The Instagram posts from Le Comptoir du Vin can feel like a dare. One recent image depicts sacks of off-white haggis submerged in a pot of water; the end of one pokes up from the surface like a meat balloon knot.

Some customers felt the photo crossed a line, said Will Mester, chef and co-owner of the intimate Station North restaurant. They felt “assaulted on their Instagram feed of an image of haggis poaching,” he said, sounding as if he was repressing a gag himself.

Typically prepared in a sheep’s stomach or a cow’s rectum, haggis is a type of offal pudding, with a texture that, once fried, Mester said, is similar to scrapple. “You shouldn’t turn your nose up at it,” he said. “It’s classist — it’s just ignorant. You just sound like a rube.”

View post on Instagram
 

Challenging people’s expectations and palates is part of the deal at Le Comptoir du Vin, the restaurant Mester opened with business partner Rosemary Liss in 2018 in what was previously Bottega. Despite national acclaim — Le Comptoir du Vin was named to Bon Appetit’s “Hot 10″ list in 2019 — it’s still under the radar for many Baltimore diners.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The restaurant’s account can feel like a kind of anti-food porn for food people, with cakes of steamed suet pudding and minimally adorned skate wing. The unusual fare holds cachet among Baltimore’s serious eaters, who have grown weary of the foods of the moment.

View post on Instagram
 

“Those guys cook what they believe in cooking,” said Sylva Lin, a chef and owner of Culinary Architecture, a gourmet grocery store and café in Pigtown. Le Comptoir du Vin’s Instagram account reflects the owners’ insistence on telling a story rather than building a brand, Lin said. “I really admire their business model. They are what they are unapologetically.” As a trained chef whose own background is in French and Asian cuisine, Lin finds it refreshing.

Instagram can feel like a necessary evil for chefs, whose restaurants use the social platform as a tool for communicating with regulars and attracting new customers. But the photo-driven medium has created a feedback loop, with restaurants creating bland but photogenic dishes to promote them on Instagram. The effect can be regressive and predictable, with every other item topped with sprinkles, oozing with cheese — catnip for the collective inner child.

“A lot of restaurants will try to cook what’s on trend and they know what’s going to sell,” Lin said. “I don’t blame people … everyone’s margins are super tight.” As a small-business owner, Lin understands the double-edged sword of Instagram, which can be time-consuming to maintain but can also move product. Customers frequently come in eager to try something they’ve seen online. But it can get a bit… boring.

On a recent evening during dinner service, Mester used silver tongs to lift a clump of dandelion greens from a frying pan and arranged them on a plate, next to toast topped with diced bits of a pig’s head I had ordered. Different things on grilled toast are something of a specialty at Le Comptoir du Vin. A few weeks back, it was kidney. Mester and Liss promoted the item on Instagram with a mock advertisement calling it “viral kidney toast that sold out 3x.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It’s a joke, absolutely,” Mester said when I asked him about the post. He called it a “small revenge,” a response to “being advertised to just endlessly.”

View post on Instagram
 

The aim isn’t just to be provocative. Mester’s cooking reflects a “whole-animal” ethos advocated by figures like Fergus Henderson, an English chef and author of “The Complete Nose to Tail,” which includes recipes for crispy pigs’ tails, jellied rabbit and braised squirrel. The approach is inspired by generations of regional European cuisine where “people are just working with what they have,” Mester said.

During a recent dinner at Le Comptoir du Vin, I gobbled up my pig’s head toast and moved on to my entrée: a steamed skate wing with brown butter sauce, as large as a T-bone steak. Some chefs like to drown unusual dishes in adornment, as if to distract. Here, the presentation felt designed to do the opposite: to keep the focus squarely on the food. It was my first time sampling skate; a server gently instructed me to grab the mass by its bony corner and use a fork to scrape stringy flesh from the ribbed cartilage. The motion sent shivers down my spine.

But the taste? Sublime.

That Le Comptoir du Vin has such a short menu means guests are forced to broaden their palates.

“You’re not giving easy options, easy outs like a cheeseburger,” Mester said. And while he loves a cheeseburger as much as the next person, “I would never put [it] on the menu because that’s all people would order.”

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner.

More From The Banner