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A bargain for lovers of foie gras

Liver it up.

A T-shirt from London Grill in Fairmount reflects the owners' commitment to choice.
A T-shirt from London Grill in Fairmount reflects the owners' commitment to choice.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Inquirer Staff Photographer

A group of restaurateurs, weary at months of protests against the liver dish known as foie gras and angered at a pending bill to ban its sale in the city, plans to go on the offensive.

Voilà! The chefs are fighting back with bargain foie gras next week.

Nearly 20 restaurants, backed by the nation's largest foie-gras producers and one of the largest wholesalers, will offer "Freedom Foie for Five" - lunch and dinner portions priced at $5 - to expose more people to the dish, regularly served in fewer than a dozen restaurants. The seven-day promotion starts Monday.

"It's not an answer just to the protesters. I'm more concerned about City Hall. It's an answer to everyone who's telling us what to do," said Terry McNally, co-owner of London Grill in Fairmount, which has served foie gras on and off since the early 1990s. "I continue to support freedom of choice."

Foie gras (pronounced "fwah GRAH") is the engorged liver of a duck or goose force-fed by a process called gavage. To animal-rights activists, including the Philadelphia group Hugs for Puppies, gavage is cruel.

To fanciers, the fowl do not suffer during the feeding, and the production is no less civil than other forms of agribusiness. Foie gras is usually sliced, seared and served as a garnish; its retail price is hard to gauge because it is seldom served by itself.

Philadelphia Chefs for Choice, as participating chefs call themselves, say it is a matter of freedom of choice, for chefs and patrons. "We do not believe that a minority of animal-rights zealots should determine the direction of our business," the group said in a news release. "Nor do we want to be intimidated by them at our restaurants or homes."

It was unclear yesterday, though, just how many chefs will participate. A list provided by the Artisan Farmers Alliance, a trade group for foie-gras producers, listed 20 participants - but a check by The Inquirer yesterday showed that three, Bistro 7 in Old City, Django in Queen Village and Osteria in North Philadelphia, said they would not serve foie gras. Vetri, owned by two proprietors of Osteria, will participate.

One participant, Rylei in the city's Mayfair section, served foie gras once, "but nobody ordered it," said Jennifer Brennan-Vargas, the co-owner. The restaurant was approached by foie-gras wholesaler D'Artagnan, she said, and agreed to join the promotion.

Freedom Foie for Five might be billed as a protest, but some restaurateurs declined to elaborate on their participation, fearing more harassment. It is a widely known secret that some chefs who have removed foie gras from their menus still serve it on the sly.

Participants will receive foie gras at cost, through an arrangement with the Artisan Farmers Alliance, which represents D'Artagnan, of Newark, N.J., and producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras, of Ferndale, N.Y.

Philadelphia has become a foie-gras battleground. City Councilman Jack Kelly plans to introduce a bill to ban the sale of foie gras next year, just as Chicago did last year.

For months, protesters have set up outside the downtown restaurants that serve it and the gourmet retailer Di Bruno Bros., which sells foie gras to home chefs. Two restaurateurs who support foie gras, McNally at London Grill and Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin and Brasserie Perrier, have obtained temporary injunctions against Hugs for Puppies to keep protesters from harassing customers. Those restaurants will participate in the promotion.

Activists claimed victory last year when Stephen Starr, who owns a dozen fancy restaurants, promised not to serve it.

A more recent target, David Ansill, chef-owner of Ansill in Queen Village, removed foie gras from his menu earlier this month after protesters hounded his customers and staff and leafleted his neighborhood. "It wasn't worth it," Ansill said. "I caved."

Robert Reilly of Salt & Pepper in Queen Village, explaining why he is participating, said: "I think that with all the casualties in the war in Iraq, worrying about foie gras is kind of ridiculous. We eat pork, we eat chicken. To sympathize with these ducks, I think, is ridiculous."

That Hugs for Puppies raises a stink about a product that few know about is not lost on the group's leader, Nick Cooney. He said a survey commissioned by another animal-rights group found that 85 percent of Pennsylvanians believed that foie gras was cruel. He said the promotion showed "how out of touch a very small number of restaurant owners are about public opinion."

Applying that logic - the limited scope of foie gras - some restaurateurs consider the protesters' ire misplaced, as most meat production, including pig and chicken farming, can be considered cruel. Cooney said his group preferred to address those animal issues through education and outreach.

"Is it humane or not? I don't really know," said Michael O'Halloran, chef-owner of Bistro 7 in Old City, whose name was on the list, but who said he would not participate. "I don't trust either side now because it's gotten so shrill and ridiculous."

Hugs for Puppies recently posted Web sites that depict London Grill and another Center City restaurant, Matyson, as polluters - solely because they buy foie gras from Hudson Valley, which the group says fouls the Delaware watershed.

"I pollute the Delaware?" McNally, of London Grill, snorted yesterday. She plans a foie-gras dinner for Oct. 22 in part to thumb her nose at the protesters.