Effing Good Seal Burgers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they are surprisingly tasty and you get to swear when you order.
I’ve eaten strange dishes all over the world, but it wasn’t until I decided to try a seal burger in rural Quebec that my try-anything taste buds nearly called it quits. But, even months later, I still can’t get the satisfyingly steak-cum-calf-liver-like taste out of my head.
In the tiny hamlet of Kamouraska, Quebec, the unassuming Côté Est Café-Bistro is serving a controversial staple: a seal burger with the mischievous moniker “Phoque Bardot Burger.” (A quick French lesson: phoque, the French word for seal, is pronounced like the English word fuck — get it?) The restaurant, with its mismatched plates and unpretentious interior, made international headlines a few years ago when chef and owner Kim Côté first added the meal to his menu. The restaurateur was barraged with death threats (most notably from France, where animal-activist Brigitte Bardot resides).
An intriguing mix of liver and steak, it almost defies description.
The burger arrives on a plump, homemade bun plainly dressed with a few greens, some plum jam and a generous helping of foie gras. The first bite is rich and incredibly moist. An intriguing mix of liver and steak, it almost defies description; it’s gamey but in a subtle way that makes it impossible to compare to caribou or bison burgers. The foie gras adds a sensual hit of fattiness but doesn’t overpower the seal meat. A second bite unveils a unique saltiness that evokes the sea. A closer inspection shows that the greens are in fact seaweed, brought in by local “garden of the sea” seaweed picker Claudie Gagné.
With each bite, new hits of flavor reveal themselves: It’s like duck … no, veal … no, tuna … then back to the initial impression of steak and liver. How can you describe a meat that is fishy and meaty at once? Deliciously maddening.
As though he was already reading my elation over this new food find as guilt, my waiter, Stephen (I did not get his last name), assured me that it wasn’t made from “baby seal meat.” (I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had not even considered the possibility that I was eating baby seal meat.) Yet he also flippantly added “there are over seven million seals in the area,” waving toward the spectacular view of the St. Lawrence River, one of the largest rivers in the world, just a few meters away. Seals also have no natural predators, he says, “so someone has to eat them.” Hmmm.
The burger — minus the Bardot — has since gone on to become the restaurant’s best-selling dish despite the $22 price tag, which is steep for this rural area. At the very least, seal ticks all the right boxes on a locavore’s must-have list: It’s local, fresh and hormone-free. And, given that many dine on fish and shrimp from the St. Lawrence, should seal be any different?
The truth is that somewhere around the fourth bite, I swallowed my guilt.