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Au Pied de Cochon alumni serve a double order of whimsy in New York

Just before his last birthday, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly had a strange dream. “I saw myself eating a never-ending mountain of Momofuku pork buns,” he recalls. It’s precisely the sort of dream that befits a chef who left Montreal’s famously excessive Au Pied de Cochon to open his own places, Fedora and Chez Sardine, in Manhattan. Or so thought his girlfriend, Molly Superfine-Rivera, bar manager at M. Wells Steakhouse (another New York restaurant run by APdC alumnus, chef Hugue Dufour).

“For his birthday, I decided to make Mehdi’s dream come true,” Superfine-Rivera explains. She took him and a few friends to Momofuku for dinner, where waiters surprised him with an order of 70 steamed buns. As dream-like as the towering platter looked, he was only able to eat five of the not-unsubstantial pork-belly buns. “Some dreams are better left as dreams,” he says.

Such hard-bitten wisdom hasn’t prevented big dreamers like Brunet-Benkritly, 38, and Dufour, 36, from turning their fantasies into reality in New York. Both of the ex-Montrealers each run two beloved restaurants here: Brunet-Benkritly with Chez Sardine and Fedora, Dufour at M. Wells Steakhouse and the M. Wells Dinette inside MoMA PS1. The two friends and former colleagues have successfully exported their visionary Québécois sensibilities to the U.S. Just as the duo helped APdC put Quebec’s cuisine on the world map by jacking traditional dishes into totems of overabundance, their exuberant more-is-more attitude is gaining notoriety in New York.

Hugue Dufour/Adam Leith Gollner for The Globe and Mail

The New York Times used the same word – “deranged” – in its reviews of both Chez Sardine and M. Wells Steakhouse. The term is apt. But their food is also charming, mischievous, adventurous and wonderfully original. For only in Dufour’s and Brunet-Benkritly’s surrealist, humour-larded world do you find signature dishes such as miso-maple salmon heads, pork-belly-unagi hand-rolls, or bone-in burgers that have a foot-long rib-bone springing from the patty.

When Brunet-Benkritly and I meet at Chez Sardine, his “inauthentic” Japanese izakaya in the West Village, he tells me that one thing his restaurants have in common with Dufour’s is a playful disdain for propriety. Their places are boisterous, and that sense of party-on excitement – combined with the sheer amounts of food the two chefs deploy – is making industry heavyweights take note. On April 25, star chef Mario Batali Instagrammed that M. Wells is the “new Batali fam fave.”

At Dufour’s version of a steakhouse, diners can have $130 côte de boeufs for two and classic sides like a grilled lobster tail (beguilingly smoky, and at only $10, it’s definitely worth getting alongside a steak) as well as less orthodox picks like salsify with black truffles. The earthiness of the tubular roots goes so well with M. Wells’s girthy chateaubriands that I could see the dish becoming a deluxe accompaniment at The Keg in a couple of decades.

If meals chez Dufour and Brunet-Benkritly taste timeless, it’s because many of their concoctions are essentially ahead-of-their-time riffs on forgotten classics. Artists in any discipline are those who reveal things as they truly are, who help others see reality in a fresh new light. And if the two of them inhabit a hitherto-undiscovered dimension of culinary out-there-ness, we too can share in that experience, not just by tasting their food, but simply by perusing their imagination-activating menus.

At M. Wells Steakhouse, appetizers include a $50 caviar sandwich, raw geoduckà la peacock” (clam necks served with a fanned tail of radishes), and Solomon Gundy (potato waffles bedazzled with orange pearls of trout roe, plump quartzes of marinated sardines and a hefty tiara of crème fraiche). It doesn’t take long for visitors to realize this isn’t a typical chophouse: Rather, it’s a carnivore’s phantasmagoria filtered through Dufour’s subconscious. One of his trademark dishes is oysters Bolognese, raw oysters dressed with meaty Italian tomato sauce, an idea he says came to him in a dream.

Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly/ Adam Leith Gollner for The Globe and Mail

The key ingredient at both of the chefs’ restaurants is humour. “Hugue and I both like to laugh and tell jokes,” Brunet-Benkritly says, with a slightly manic smile. That sense of jokiness is evident at Chez Sardine, where he tops hamachi with chicharrones and anoints smoked arctic-char sashimi with “horseradish and pretzel” (it tastes like a dusting of all-seasoned everything-bagel essence). Buffoonery is a constant in Dufour’s cooking, too. His herring-sauced Caesar salad comes buried in about a pound of grated pecorino. It’s a salad by someone who hates salads, and the preposterous amount of cheese seems like a punchline. (The Daily News compared the salad to “a Harpo Marx impersonator … wearing a cheese toupée.”) You imagine the chefs laughing as they keep grating it on: “How high can I get it this time?”

All of which enhances, rather than detracts from, the fact that they are crafting gastronomy at a seriously elevated level. Still, the most important reason they’ve been embraced in New York is their connection to Au Pied de Cochon. Whether in Dufour’s meat temple, with its open flame grill and encyclopedia-sized steaks, or at Brunet-Benkritly’s sushi-lardcore shoebox, traces of the duo’s roots can still be detected.

“Martin Picard [the APdC chef] definitely exposed me to the world of abundance,” Brunet-Benkritly says. “You know, just going for it and filling up the table with way too many things. I still love that.”

“Martin is one of my biggest mentors,” Dufour adds. “With him, it’s all about making food into larger-than-life flavours. And the idea of opulence has stayed with me, the idea of abundance.”

That insatiability has been a draw and a bone of contention at both chefs’ restaurants. The quantity of food in a meal at M. Wells Steakhouse, sniffed The New York Times, is “enough to kill us.” Their review of Chez Sardine noted that, “at a certain point, even stoners and foie-gras eaters crave a little restraint.”

“There’s definitely still some Pied in me,” Dufour continues, as we dig into a staff meal of Michigan hot dogs. (His sous-chef also brings out a platter of leafy vegetables; Dufour eyes the greens the way a vegan would glare at a roast poodle, and after taking a cursory nibble, refuses to eat them.) “The hunting, the wild game, the allure of the outdoors – but that stuff is tough to recreate here. What I learned in Montreal is that becoming international is not about trying to reach an audience outside your area. It’s about trying to find a way to be so in tune with your area, where you’re from, that you attract people from elsewhere who want to find out about it. Be consistent with your surroundings. So now I’m fascinated by New York’s identity, foodwise. What is it? It’s always been a place where commerce happens, where travellers bring flavours from all over. But what is New York food?”

That obsession with identity, such an integral part of the Québécois mentality, is what makes the food at both Dufour’s and Brunet-Benkritly’s restaurants so refreshing. The salmon head at Chez Sardine may not look very pretty, but it’s as messy as it is delicious, the saltiness of the miso merging into the sweetness of the maple syrup, the collagen-rich cheek flesh sparking with sriracha and sheer salmon-ness. It is the perfect collision between the flavours of Quebec, Japan and New York. “You can cook anywhere in the world,” Brunet-Benkritly points out. “You adapt to different climates, to different sources of food, to different people. You change an apple for a raspberry.”

That’s true, but their basic challenge is translating Montreal flavours into the American vernacular. Chez Sardine’s dinnertime-only breakfast pancakes – buttermilk blinis with raw fish, salmon roe, soy and lime yogurt – is a dish that has baffled some critics (Robert Sietsema called it a “terrible accident at the IHOP”), but as a Montrealer, I found it so satisfying I would gladly eat it twice a month for the rest of my life. Then again, I recognized it as a nod to the classic brunch dish of blinis with caviar, poached eggs and smoked salmon served at Restaurant Leméac on Montreal’s Rue Laurier. It seems what works in one place may not click in another.

Both the chefs seem to delight in introducing diners to new sensations and ingredients. I’ll never forget eating at Au Pied de Cochon one time when Brunet-Benkritly was the chef de cuisine. He sent out an astonishingly delicious appetizer of pigeon hearts – something I’d never tasted before, or since. You can’t help but trust him: He has these intense Algerian eyes, and when he’s talking about a food he’s particularly into, they take on a kind of half-lidded, drowsily seductive sensuality. He’s still turning diners on to APdC-style offcuts at Fedora and Chez Sardine, but he’s also doing more vegetables, more raw fish and more technical dishes. “It’s a little more delicate here,” explains Brunet-Benkritly. “That’s one of the ways I broke from the past.”

M. Wells Steakhouse, too, is a leap forward from Dufour’s previous projects – there’s really nothing like it anywhere. But even as the two chefs forge ahead, they’re bringing the comforts of home along for the ride. Brunet-Benkritly makes pure laine buckwheat pancakes, while Dufour is serving poutines. “You know poutine means ‘mess,’ right?” he says, noting that the Franco-Anglo dish of Brit curds and french fries, so emblematically Québécois, has become a hit in the United States. “That’s exactly what it is: It’s a happy mess.”

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