wedge of toast topped with pâté de foie gras.
What a way to go.
["I love the little crunchy things!" exclaimed my mother. "What, the feet?" "Oh my God...those were feet?!?!"]
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