Little Chef Counter, a hip bistro in San Jose's new public market, put out the "closed" sign a little early Sunday evening. Guests for a late-night clandestine dinner soon would be arriving.
The location for this sumptuous five-course feast had been kept secret until just a day in advance. "Please," the host's website had implored those who would dare spoil the festivities, "let us enjoy our moments left alone with our soon-to-be-banned deliciousness."
Joining her to dine at a long communal table were a college student, an art director, an investment banker, a sommelier, an occupational therapist, a stay-at-home mom, a psychotherapist, entrepreneurs, lawyers and, this being Silicon Valley, a number of software
They were all here to get their fix of foie gras -- while the getting is good.
California will ban the production and sale of the delicacy effective July 1, giving foie gras fans fewer than 100 days to gorge themselves legally on dishes that feature the unctuous, fattened livers of ducks and geese.
With the deadline looming, diners are flocking to all-foie-gras dinners in the Bay Area and beyond, including both "underground" events designed to foil animal rights protesters and swanky events with lots of public exposure. In Redwood City, the Martins West gastropub scheduled a second foie dinner this week after the first one sold out in four hours. Alexander's Steakhouse in San Francisco is hosting its second star-chef-studded affair at $250 a pop, with profits going to CHEFS, the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming. And an April 13 event at the upcoming Pebble Beach Food & Wine weekend invites chefs and gourmets to say "Farewell to Foie Gras" at a special luncheon, noting that the dish "may one day be as outdated as partridge or peacock."
Until then, there are seared foie gras lobes, foie gras-infused sauces, foie gras terrines and myriad other preparations
- "A person may not force feed a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size, or hire another person to do so."
- "A product may not be sold in California if it is the result of force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size."
- "A peace officer, officer of a humane society ... or officer of an animal control or animal regulation department of a public agency ... may issue a citation to a person or entity that violates this chapter."
- "A citation issued under this section shall require the person cited to pay a civil penalty in an amount up to $1,000 for each violation, and up to $1,000 for each day the violation continues."
California s ban on the production and sale of foie gras (pronounced fwah grah) will go into effect July 1, eight years after SB 1520 (by then-Sen. John Burton) was signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. The long lead time was intended to give the state s sole producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, ample time to "modify its business practices." However, the law also will apply to the sale here of foie gras produced outside California.
The Animal Protection and Rescue League, based in San Diego, was instrumental in getting the law on the books and has applied pressure to restaurants in the interim. "The vast number of restaurants have no interest in serving this cruel item," the APRL s Bryan Pease said. "We have gotten more than 100 (restaurants) to remove it before the ban takes effect."
Under the law:
"This is my third foie dinner this week," said a lawyer at Sunday's secretive gathering who had reservations about being publicly branded a foie gras eater -- as well as reservations for a fourth dinner this Friday night. "I haven't had a heart attack yet, but I may soon."
She had just finished chef Robert Dasalla's menu, which started with a torchon, slices of a butter-like poached foie gras log atop brioche toast with an orange-black pepper marmalade, and culminated four courses later with red wine-poached foie gras atop a petite filet of beef.
The event inside the San Pedro Square Market, organized by Tracy Lee, founder of the Dishcrawl dine-around group, was the first of several $90 "Foie Battle" dinners she has lined up at restaurants in Los Gatos, San Jose, San Mateo, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco over the next few months. (Only the schedule and menus are posted on www.dishcrawl.com/foiebattle.) There's an element of kitchen one-upmanship: Diners will rate the dishes, and the winning chefs will face off against each other in a cook-off.
While Lee's low-key subterfuge kept away the animal rights activists, Chef Russell Jackson's in-your-face campaign has drawn their attention.
At Lafitte restaurant on San Francisco's Embarcadero, protesters show up on nights when the firebrand chef holds his "FU Foie Gras" dinners. For months, Jackson has been waving the flag of culinary Liberte, collecting signatures on an online petition ("Keep foie gras legal!!") and selling T-shirts and jars of potted foie on his website (http://lafittesf.com).
Others are opting for more quiet farewells to foie gras.
Oakland's Bay Wolf restaurant had intended to hold a series of foie-themed events, but decided to cancel them after "very, very disruptive" protesters showed up at the first dinner, chef-owner Michael Wild said. "I couldn't ensure the safety of my customers or my staff."
He has taken foie gras off the menu in advance of the ban and is instead concentrating on dishes featuring fresh duck livers, which he said don't provoke controversy. "It's not foie gras, but it's not that far off," he said.
In San Jose, the classically French Le Papillon has served foie gras for the better part of three decades -- with the exception of a short period a few years ago when animal rights protesters were picketing the restaurant.
Owner Mike Mashayekh and executive chef Scott Cooper plan to continue serving a variation of their popular foie gras trio (seared, terrine, cappuccino) through June 30, then will drop it from the menu unless something changes regarding the pending law.
"We certainly don't want to do anything illegal," Mashayekh said.
Back at the Little Chef Counter, as dinner was winding up, the foodies were swapping tales of the best foie they'd ever had and lamenting the changes ahead.
Where would they get their foie fix after July 1?
"I've been eating pâté all my life," said art director and food blogger Minty O'Callaghan, alluding to the French influence in her Vietnamese heritage. "I'll smuggle it in. Go to Vegas. Or visit friends in Arizona and Washington."
No need, countered fellow diner Nash Raghavan, of Santa Clara, laughing as he made his way out the door.
"We're going to start putting geese in the backyard. I've got the cornmeal!"
Follow Linda Zavoral at Twitter.com/buh_byetravel.