Farewell to Foie Gras

Local restaurants continue to host special dinners despite protests. Plus pop-up dinners at Swan's Market.



"I'm wearing a bulletproof vest right now, and I'm armed!" These are the precautions Chef Russell Jackson said he took to prepare for his all-foie gras dinner last weekend. Jackson, owner of Lafitte restaurant in San Francisco, has provoked the expected amount of rage and rancor since staging his first "FU Foie Gras" event last fall. He said he receives hourly death threats against him and his family, and the protesters "terrify the living shit" out of him. Still, Jackson plans to double or triple the frequency of these dinners, and apparently now he's packing heat. Other San Francisco chefs are planning similar events before California's foie gras ban takes effect in July.

For the most part, things have been less confrontational on this side of the bay. Foie gras has quietly disappeared from most menus, and the few places still serving it are not making a big to-do. Bay Wolf announced a foie gras dinner series earlier this year, but cancelled it after protesters swarmed the first event in February. "I realized I couldn't guarantee the safety of my customers and staff .... This isn't a fight I want to pick," said owner Michael Wild.

Farewell to Foie Gras was one of Bay Wolf's periodic themed meals, like its upcoming dinner paired with offerings from Linden Street Brewery. Wild thought it would be "fun" to send foie gras off in style; he says he didn't anticipate any issues. While it might seem naive not to have expected some friction, he certainly didn't foresee protesters screaming at his patio-seated diners, or hitting one customer and calling her a fat cow. Wild also said he received well over 1,000 angry emails and letters.

La Rose Bistro in Berkeley serves foie gras periodically, paired with apples, figs, or quail eggs. Chef Damien Jones said it's something that (especially older) customers demand from a French bistro. "You have to give the people what they want," he demurred. At the same time, Jones isn't looking to court controversy; I had to reassure him there were other local chefs serving foie gras before he'd publicly out himself. "In France, this wouldn't be a big deal," he said glumly.

Although most East Bay French restaurants do not serve foie gras — including La Note, Bistro Liaison, and Gregoire — there are still a few local spots that do. Meritage serves a filet mignon entrée with foie gras, Hudson offers it as a $13 add-on to their burger, and Kiraku's menu features foie gras served atop stewed daikon. (I got several angry emails after mentioning this dish favorably in a review.)

When Wild asked my opinion on the issue, I took the food critic's typically equivocal stance: "I'm paid to eat, and I try to stay open to as many options as I can." I've read the literature, and gavage gets a lot of different spin depending on who is telling the story. (For an interesting perspective, Google "Physiology of Foie" from Serious Eats.) I don't order much foie gras, but neither do I have an absolute rule to avoid it.

And thanks to the new law, the moral imperative will soon be out of my hands. Jackson uses words like "catastrophe," "disastrous," and "nightmare" to describe California's impending ban, whereas Wild just shakes his head in disbelief. "With the number of things going on in this world, causes that warrant real passion, this seems like a non-issue," he said.

Swan's Market Pops Up on Fridays

Last Friday, Swan's Market seemed to have shrugged off its longtime curse, if only for a night. In the midst of bitter winds and rain, die-hard diners packed Cosecha's wooden tables for a night of pop-up meets brick-and-mortar.

Against one wall was ever-industrious Tina Tamale, serving up several varieties of her eponymous items; chorizo and Cajun chicken sausage sandwiches from Taylor's; and Korean-spiced pulled pork sandwiches from Chef Peter Jackson (Toast, Boucherie Artisanal Meats). Next to Tina, Maricela Yee of Little Shop Artisan Box sold tea, chocolate, and coconut jam from her monthly subscription boxes. On the back wall, soon-to-open Periscope Cellars (operating on a special-events permit for the time being) doled out wine by the glass or the bottle, as well as a weather-appropriate hot mulled wine. And Cosecha held it down on the other side with a special menu of carne adovada and tacos made with homemade flour tortillas.

Swan's hosted its first pop-up in December, to coincide with the arrival of Popuphood, but officially launched the events in the beginning of March. Karoleen Feng of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (Swan's owners) said different vendors like Blue Chair Fruit Jams have cycled through already, and they have others lined up for the future.

Cosecha has staged occasional one-off dinners in the past, but owner Dominica Rice said she now plans to stay open every Friday for the foreseeable future. "It was so lonely before!" she said. "It's really nice to have all this company." Tina Tamale will not be returning, but this Friday Pietisserie, Donut Dolly, and others will join Rice at the market. Follow Facebook.com/SwansMarket for updates.