The Au Pied de Cochon cabane à sucre wasn’t all that

As exceptional and impressively excessive as some of its dishes were, the PDC sugar shack doesn’t live up to the hype.

Au Pied de Cochon
Puffed omelette with squid ink pastry and potatoes, eggplants and braised bacon at Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack.

When it comes to visiting restaurants, I try to abstain from expectation. Then I remember the first time I heard about the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack.

Their year-round location on Duluth came with its own recommendations, sure, but this was almost mythological: “Yea, though I stumbled through the valley of the cabin of the wood, I will no longer fear missing out, for the foie gras and maple syrup was with me; the amount of food hath comforted me.” It sounded like something out of Valhalla, with roast pigs carted onto banquet tables indented with banged Maßkrugs. But how was the food? I’d ask. “Out of this world,” they’d say. “You have to go.”

Au Pied de Cochon
Maple Loubia stew with beans, cumin, cilantro and tomatoes, served with cumin glazed carrots at the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack

If you can get yourself a table, that is. While not impossible, the sugar shack reservations at Au Pied de Cochon seem to annually get booked up as soon as they go live, year after year without fail. I’ve heard people try to park themselves at their computers, waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Couple that with a solid drive out of the city with a driver who’s designated/not hungry enough to succumb to a food coma and it becomes more and more of a hassle. I only happened to go out of sheer circumstance, having a friend offer a slot that opened up in their party of eight; no-shows —important note here — are charged to the rest of the reservation’s party. While it’s not the restaurant’s problem that I was already jumping through hoops of coordination, I showed up hoping the food really would be out of this world.

We pulled in after a couple wrong turns (some signage on the road would be nice) about 20 minutes past our scheduled reservation. After bumbling around on dark roads, there’s comfort alone in a full view of a long wood cabin illuminating its large, muddy parking lot, and a smoker working at full tilt. The front door stomping ground comes with an inviting line of Adirondack chairs for weary gorgers, but the invitation ran a bit short after that for us. Some other members of our party had arrived on time, having to reassure our servers that we were indeed coming. That set the tone for the rest of the meal, as we were somewhat rushed through each course after that. Last I checked, there’s no time limit on a buffet masquerading as a meal.

Au Pied de Cochon
Hot and cold milk fed piglet stuffed with country style pâté with cranberries, walnuts and pistachios. Maple and white wine jelly and a Dijon mustard and maple sauce. PDC Oreilles de Crisse salad and eggs in maple syrup at the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack.

When it comes to the $65+tax menu, it changes every season. With the exception of telltale incorporations of maple syrup, foie gras and other Quebec terroir items, Martin Picard seems to have arrived at a point where reputation has superseded any consideration for the person eating the food in favour of where creativity can be exerted. On one hand, it keeps it fun and the fans guessing, but the newly inducted may have to save their scalp the scratching and go along for whatever ride is in store. You’re stuck, so grab a beer and try to have fun.

Of course, excess is the name of the game here. It reaches the point where there are takeout containers regularly supplied and resupplied as dishes arrive on and leave the table, as Au Pied de Cochon must’ve figured out long ago that no human being (or group thereof) could manage their portions in a single sitting. I have to admit that this feature begged one concern and one question: It’s incredibly wasteful in terms of packaging (yeah, yeah, nag nag nag about the environment), and would the food even travel that well? Beyond this, the only other information on what to expect is that the experience is by no means for the faint of heart: The sound can be a bit much; the staff, despite their numbers, can be fairly preoccupied; shooter boys with tubing filled with maple syrup are moving about; all in all, it’s pretty circus-ey.

Au Pied de Cochon
Half pork stuffed calamari with maple sweet and sour sauce and calamari heads Chermoula at the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack

This year, the kitchen had been inspired by travels to Morocco, something that manifested in several dishes throughout the night, but was by no means a constant. Among the highlights were maple smoked salmon kefta, a well-loved pairing of fish and syrup that certainly spoke of that inspiration and a marriage of two cultures; a cinder-cooked tanjia of pork that came overwhelmingly packed with the flavour of roasted cumin, however oily; and a stack of soft baghrir pancakes coated in candied orange and sauce and topped with a ladle of flaming Grand Marnier suzette sauce for equal parts taste and showmanship.

Unfortunately, for every good dish that drew excitement from the table there was another that came with mumbles of disappointment: Another tanjia came, this time a sugary counterpart of Ras El hanout beef shank, maraschino cherry and pineapple ham that was far too sickly sweet; a puffed omelette, however beautiful to look at, tasted more of straight unsalted béchamel and burnt squid ink pastry than its advertised ingredients; the maple loubia merely tasted of maple and cumin slapped together.

Au Pied de Cochon
Maple taffy on a mint granité at the Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack

Out of all of these on-and-off misgivings, desserts shined most of all in the course of the evening. However, mixing maple and mint is probably left on the drawing board, having been served as maple taffy on mint gratiné and sheets of milk pastilla interspersed with maple and mint cream. At least the latter was more delicate and nuanced with this pairing of flavours. It was combinations like this, however, that give the impression of a Jackson Pollack composed from a spice rack and was needlessly chaotic in its slapdash approach.

To answer whether or not the food travelled well in my table’s stacks of takeout containers: No. It was slop on slop. Au Pied de Cochon wasn’t responsible for packing me up, but I couldn’t help but think that there’s little point to even eating certain dishes in favour of packing them up and enjoying them later.

Is it worth chasing down reservations, arranging transportation, coordinating groups? I’d sooner vote for PdC’s new spot la Cabane d’à côté for a more sombre and focused meal. Otherwise, if you have to try it, lower your expectations and wear sweatpants.

Once was enough, maybe too much. Save a spot for me back on Duluth. ■

The Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack seasons run seasonally: The maple flows from mid-February to the beginning of May, and a harvest season goes from mid-August to the end of October.

Au Pied de Cochon – Sugar Shack

11382 Rang de la Fresnière

St-Benoît de Mirabel, QC

For more information, please visit the Au Pied de Cochon website.

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