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Foie gras still making appearances on menus in SoCal

Foie gras cassoulet
Foie gras cassoulet
Linda Mensinga

Some chefs are defying the ban on foie gras enacted in California last July by serving it free of charge.

At least one restaurant, Zin American Bistro, in Palm Springs is making its guests happy with complimentary servings of foie gras as a part of their wine dinners. The loophole they claim is serving it without charge as an amuse-bouche, the French term for a small tasting from the chef.

Most restaurants have followed the law banning the sale of foie gras that went into effect in July, 2012. Viewed as cruel by animal rights groups, production involves force feeding ducks to increase the size of their livers. The resulting ingredient is a buttery, smooth, melts-on-the-tongue nosh. It could be compared to really good chicken liver pâté, except when seared it gets a crispy exterior. Most chefs who served the product contend the process is humane, often maintaining this view because they have visited such a farm themselves.

“California is alone in banning foie gras sales and production,” Marcus Henley points out. According to Henley, who is Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm’s operations manager, legislation was introduced but defeated in Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New York, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

Hudson Valley and two other groups are suing the state of California. Henley believes, “Letting the law stand would be a terrible precedent that could be applied across agriculture, where any state could ban an accepted agricultural product produced legally in other jurisdictions based on any local concern.” Although he sees the ban as unconstitutional, overturning a state law is a challenge. “We will have to wait and see.”

Foie gras sales to California and consuming foie gras are legal. “But you can’t re-sell the product,” Henley explains.

“Most people are too scared to serve it,” says Zin Executive Chef Chris Bowman about the fattened duck liver. And with reason. Hot’s Kitchen in Hermosa Beach attracted protesters who brandished signs in front of the restaurant. It was sued by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and received lots of hate mail on Facebook. According to Hot’s spokesperson, Kelley Coughlan, The restaurant served foie gras with a burger called and charged $13. After the ban came into effect they served the same burger for $8. “It really was complimentary,” she said noting the price. She believes the suit will not succeed and was filed simply to generate publicity.

Zin had some foie gras sitting in the freezer from before the law went into effect. He now purchases by mail order from Hudson Valley.

Zin owner Mindy Reed believes the law passed only because it’s a niche food. “It was an easy target. Lobbyists don’t exist, unlike the cattle or chicken lobbies,” she says. Putting foie on one of the wine dinners she believed would create word of mouth and so far it appears to be working. After the first dinner, “Most people were very happy about getting foie gras.”

Reed’s extensive wine cellar is known for boutique vintages. “My wine list is alive, every month it gets updated. I like small boutique wines,” she explains. Her 350-bottle list often includes wineries such as Melville from whom she bought a case and sold until it was gone. “I try to take our guests a bit out of their comfort zone.” The restaurant’s wine list has earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for eight years.

“We serve phenomenal wines that easily justify the price of our dinners,” she says. A dinner last December featured Michael David Wines with complimentary food pairings for $59. The food included a foie gras mousse cone, a beef tenderloin with foie gras sauce and chocolate cup cake with foie gras chantilly & maple bacon coulis among others. “Everybody loved the food.”

The recent Frog’s Leap dinner featured a glass of champagne with Chef’s Secret Foie Gras Amuse as prelude to a five-course dinner for $79. Other dishes on the menu were cobia with Spanish chorizo hash, potato kugel with crispy pancetta, a petite filet with three peppercorn roquefort sauce. Clearly Chef Bowman’s talents go beyond foie gras.

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