There’s no denying the insane popularity of Martin Picard’s restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon. For years the restaurant, located in the heart of the Plateau, has gotten rave reviews from critics and food lovers alike. Au Pied de Cochon has become notably known around the city for its foie gras poutine and other delectable treats. A few years ago, Picard took his culinary know-how to the woods of Mirabel on Montreal’s north shore and opened his Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. Building on his restaurant’s popularity, it was a logical and organic next step that led Picard out of the Plateau and into Mirabel’s maple forest to build on the French Canadian tradition. Adding his signature touch to this beloved tradition, his sugar shack attracts hundreds of people from around the world. In a rare occurrence of outshining an original, it seems like the offshoot sugar shack has become even more popular than the inventive restaurant itself.
I went to the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack this past weekend for the first time, accompanied by one of the Montreal Food Divas and her troop of hungry friends. The sun was high in the sky as we travelled the 45 minutes from de la Concorde metro in Laval to the secluded shack in the woods. Located high atop a wooded hill and surrounded by vineyards, farmland and mountains that peeked out from far in the distance, the view from the sugar shack is absolutely breathtaking. My anticipation for the Cabane À Sucre Au Pied de Cochon had been building to sky-high expectations for months and beyond the multiple services and mounds of food we were served, the experience itself ended up leaving me feeling a little empty on the inside.
Getting down to business, once we were inside the sugar shack, there’s no messing around. The 10 of us were ushered to our table which we shared with a lovely older couple who had trekked from the south shore for the special occasion. Once we were seated and settled in, a waitress with blue tubing around her neck (I will explain this later) came to take our drink orders. At the same time another waitress came out from the kitchen with the table’s first service, a three tiered “cake” make from foie gras. This was to be the first of 10 services including 4 entrees, 2 main dishes and 4 desserts. We learned that the smallest top tier was a dense cake make from pistachio and foie gras, the second layer was a foie gras shell filled with a gooey maple caramel at its centre and the bottom layer was once again foie gras filled with a meat type substance (it wasn’t clearly explained). The cake was indulgent to say the least.
Following the cake the next set of services came relatively quickly. The next was a delicious and elaborately served Paris mushroom and escargot soup in a wine and cream broth. The baked soup was topped with a crispy and buttery delicious phyllo pastry crust with blue cheese and maple syrup. This may have been my favourite of the 4 entrees but the word around the table was that the escargot were too big and over cooked in the broth, an opinion I share despite having lopped up the broth and the mushrooms. Our table also received a customary cake sized baked egg (the only nod to the traditional sugar shack experience; beyond the setting, of course) which was covered with mashed potatoes and a béchamel sauce. It was largely forgettable. The last of the dishes, however, a plate of maple cooked meats and beans was quite flavourful.
The two main courses included a tray of baked duck a l’orange (the savoury orange sauce came in halved oranges hot out of the oven) which had been stuffed with breads and vegetables and served with roasted root veggies and deep fried, crepe-wrapped duck pate. We were also served an entire rainbow trout in a salad. With all there was to eat with the duck and the previous services, I didn’t even make it to the trout.
By some miracle towards the end of the meal I still had room for dessert. The four desserts came simultaneously and included a banana flavoured ice cream, a layered maple infused cake that was a surrounded by homemade, nut-incrusted chocolate bark, a buttery good sugar pie called pet-de-soeur in French and translates into nun farts (this came to the table covered by a creepy doll dressed as a nun which I’m sure gets a holler out of the little old ladies that visit the sugar shack-I’ll have to look up this tradition) and of course, maple taffy. The desserts were perfectly and deliciously over the top.
Despite some creative culinary indulgences, I didn’t enjoy my experience at the cabane à sucre for a couple of reasons. First of all there’s too much food and not all of it is eaten. Upon our arrival at the table we were handed a pile of take away aluminum plates that we were encouraged to fill up with left overs and take home. From my vantage point and before we got started, I saw people leave with stacks of these take away plates. They were giddy, smiling blankly and in pure euphoria from the meal they just devoured and subsequently from the fat that was now coursing through their bodies. Instead of cooking up just enough for the experience at hand, there’s more food than we know what do with and it was shocking. This cabane à sucre is a reflection of North American’s wasteful ways at our worst. Even with our trays, there’s still more food than can possibly be eaten by 10 grown men and women and what wasn’t scooped up was thrown away. Seeing this left me feeling emptier than had I not eaten anything at all. It was shameful to watch and even more shameful that people were eating this up, blissfully unaware of how gluttonous they looked with their stacks of trays. Its an example of how we live our lives, not taking what need but instead feeding our overindulgence in the name of tradition and Au Pied de Cochon has taken that to the bank.
La Cabane À Sucre Au Pied de Cochon is a Disney Land representation of what a sugar shack has been and is meant to be; a gimmick to get people thinking that this updated take on tradition is worth their time. This machine is there to make money and do so as quickly as possible. Throughout the meal the service was mechanical, stiff and largely unfriendly. The waitress with the blue tubing failed to explain her choice of neck jewelry until we asked. They were shooters in tubes that are used to collect the maple water out of the trees. She quickly instructed up on how the tube works before administering one shooter to my neighbour and moving on to the next table. Gone is the joviality of getting together as a family or with friends to sit eat, meander and explore the surrounding area. Instead the services come out at an inconsistent, often breakneck pace.
We were barely finished our meal when the table was washed down and the next group was ushered in. As we were leaving, I saw the same waitress that brought us the foie gras cake in the beginning. She was delivering her rehearsed speech to a newly arrived table of hungry patrons. Word for word she repeated her explanation with the same lack of enthusiasm as she had with us. It reinforced the machine metaphor that was working through my thoughts as I walked to the car. I get it, the place is popular and things have to move quickly if they are going to get everyone in, but for the price we pay, there should be a little more consideration.
While most of the food is undeniably out-of-this-world good, the place is over-priced and this is compensated by serving a glutinous amount of food that is either eaten at the table or spooned into containers that will sit in our fridges or will simply be wasted altogether. The Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack is not about enjoying a meal, its about stuffing your face in absurd cartoonish proportions. People looking for an authentic cabane à sucre experience near Montreal have much better options that are closer to home and at a fraction of the price.