I had my first real piece of foie gras as everyone usually does: at a French restaurant, seared and served with fruit to cut through the inherent richness. In celebration of one of those birthdays that ended in a zero, I paid a premium for it at the time.
When I ate the first chunk, an immediate surge of euphoria washed over me, and I became a little light-headed. The quivering piece of liver gave little resistance to my knife, yielding to the dull steel like no other substance on Earth—an object closer to liquid than solid. No other food, not even bacon, is closer to sex than foie gras. It's a carnal kind of experience that you'll remember either fondly or not-so-fondly for the rest of your life. Some of it is because of the flavor and texture, but mostly, it's because you're aware what you're eating carries with it a significant amount of controversy. You may be able to scarf down a burger without blinking, but you can't consume foie gras without some measure of reflection, as well as maybe a tinge of guilt.
Now, almost a decade later, I'm looking at a bread pudding topped with foie gras chantilly cream, the third and final course in a foie gras prix fixe that Brasserie Pascal is offering. After the first forkful, I've decided I've had just about enough. It wasn't that I was particularly full following the other two dishes, nor did I suddenly turn vegan; it's just that the dessert is, quite frankly, terrible. The blame lies entirely on the false but alarmingly common assumption that foie gras is versatile. It is not an all-purpose ingredient. Like perfume, it's better in small doses, and adding anything having to do with duck liver to this dessert was a very bad idea. Existing in a foamy cloud of unpleasantness, the cream dolloped on top didn't have much of a flavor; it even looked unappetizing, with microscopic bits of liver suspended in the froth. And when it's eaten in concert with a vanilla-and-raspberry sauce, it begins to suck the life out of an otherwise-decent scoop of bread pudding, as though it were a negatively charged ion or one of those dementors from the Harry Potter movies.
Brasserie Pascal, pascalnpb.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; brunch, Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Wed., 5-9 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-8:30 p.m. Foie gras three-course menu, $55, food only; la carte available. Full bar.
That a normally reasonable and capable French chef such as Pascal Olhats is responsible for the dish is surprising, but perhaps it's not entirely unexpected. The state is about to outlaw the delicacy with heavy fines for anyone producing, selling or serving foie gras after June 30. So in the coming weeks, Olhats won't be the first or last chef to capitalize on what's about to become illegal. The controversy and constant press coverage guarantee that other chefs will offer their own last hurrahs. And with it, any sort of restraint goes out the window. If you think foie gras has been used in excess up to now, just you wait. You may have heard about LA's new Umamicatessen injecting a foie gras mousse into jelly doughnuts. Or the $175 multicourse foie gras dinners that Ludo Lefebvre offered to sold-out houses amid the backdrop of animal-rights protestors. It's a foie feeding frenzy out there, with some drawing parallels to the historic excesses of alcohol consumption right before Prohibition.
No matter where you stand on the issue, whether you believe Greg Daniels of Haven Gastropub, who thinks that government should not dictate what we can and cannot eat, or you're on the side of the activists who think gavage, the process of force-feeding birds to make foie gras, is the very definition of cruelty, you will be force-fed a lot of opinion to go along with your meal.
Daniels went to Sacramento as the leader of a group of chefs cleverly named the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS) to take a stand against the law that was passed seven and a half years ago. He has also hosted a one-night-only $80 foie-gras prix-fixe orgy with Olhats, Yvon Goetz of the Winery, John Cuevas of the Crow Bar and Kitchen, and Ryan Carson of 'Pri-vé, all contributing over-the-top dishes that weren't just dinner, but rather an act of defiance. The animal-rights activists were there, too, as were the news vans.
But Olhats is a veteran when it comes to foie gras protestors. He was long the target of PETA picket signs at his now-shuttered Traditions in Newport Beach. And way before anyone else in OC, he offered this $55, three-course foie gras blowout—a meal he intends to serve until the very last day it's legal. It's probably best to go à la carte on this one, though, if only to avoid that ill-conceived bread pudding. Heck, it may just be best to order the traditional foie appetizer and be done with it. It's the only one you really need to try, if you haven't already. The seared and caramelized foie—swimming in a skillet with reduced muscat wine, halved grapes, wilted leeks and grilled bread—is ideally paired with a glass of Sauternes, which will match the silkiness and underscore a dish that's rustic, fully realized and time-tested. There are just two McNugget-sized morsels to enjoy, and that's plenty.
Take a pass on the scallop dish, which has foie gras inflecting a pan sauce in such undetectable bits that it might as well have not been there at all. The distraction couldn't save the dish on the night I visited. The scallops were woefully overcooked, and the risotto puddles on which it sat tasted lifeless. The better main course was the tournedos Rossini, which featured a filet mignon topped with thin-sliced foie gras that it didn't necessarily need either, but at least both proteins went well with the red-wine reduction, a syrupy concentrate that does the work of a thousand knives in cutting through the decadence.
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What disappointed me most about the meal wasn't the food; it was the service. It has slipped precipitously since the last time I reviewed the restaurant. Our entire meal—an appetizer, two main courses and two desserts—took more than two hours to complete on a not-entirely busy night. Our order wasn't taken until 20 minutes after we sat down; the food didn't arrive for another 25 minutes after that. The bread pudding was completely forgotten until I gently reminded our server of it. Her reaction wasn't an apology, but rather, "Oh, my gawd." And when the check came, I was charged separately for that awful dessert when it should've been part of the prix fixe price. Our server blamed the computer for the error. The morning after, I exchanged notes with a co-worker who went to Brasserie Pascal two nights prior. His experience was similar (the servers forgot his soufflé).
As I reflect on that first bite of foie so many years ago, and now that the window for it is seemingly coming to a close, I realize I have it to thank for another first: the first time I logged a complaint with the manager.
This review appeared in print as "A Foie Farewell: Get Pascal Olhats' legendary foie gras dinner (but skip the dessert) at Brasserie Pascal before it's banned."