Headed north to Montreal and Toronto last week and made most of the appropriate pilgrimages for smoked meat, poutine, bagels, a depraved dream come true at Au Pied de Cochon, and much more. Along the way we kept encountering that discombobulating phenomenon of the travel doppelgänger–skewed Canuck incarnations of familiar characters from home popping up everywhere. There was the one-eyed cousin of my cat skulking down a Chinatown alley, and toothy Quebecois analogues of minor Chicago politicians plastered all over the light poles. And then we ate at Cowbell, Toronto’s answer to Wicker Park’s Mado.
Like Rob and Allison Levitt’s newish loca-sustainable resto, Cowbell–which actually opened first, last year–operates in a small space with an ever-changing chalkboard menu covered with dishes made from animals butchered on the premises and high-quality locally sourced produce. It too is owned and operated by a couple–Karin Culliton and chef Mark Cutrara.
Cutrara’s style (see pics) is a bit more complicated than Levitt’s ultrasimple dishes, though we started with some relatively straightforward roasted carrots with mint yogurt and heirloom tomatoes and a house-cured charcuterie plate with an unctuous swab of lard. Next came Angus beef sous vide and a Berkshire pork sampler that at once was a porcine epiphany and a small disappointment.
See, everything I ate on this trip–and I ate extremely well–was overshadowed by a heartbreaking and hauntingly good meal at Montreal’s notorious Au Pied de Cochon. I wish I could show you the Plogue à Champlain I ate there, a mountain of ham, potatoes, and foie gras atop a buckwheat pancake drizzled with maple syrup (wait–here’s one). We started that meal with a ridiculously over-the-top crispy salad, a towering mound of greens larded with crispy, fatty porky bits and topped with a card-deck-size croquette filled with glistening fatty hock meat. God help me, I can’t stop thinking about it.
So the limp, bland headcheese croquette that came with Cowbell’s pork platter was a huge letdown. But on the other hand the loin (also done sous vide) was probably the most luscious, silky taste of that cut I’ve ever had, and along with the thick slab of cheek and a beautiful sausage with some house kraut it was overwhelmingly satisfying.
The point of all this is that Torontoans have gone crazy for Cowbell despite its inconsistencies. It was packed. And I think it’s an indication of how far we have yet to go on this front that Mado (which also has some inconsistencies) hasn’t made a bigger impact. Yet.
While I’m at it, it’s criminal that we don’t have a permanent market on the order of Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon or Toronto’s Saint Lawrence Market. Anyway, Toronto and Montreal have major Mexican deficits. So there.