If Schwartz’s was one of the places I knew I was going to be eating at in Montreal, Joe Beef was the other. This is literally true: I had a dinner reservation; it is, they say, the hardest reservation in town but we secured it a while ago, once participation in the conference I was attending was confirmed (dining with me were my four friends on my panel, three of whom I had gone to graduate school with and one of whom lives in Montreal). Even a few months out, and even on a Thursday night, the best we could get for a party of five was a table at 9.30. When we arrived the restaurant was packed, the party before us was dawdling, and we were not seated till 10. This gave a couple of us a chance to scan and slowly translate the menu (more on this below) while the rest waited outside (there’s not much space inside for waiting, which made me wonder what people do when it’s really cold outside).
While we were waiting a few walk-in solo diners and one couple were seated at the bar in the second dining room. If you’re a first-timer though, as four of us were, you need to go in a group of at least four people. This because the menu is over-the-top in every possible way and in order to be able to eat a fair amount of it you need a lot of people to split dishes. If you get one appetizer and main not only will you be consumed with sadness over all the things you didn’t eat, you will also either overeat terribly or waste food (the portions are massive and the cooking is, shall we say, rich).
But before getting to what we did order and share let me back up a little bit for the benefit of readers who don’t follow the North American restaurant scene. Despite its flip name, Joe Beef is one of the most renowned restaurants in North America, often deemed the best in Canada.They are named, in case you’re wondering, for a 19th century tavern keeper, philanthropist and resident of the working class neighourhood the restaurant is located in. It was opened just about 10 years ago by chef-owners, David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, expanding to about twice the original (tiny) size about five years ago (it’s still not very large), and its reputation and influence have been outsize pretty much ever since.
In the era of molecular gastronomy and New Nordic cuisine, Joe Beef serves classic French bistro cuisine (well, sort of). There are no chemistry sets here—at least none whose possible kitchen existence can be deduced from what’s on the plate—and there’s no cutesiness in the plating, nothing that makes you think that it works better as an idea than as something to eat. I don’t mean to suggest though that they are swimming quixotically against the high end tide: for one thing, they’re in Montreal where classic French cooking is likely more the norm than anywhere else in North America; for another, they are known for sending out massive amounts (in calories and sheer tonnage) of meat, and that’s never going to be an unfashionable proposition in North America.
In other ways as well the restaurant’s approach is in keeping with current fine dining trends: it is a very informal space, it is loud (diners and music), and service is quite relaxed in nature. The menu and wine list are scrawled in chalk on a large blackboard that takes up an entire wall in the first room (for all I know there’s another in the other room) and though I don’t know how often it changes, I don’t envy whoever it is that has to update it. (The menu is also in French and unless you’re familiar with French food words it could potentially take a long time to figure out what you want to eat—the staff are happy to translate, however.) They’re also known for their cocktails and the food is served on crockery that is idiosyncratic (and sometimes also chipped). So it’s not like a meal here is some sort of anachronistic proposition.
Still, Joe Beef serve things you’re not going to see on too many menus at other high end places that share their overall aesthetic (if not their allegiance to French tradition): hare, elk and, famously, horse are mainstays on the menu; this last, I believe, is not common even in Montreal (in the USA, of course, it’s not available anywhere and may not even be allowed) and is part of their mystique: Joe Beef is where you go for no-holds barred food, where foie gras is deployed with almost alarming abandon, where excess is flavoured with a bit of transgression and only reined in by classic technique. And no, it’s not a restaurant for vegetarians: there are a lot of delicious vegetables on almost every plate but no vegetarian dishes.
If you’re not a vegetarian, however, you really are in luck: the food at our meal was amazing, more than living up to all the foodie hype. For what we ate click on an image below to launch a larger slideshow with captions. I have to apologize for the low quality of the images of this amazing food. Our table was in a very dark corner of the restaurant and these pictures were taken on my camera’s highest ISO setting; the darkness also defeated my attempts to set the white balance and so I had to try and correct the bluish tint after the fact. I have to apologize as well for the paucity of detail. I wasn’t as focused at this meal on asking about components and techniques as I otherwise might be.
As you might be able to tell from the captions, this was, hands down, the best meal I’ve had so far this year (beating out Piccolo’s fifth anniversary dinner) and probably in a long time. And everyone in our group thought the food was great, including two who are not usually very adventurous eaters (one of them had oysters for the first time at this meal) and certainly not foodies. I was allowed a fair bit of leeway with the ordering with the occasional veto (escargot) but I think if we were to go back there’d be no demurring at all.
And this brings me to the other remarkable aspect of this meal: it was, relatively speaking, a very good deal. We were five full-grown men with good appetites and this was more than enough food for us; indeed we struggled to finish the last pieces of the steak and lamb. I will note, however, that on account of the late start of our dinner we’d been drinking a lot of beer elsewhere, and on account of already having consumed a fair bit of alcohol before we got to the restaurant we restricted ourselves to one (not very expensive) bottle of wine plus a cocktail for the non-wine drinking member of our party. And we didn’t get dessert (we were completely sated). With these caveats in mind, with taxes and a generous tip this meal came to $80 US/head. Even with another bottle of wine plus some desserts we would have just about cleared $100/head.
Neither is or would be a cheap meal but for what we ate it is remarkable (half what we paid per head at Shunji in December). You can spend as much in Minneapolis (or any other American city) for a meal at a name restaurant that will be a fifth to half as good using ingredients that will seem substandard by comparison: these were some of the best oysters I have ever eaten, probably the best lobster I have ever eaten (and the entire goddamned lobster was on the plate), steak up there with the best I’ve eaten, other-worldly lamb, and there was a veritable bucket of foie gras in the parfait. And we didn’t clear $80/head. I don’t know anything about the economics of the restaurant scene in Montreal but if we lived there we could actually afford to eat there once a month. It’s no wonder reservations are so hard to get.
So, if you’re going to Montreal and will have friends in tow, or even otherwise, I guess, try to get a reservation at Joe Beef. You’ll be happy.