Chef-owners of Joe Beef, David McMillan and Frédéric Morin spent several years developing menus and running kitchens that made the group of restauranteurs who own such Montreal supper-clubs as Rosalie's and Globe very successful. In 2005 the two decided to leave the supper-club scene behind and do things their way. Along with their third partner, Alisson Cunningham, they opened Joe Beef on Notre-Dame street in Little Burgundy across from the Corona theatre. The location was small, approximately 30 seats plus the bar, and slightly off the beaten path but it was in very close proximity to the bounty and inspiration of the Atwater market.
The chef-owned food-centric restaurant concept that dominates tiny Montreal dining rooms today was few and far between at the time. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part restaurants were extremely high budget high startup operations, heavy on the decor and food-cost with tons of investors and silent partners capable of funding the endeavors. Then, along came Joe Beef and changed the game. The weekly changing and ever revolving blackboard menu was born and enabled the ability to truly take advantage of seasonality from both a freshness and cost perspective. At Joe Beef the simplicity and beauty of appetizers like charcuterie or smoked and pickled fish plates made a comeback alongside more quirky playful items like fried buffalo frogs legs with blue cheese sauce. Main dishes of offal became popular again. Rognons (kidneys) in mustard sauce, sweetbreads, or shepherds pie made from ground ox heart would often appear but always be balanced with some more universally appealing, instant classic dishes that remain on the menu to this day like the enormous rib steak for 2 and famous lobster spaghetti. Classic desserts like waffles, crepes suzette and homemade profiteroles and eclairs were made from scratch and served with pride. And so began the restaurant scene we have in Montreal today, chefs cooking the food they themselves want to eat for their clients, a movement of trusting the chef. Looking back on it now it seems so logical, but someone had to take the risk, take the first step and say "this is the menu tonight and it may not be the same tomorrow, trust our judgment". In Montreal - that was Joe Beef.
As their popularity grew, Joe Beef took the opportunity over the coming years to expand. They eventually took over the neighboring addresses as they became available and opened two new restaurants, Liverpool House and McKiernan. Recently, McKiernan was closed and merged with Joe Beef increasing the flagship name's seating capacity inside and out on their lovely covered terrasse in the garden. Sourcing local ingredients and going straight to the source has been taken to another level here. As much of their own produce as they can possibly grow and cultivate for their menu comes from the garden behind the restaurant. They're smoking their own meat and fish in the smoker they built out back, and the seafood, particularly the oysters are sourced directly from producers in small batches to ensure freshness. Not to mention their marvelous wine list; at Joe Beef they take pride in private imports and sourcing from vineyards producing wines with a lot of character. The list is hand picked from suppliers they make efforts to create personal relationships with, and selections offered in the dining room are always well thought out by the bottle and by the glass. Saying they have a knack for putting together wine lists that would impress any connoisseur and please any palate would be a severe understatement.
We visited Joe Beef this weekend in celebration of our anniversary. We were looking for a restaurant to really embrace the occasion and Joe Beef's charm fit the bill perfectly. We were seated at the bar in the space that used to be McKiernan. In many restaurants you might consider the bar to be a second class seat, but at Joe Beef it is one of the best spots you can ask for. The staff at Joe Beef are friendly and knowledgeable as can be, and when you're sitting at the bar they're always within arms reach; happy to help you with wine and menu suggestions, shuck a few oysters or share a good laugh. We equate the atmosphere of sitting at the bar at Joe Beef with the kitchen table at your mothers house, the nucleus of entertaining and good conversation. We settled in and ordered a nice robust bottle of red, a Touraine Franc du Côt-Lié, and a couple of appetizers. Our meal began with a jellied egg with bone marrow and toast and an aioli platter.
The jellied egg was a soft boiled egg that ran slightly when you cut through it with the side of your fork. The egg was encased in a crystal clear but deeply flavored aspic gelatin that had a brunoise of bone marrow suspended in it. The dish was garnished with a smear of aioli, frawns of fresh dill, chervil, shaved summer truffle and a few pieces of toast. It was a very elegantly presented and well balanced dish with its fatty decadence from the yolk and marrow tamed by its cold temperature. The aioli plate was splendid as well, green and yellow beans, beets, fennel, celery, carrots, cauliflower, tomato, soft boiled egg, cold poached halibut and a fried zucchini blossom were all cut and seasoned just enough to make the already fresh-as-can-be bounty on the plate pop. In the center of the dish was a little terra-cotta looking pot full of a sharp but not too garlicky aioli for dipping. This is the type of dish that can only go two ways, that is to say really well or really badly. The same simplicity that can be it's biggest asset can easily become its biggest liability if even one element falls below par. Fortunately not only was this aioli plate a hit, it was a home run. Sitting at the bar in good company eating our jellied egg and aioli plate and sipping our wine was one of those moments where you sit in a restaurant in complete content, smiling from ear to ear thinking to yourself "this is living". Our order hit the spot to say the least, perfect cold dishes on a warm night, already happy as can be knowing that the best was yet to come.
Jellied Egg, Bone Marrow, Toast - 13$
Aioli Plate - 16$
Our first main was a mammoth sized portion of halibut seared hard and golden-brown on the outside and perfectly cooked tender on the inside. It was served on a pile of noodles and leeks over a light cream sauce that was very well seasoned, the plate was garnished with chervil and shaved truffle. The taste of the fish mixed with cream and noodles initially evoked a familiarity from childhood of mother's tuna casserole but we can assure you no tuna casserole our moms or your mom ever made was this good; you can take that to the bank. The nostalgic flavor profile was elevated infinitely by combining expert execution and a gorgeously cooked piece of elegant halibut. It made for a dish that really hit the nail on the head for us.
Halibut, Leeks, Noodles, Truffle - 36$
Our second main was sweetbreads done in the style of schnitzel Holstein, that is to say, breaded, pan fried and served covered with a fried egg and anchovies. Not to be outdone by our halibut, the sweetbread was served as an equally enormous and generous portion perched on a pile of rich buttery mashed potato and an intense demi glace sauce studded with lardons. The sweetbread was creamy and perfectly soft inside with a crisp breaded exterior and topped with a fried egg, which is pretty much never a bad idea. The anchovies laid over top of the egg were salty and punched through the stick to your ribs flavor of the dish. We used the potatoes as a medium with which to soak up as much of the tasty demi glace beneath as possible.
Schnitzel "Holstein" - 38$
After our mains we took a pause to enjoy the last of our bottle of wine and have conversation with the young man behind the bar shucking oysters and slicing ham. It was a moment of bliss after having indulged in an absolutely flawless meal and our spirits were as high as could be. We were having difficulty deciding between ordering a peach and donut dessert or profiteroles. Ultimately we went with the peach and donut option but when the dish arrived there were two profiteroles added to the plate. "I knew you couldn't decide so I asked the kitchen to add a couple of profiteroles to your dish so you can try them anyway" our waiter said. Talk about making the customer happy, now that is service. A business owner can never put a value on the positive result of such a small demonstration of unsolicited generosity, it leaves the customer with a lasting impeccable impression on service. Staff that understands things like this are few and far between, they are the people who go the extra mile and usually choose to work in establishments of this calibre precisely because they take pride in the work they do, and it shows at the table.
Our dessert looked striking, a tender, airy, house made glazed donut was cut in half and filled with soft-serve vanilla ice cream (yes, they have a soft-serve ice cream machine too). It was served alongside sweet and juicy, perfectly ripe peach slices and topped with a sprinkling of candied currants. The profiteroles were very classic choux pastry filled with more soft-serve ice cream and served with a side car of chocolate sauce to drizzle over top, they were twisted with the addition of the flavor of ginger. Nothing we ordered at Joe Beef disappointed and neither did the dessert. Truly a fantastic way to end a spectacular meal.
Donut, Peach, Currants, Soft-Serve - 10$
Named for a legendary 19th century innkeeper in Montreal, Joe Beef is living up to the name it bears offering their clients top notch hospitality. They have certainly been instrumental in the movement to revive their corner of Little Burgundy and breathed new life into a part of our city with a lot of historical significance. The restaurant sits amongst the antique shops on Notre-Dame where astute shoppers search for treasures fabricated in a time when quality and integrity were paramount, it seems appropriate for Joe Beef to coexist amongst these antique shops since those same qualities can be attributed to the impeccable food and service in this world class establishment. We are happy to give Joe Beef a wholehearted recommendation to anybody looking for an outstanding and honest dining experience, and would certainly urge you to make it part of your travel plans if you are visiting or vacationing in Montreal. Also, don't forget to keep an eye out for The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts which hits stores October 2011.
2491 Notre-Dame West