Joe Beef: A Philosophy of Quebec Cuisine

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Montreal remains the place where I feel most at home. It is a city with simple aspirations; it is a city focused on quality, local food prepared in an avante garde culinary style. People in Quebec appreciate wine, soft lighting, conversation at dinner, laughter and sensuality. It is a city that has changed my life purpose three times and influenced how I live with more with every visit. The past two nights were no exception, yet exceptional nonetheless.

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My usual destination in Montreal is Martin Picard’s Au Pied Du Cochon on Duluth Street, but for this visit we chose to try our luck with Joe Beef, the brainchild of David MacMillan and Frederic Morin. A favourite with superstar chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain, Joe Beef has the street cred to make it worth a three month ahead reservation.

What was it like? Nothing like we expected, but beautiful in its darkness and lush food. First, I hope you read French. The ever-changing chalkboard menu is wholly francophonic, and difficult to see in the evening lights. Secondly, one needs a sense of adventure, a trust in your waiter, and a willingness to try new flavours. Our dinner consisted of 8 maritime oysters in the raw, two sea urchin, a pork and chicken tender terrine served next to a slab of perfectly chilled foie gras, a New Brunswick lake trout in a salty mortadella sauce, a large filet of cheval, and a side of Parmesan frites. I was also shamed into a whimsical peppermint soft serve ice cream on molten chocolate cake. Two bottles of Bourgogne wine and two of the better cafe Americano I have had in a long time. Final bill: $350.

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A visit to Joe Beef is not just about the food. A visit to this minor Mecca is about coming to understand a food philosophy and flavour palette that one cannot find in Toronto, New York or Chicago. The fact that horse meat was on the menu and lauded by the waiter as the best food in the house, would never be supported in a town where people are disconnected from their food and its sources. How many places serve chicken, beef and fish from parts unknown? Joe Beef knows the horse is from Pennsylvania, and the arguments for its consumption in recent Globe and Mail articles are compelling. The flavour falls between beef for texture and pork for flavour complexity. I will not crave cheval in my dreams, but it was a transformational dish in terms of how I interpret flavours for my own cooking style.

In relation to that, the reason for a food photographer and home cook to visit a restaurant like Joe Beef is to experience how food can be prepared honestly and simply. The terrine chaude was my favourite dish. I had never thought to warm a terrine, and this one was perfect in its composition. In contrast to the heavenly foie gras in a cool, classic sauce, the terrine made me want to prepare my own version this week; to build a family recipe for posterity and years of expectant enjoyment.

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We drank Burgundy region wines, as they were suggested in the Joe Beef restaurant book, and I could certainly see how their simple, clean flavours work with the rich, salty, complex flavours in the food. In the end, Joe Beef is a one time visit for me. I get it, I loved it, and it was worth the money; I simply prefer the gluttony and Gargantuan nature of Au Pied du Cochon more. Life is short; eat what you dream of in the darkest of Winter nights.

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From a different perspective, and after a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s Deli, we decided to stay at The Fairmont’s Les Voyageurs Bar for dinner on the second night. Partly due to getting a slight chill while trekking up Mont Royal, and partly due to a $100 credit from hitting Platinum status on 2013’s trips out West and Ottawa, we stayed inside this classic hotel from the train era. After a dozen oysters from the PEI bay where I bought property next to this year we went with a cheese plate of Quebec cheeses accompanied by an absolutely perfect bottle of Quebec white wine. The price was a reasonable $150, and the experience was matched with our expectations: good hotel food from the locality.

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Our final moments this morning were spent lingering over coffee, cheap Bordeaux and a wickedly rich collection of French pastry, baguettes filled with smoked salmon and a feuillete containing a bechamel and ham centre. Perhaps that is what Montreal offers: multiple, magnificent moments unlike anywhere else. These were moments welcome and stolen from a cold winter season.

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