The Gist: http://www.joebeef.ca/
The Why: Along with Au Pied du Cochon, David McMillan and Frédéric Morin’s 75-seat bastion of heavy locally sourced gluttony was at the top of my “to-dine” list when making my first visit to Montreal. Having garnered national attention after a visit from David Chang and subsequently releasing a cookbook appropriately titled “Art of Living According to Joe Beef” I knew it would be my kind of place – I just hoped the chalkboard menu could appease the picky palates of my mother and aunt.
The Reservation: Opentable, over a month in advance – and you’ll need it because the place was slammed from the moment we arrived at 5:30 to the moment we left (rolled out) at 8:00.
The Space: It’s a bar – it is tight, it is cramped, it is full of odds n’ ends, nick-nacks, trinkets, and even the bathroom is used for storage space. Apparently only originally 35 seats and subsequently expanded to 70 the stools/chairs are hard and they seat you where they can – in our case at a “3-top” booth in the window. Really, it’s pretty awesome, but when it is full it is Loud with a capital L.
The Service: Is “hipster formal” a service style? It is now. Much like the folks at Publican in Chicago or the Chang spots in New York these waiters, decked out in plaid and 5 o’clock shadow know the menu, the preparations, and the chef’s vision without hesitation. Recommendations flow freely, cautionary tales of “ordering too much” are given (and ignored,) and although his accent was thick our server’s English was flawless – a must on the all-French Chalkboard menu.
The Food: Seven Plates, Three Desserts, 2 Lemonades, Free Bread Service.
Bread and House Butter: Pretty run of the mill – good crunch, soft sponge, and served with salted butter. Proved invaluable for sopping up soups and sauces later in the meal but not exciting in and of itself.
Cornflake Eel Nuggets with BBQ, Mustard, Tartar: As anticipated, my aunt had a lot of difficulty with the appetizer portion of menu but wanting to make sure we experienced the best of what Joe Beef had to offer I took the liberty of ordering the first round for the table; three items with this as the centerpiece. Served as a half-dozen, intense and creamy with that unctuous undertone that few things save for eel can offer, this should definitely be a must order for anyone making the visit. Sweet without being sweetened, fatty without being ‘greasy’, and particularly excellent with the barbeque sauce – with the ladies unwilling to try I gladly ate all six.
Beer Cheese Craquelins, Pretzel with pickled veggies and beets: Ordered by my mother as an appetizer this was another solid selection, though the presentation certainly wasn’t what I expected. Arriving as thin pretzel crisps and intensely pickled vegetables the primary constituent of the plate was actually something like a holiday cheese ball, but instead of nuts and cheap cheddar there was a house made spread of 7-year aged cheddar, locally made stout, and pork cracklins’. Bold, briny, and teetering on the edge of ‘too much’ this is definitely a dish that requires sharing.
Parfait de Foie Gras, Cherry Brioche, Truffles: 3.5 ounces of creamy duck liver whipped with black truffles served beneath a piping hot piece of buttery brioche loaded with maraschino cherries; it was every bit as good as it sounds and although I had to wait for a second piece of brioche I was glad to do so. Like most things at Joe Beef this was probably best shared – but it wasn’t – not one bite.
Cornish Hen with Spatzel and Mushrooms: My mother’s main course, this was another sizeable service featuring a whole Cornish Hen simply roasted and served over top of house made spatzel and an earthy reduction of butter, cream, fresh peas, and wild mushrooms. Tender and moist, highly recommended by our server, and the first item of the night to sell out of the night this was just the sort of food I’d expected walking into Joe Beef – hearty, rich, and the kind of thing I could make at home but never do.
Potato Soup with Gruyere Cheese, Garlic Chips: For my main course I opted for ‘soup and a sandwich’ – the soup being this creamy potage that was really less a “potato soup” than a sort of fondue-meets-whipped potatoes studded with crispy garlic. Served in appetizer portion – probably just over a cup – and shared amongst the group this went quickly and much like fondue it was even better for dipping the bread.
Foie Gras Double Down (Demi-portion): The second half of my main course was probably Joe Beef’s most famous item and clearly poking fun at KFC’s abomination of a sandwich Joe Beef takes the concept to a whole different level by replacing chicken with two thick slices of duck foie gras that are butermilk brined and breaded prior to a trip to the deep-fryer and wrapping them around aged cheddar and sliced bacon. Loosely wrapped in aluminum foil and drizzled with pure maple syrup, sriracha, plus a bit of garlic and Old Bay infused mayonnaise the sandwich was much like everything else at Joe Beef, brash and unapologetic but at the same time nuanced and subtly sophisticated.
Lobster Spaghetti: The recipe goes a little something like this – A 1.25 lb. lobster, 0.25 lb. house made spaghetti, 2 slices diced bacon, 3 Tbsp Brandy, 0.25 cup peas, 0.25 cup 35% cream, 0.25 cup half-and-half cream, salt, pepper, chopped chives. The pasta is al dente, the lobster is snappy and sweet, and the sauce is the very definition of decadence – at $49 it is the most expensive item on the menu, but apparently also the most ordered…and for good reason.
Pistachio Financier – Maple Ice Cream: I was told by a friend that while APdC’s desserts are ‘hit and miss’ I should definitely save room for those at Joe Beef – and with that in mind we ordered three despite our server warning us that two of them were “big enough for two.” Beginning first with one of the two ‘larger’ desserts my photos really don’t do justice to how big this cake was, but at nearly eight inches in diameter and probably a half inch thick it was great – a thick sponge with great tooth already saturated with butter and almond paste but eager to soak up the creamy maple syrup and ice cream while pistachio granola added more texture. Always happy to overindulge in desserts this was exactly my ‘style’ – a standout of the trip.
Donamisu: Simply listed as Donamisu on the board I had to ask and when our waiter described it as a homemade Donut stuffed with tiramisu I had to order it – little did I know that it too would be enormous. Standing nearly as tall as wide and approximating the size of a softball this golden donut was literally bursting with espresso infuse mascarpone and topped off with a coffee cream, chocolate drizzles, and a crispy lady finger this was more a fork/spoon dessert than a true donut, though with a bit of rum soaking the base and sweetness present but restrained it was a pretty good take on the traditional dessert, and certainly could be portable if you were careful.
Potate Au Four: Yeah, this was on the dessert menu and although my French is lacking I was pretty sure a baked potato didn’t belong in this space on the chalkboard until I requested a description – and then ordered without hesitation. Truly designed to represent a garnished baked potato what arrived before us was again nearly the size of a softball and starting with a vanilla and cocoa nib meringue as the spud toppings were layered on including strawberry/vanilla twist soft serve, carrots confit in simple syrup, crispy mint, and a dense layer of Valrhona chocolate. A great meringue, almost a semifredo in texture, but perhaps a little overcomplicated and in my opinion the weakest of the desserts my mother and aunt both really liked this as a ‘lighter’ option to the donamisu and financier and in the end all three plates returned to the kitchen empty.
The Verdict: The place is loud, audacious, and cramped while the food is equally brazen and uncompromised but with servers that love their job and chefs who know the basics well enough to nail them yet also know themselves well enough to take chances there is a whole lot to love about Joe Beef. While some may say it is derivative of APdC I personally couldn’t imaging visiting Montreal again without dining at both because although the cuisine shares some similarity each is an entirely unique experience – Picard’s space a self-proclaimed “bastion of excess” while McMillan and Morin’s restaurant puts less emphasis on the audacity of each dish and more on experiencing their “Art of Living” inclusive of food, service, and setting.