Some people talk the talk. At Montreal’s Joe Beef, Chef/Owner David McMillan walks the walk. There aren’t many more truly Slow friendly restaurants in North America than Joe Beef, along with its sister restaurant and neighbor, Liverpool House. McMillan doesn’t do anything to attract attention to this though. He is skeptical of all organizations, preferring to simply do what he feels is right and what he feels comfortable doing. Recently, a customer complained that according to his smart phone app, McMillan was serving an “unsustainable species”, Atlantic halibut. McMillan, who hasn’t served tuna for 18 years and has never served swordfish because of concerns about their sustainability, responded that this particular halibut came from the line of a single fisherman who is one of only two licensees to fish a section of the Gaspe Peninsula and hat the fish is shipped directly to McMillan, who butchers it and shares it with two other restaurants. His feeling is that there is no more “sustainable” way of fishing than this.Joe Beef is located in the “Petite Bourgougne” or “Little Burgundy” section of Montreal in the western part of the city. An old, historic neighborhood that was home to people such as Oscar Peterson, the late renowned jazz pianist and is considered the oldest black neighborhood in North America, it is an area now subject to gentrification and attempts at relabeling. McMillan feels strongly that the history and character of the neighborhood needs to be preserved and his restaurants reflect that. They retain all the detail of the old buildings in which they reside. The buildings have been lovingly restored and maintained and are charming in the way only the truly authentic can be. The dining rooms are small and somewhat dark, but they exude character, warmth and ambiance. These are not restaurants that make on feel uncomfortable. McMillan is quite proud of being from Montreal and Quebec, which is reflected in his food sourcing. What he doesn’t grow himself, he sources locally, at least from within the Province. He does, however, grow quite a bit of his own produce in a garden behind the restaurant alongside an open air dining area. At the end of July, the garden was lush and full with tomatoes, strawberries, wormwood, pole beans, eggplants, herbs, carrots and much more. It is clearly lovingly and well maintained, an oasis within the city and even within the restaurant.
I came up to Montreal with my sons, L.J. And Andrew, for an evening at the end of July specifically to visit Joe Beef. I was familiar with Chef McMillan and his wonderful tradition based French Canadian cooking from the early part of the Millenium when he was cooking at Rosalie. His cooking grabbed me with its skill, honesty and wonderful deep flavors. The memories remain vibrant. Later in the decade, McMillan left Rosalie as well as the other restaurant that brought him to prominence, Globe, to open, along with partners Allison Cunningham and Frederic Morin, Joe Beef, a restaurant where, as he put it, “he enjoys coming to work.” At Joe Beef, McMillan feels that he can make exactly the kind of food that he enjoys making, hearty, tradition based, French Canadian fare using the best French Canadian ingredients. It had been a while since I had last been back to Montreal, though. To be precise, this was the first time I had been back since the Expos left for DC to become the Nationals. This was not an intentional avoidance, but between the loss of the incentive to go see my NY Mets up close when they were in town, the strengthening of the Canadian dollar and the increased time to cross the border, I simply hadn’t made the time for it – until now. If there was one restaurant in Montreal that I hadn’t been to before that compelled me to come visit, it was David McMillan’s Joe Beef.
Having driven from upstate NY, we arrived just prior to our 6:30PM reservation. Chef McMillan met us and took us on a quick tour of his properties from the smokehouse in the restaurant’s backyard, to the garden to the interiors of Joe Beef and The Liverpool House, a restaurant that McMillan feels is more of a neighborhood place than Joe Beef, serving more traditional Montreal fare with a – thanks to more US diners at Joe Beef – greater emphasis on offal and tertiary cuts of meat.
We returned to a lovely table in the spacious and comfortable outdoor dining patio in the rear of Joe Beef. The table was large, sturdy and painted an attractive pastel green. The décor of the room and the restaurant as a whole was charming and colorful, but with a very natural feel. This was not a slick design meant to emulate a certain style. It was its own idiosyncratic and totally charming and colorful place. A blackboard on a wall held the menu of the day. It was clearly going to be difficult to choose. While we were studying the board, we started with a refreshing summer cocktail of Campari, fresh lemonade and soda served in a Mason jar over crushed ice (McMillan is not a strict locavore when it comes to his bar and wine list, though even there his efforts at finding and serving excellent Quebec and other Canadian product is impressive).
Looking at the blackboard, we wanted to try it all, but there was too much there to realistically do that. There was too much to make the choices easy, so we took the easy way out and asked our waitress, Vanya, if the kitchen could put together a tasting menu for us. She agreed with a wide smile.
The food came out in waves with the first wave almost literally coming directly from the ocean. A platter of perfect Malpecque oysters from Prince Edward Island came out first and set the early tone. Served with lemon, freshly shaved horseradish and a lovely mignonette, these plump beauties slid down with sweet satisfaction. Murphy’s Irish stout was paired with the oysters. As we were busy downing the slippery bivalves, more shellfish from P.E.I arrived. Large cherrystone clams were prepared as a hot clams casino. Though I generally prefer an Italian style baked clam, these were hearty and tasty. The mussels were from the Magdalene Islands just off of P.E.I. Served cold, they were rapidly devoured.
The next wave incorporated more from the sea, but this time with more of a land based presence. The squash blossoms were stuffed with fresh ricotta, battered and fried so that they were essentially greaseless. They were, however, quite hot! I managed to burn my palate a bit, but no matter. They came with a veritable garden of julienned root vegetables as well as fennel, fresh peas, a nearly hard boiled egg and a lovely young garlic aioli. A couple of nice, blanched shrimp also added to the cornucopia. The rabbit rilletes were served with pickled cherries and small potato rolls. The smoked scallops with a local corn vinaigrette harbored just the right amount of smoke and acidity. This was a particularly wonderful dish. These morsels were washed down with 2009 Closson Chase, a delightfully crisp, un-oaked Chardonnay from Prince Edward County, Ontario. This wine was quite a nice surprise. I enjoyed its freshness and crispness. Drinking it with the smoked scallops added some of the smokiness that made it taste as if the wine had kissed some oaken barrels, but it did not go overboard. It is wine surprises like this that has rightfully contributed to the restaurant’s reputation as having a superb, off-the-beaten track wine list.
Beaujolais is a very misunderstood wine region. Just south of Burgundy and north of the Rhone, Beaujolais has become known in recent decades mostly for it’s fruity, punch-like Beaujolais Nouveau’s, which are released immediately after vinification. While they can be pleasant and are inexpensive, they overshadow the real pleasures of the region, the Cru Beaujolais, such as the 2007 Morgon that was paired with our next dishes. These still fruity, but age worthy wines are relatively low in alcohol, have excellent acid backbones and tend to be extremely food friendly. Served with a salad direct from the gardens around us as well as a dish of pork belly with a duck egg and carrots, this wine showed its extreme versatility.
By this time we were starting to get full, but the next platter showed us no mercy. McMillan’s spaghetti with lobster took no prisoners. At least two pounds of cracked lobster with easily pickable lobster meat along with fresh peas and a lobster cream sauce showed just how much fun getting beaten up by food can be. This was decadent and delicious. We had to surrender! The chardonnay from the Jura was an excellent accompaniment.
Our beautiful light was fading and darkness was approaching. As full as we were, we had to try dessert. The beignets with smoked cheddar and maple syrup was surprisingly savory, but that was rather nice. The marjolaine of pistachio, blueberry and chocolate was elegant and satisfying. The grandest of the three desserts though was the sweet corn sundae, which used the first of the season Quebec corn as a corn flavored soft serve ice cream with caramel corn, corn creme anglaise and confit corn. Surprisingly, it wasn’t over the top sweet, which was rather nice as well. With this we were served a delightfully well balanced, low alcohol (9%) Reisling Auslese from Karthauserhofberg in Germany. We were literally ready to roll.
It’s ironic that such an iconic French Canadian dining experience could come from a restaurant with an Anglo name (Joe Beef was named as an homage to Charles “Joe Beef” McKiernan, a 19th century Montreal working class hero and innkeeper) and a chef with one to boot. It is not ironic, though, that Chef David McMillan and his crew have such a passion for Montreal, Quebec and Canada and that passion shines through an extraordinary dining experience with food that, broadcast as such or not, is the epitome of “good, clean and fair.” To get a sense of Montreal at its finest, visit Joe Beef. If that is not possible, one can get a better sense of the place through the upcoming book: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts.