Dinner fit for a king

Nothing says lovin’ quite like a maple-glazed pig’s skull dusted with gold on the tip of its snout — delivered on (what else?) a silver platter with a yellow-handle carving knife plunged in its cerebellum. Think Excalibur.

And, believe me, there was plenty of lip-smacking lovin’ to go around Wednesday night as celebrated Montreal chef, Martin Picard, served what was undoubtedly among the most rich if not decadent meals ever in the nation’s capital, this one at Sala San Marco in Little Italy where 400 people at $125 per, ah, head marked the opening of the annual Ottawa Wine and Food Festival with dinner fit for a king.

King of carnivores, that is. So let’s pull out that sword and get to it.

Course after course – including no fewer than four desserts — poured out of the kitchen, each rustic Quebec-inspired tribute with maple syrup or maple sugar as a key ingredient. To do it, Picard brought in a brigade of 14 people from his flagship restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. It was one of the largest events he’s ever catered.

“Miss Piggy would have been very happy,” said Ottawa chef and emcee Robert Bourassa, who once owned the former Café Henry Burger in Gatineau (Hull).

“It’s all very rich and it’s all excess,” he opines later. “You don’t do it often, but enjoy it while you can because the flavours were all true. I grew up cutting up pigs and deboning pig heads in my father’s butcher shop, so it brought back to me a lot of memories of rustic peasant food that was so deep, so flavourful, but simple.

“We couldn’t sustain this kind of diet,” Bourassa says, “but it’s fun to go back for a visit.”

Picard was this year’s big festival attraction before a sell-out audience. Actually, it was one of the best dinner deals of the year as patrons went home with bloated bellies and an autographed copy of Picard’s latest self-published cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, valued at $70 and stuffed with maple-theme recipes from his second restaurant in Saint-Benoît-de-Mirabel — everything from pancakes to cretons, squirrel sushi, Canada goose, woodcock and “Confederation Beaver.”

Rodents were not on the menu Wednesday, however.

But pig brains, blood pudding, snails and duck liver? Bring ‘em on.

Recall that Picard, star of the TV food show The Wild Chef, who reportedly sells the most foie gras (fattened duck liver) of any North American dining establishment, was originally to be the kickoff celebrity chef at Winterlude’s opening gala in February 2011. But, he ultimately declined after animal rights activists protested serving foie gras and the National Capital Commission asked him to be more politically correct by reining in his hallmark cuisine.

The result: Picard said no, and was replaced by TV chef Michael Smith of Prince Edward Island, who served a less controversial maritime-theme menu.

Foie gras appeared as generous slabs tossed at the last minute into his thick, traditional French Canadian pea soup.

This time, foie gras popped up in at least three of his 12 dishes, beginning with an amuse bouche “foie gras bite” where the ridiculously rich duck liver was liquified with alcohol and mushrooms, then breaded and deep-fried. Patrons were advised to pop it whole into their mouths before biting down, so as not to squirt juices across the table.

Foie gras appeared as generous slabs tossed at the last minute into his thick, traditional French Canadian pea soup (photo above, shown with cretons).

And it reappeared in a labour-intensive dish of stuffed cabbage, polenta and lobster — stuffed, that is, with ground pork, foie gras, herbs and spices and served with a lobster bisque. As you might imagine, it was incredibly rich and dense. (Not exactly sure whether empty lobster shells sticking out either end were supposed to make it look like a snail or a lobster.)

But a star attraction was the pig’s head — 40 of them, one for each table — lovingly glazed and roasted in a wood-fired pizza oven, then placed on a bed of mashed potatoes so diners could poke and help themselves to what was utterly rich and delicious head meat, crispy skin, ear cartilage, tongue, brains … take your pick.

In fact, family style service was the intent as people were seated at tables of 10 and food was delivered on big platters to hack apart and distribute, some with more finesse than others.

Among the standouts was Picard’s insanely sweet sticky toffee pudding made with apple, pumpkin, molasses, flour, egg, heated and served in a tin can at the table with a bottle of warm caramel sauce.

The pudding impressed Margaret Dickenson, cookbook author and TV cooking celebrity, who pronounced it the best she’s tasted. As for the savoury dishes: “There were three that were exceptionally good,” she says.

“The foie gras bite at the beginning was explosive. The salmon en papillote (baked in wet newspaper) with sauce was among the best I’ve ever had — flaky and tender and very flavourful. And the cheeks on the pig head were exceptionally flavourful, delicate — a little fatty, but you expect that.

“Overall, I exercise for an hour every day and I can’t eat a meal like this all the time. It was extremely rich, which was appreciated by a lot of people in the audience.”

This was Picard’s first cooking appearance in Ottawa. As with any large event — or a dinner party at home, for that matter — timing is everything. “With this meal it was all about organization, so it was not that difficult. After we understood what we had to do, anything is possible,” Picard says.

“This one was very special because you cannot miss your shot. If you’re late on one plate then everything that follows will be late also, so you have to be very strict on the rhythm.

“It’s easy for me to be in Ottawa, I love the city. Two years ago I couldn’t do it for different reasons, so now I was happy to be back.”

twitter.com/roneade

Connect with Ron Eade |Google+|@roneade|reade@ottawacitizen.com