Joe Beef in Montreal is an antidote to tiny exotic portions and obsequious waiters
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An older woman,
maybe 70 or so and very Anglo, walked into Joe Beef the other day as the restaurant staff prepared for the dinner rush. “If only your outside was as nice as your inside,” she sniffed to no one in particular. “I mean, the inside is great, but the outside needs some... sprucing up.” Chef Fréderic Morin looked up from his notepad and considered her squarely. “Actually, I like it the way it is. You know what? Take it or leave it,” he said, going back to his notes. She took it. It’s not like she had much choice. Anyone wanting a table (or gift certificates, in her case) at the unapologetically decadent Montreal eatery these days must contend with something unfamiliar to those spending $300 on dinner: a menu of familiar staples served up by a staff willing, even eager, to talk smack.
“The customer is not always right here,” says co-chef David MacMillan, standing outside Joe Beef’s (yes, decidedly humble) Notre Dame Street storefront in Little Burgundy. MacMillan is a giant, tattooed slab of a man with meaty arms and a massive head. He has cooked at a slew of swishy St. Laurent restaurants, including Globe, Bueno Notte and Rosalie. “On St. Laurent, it was always, ‘Yes, sir, yes sir.’ Now, it’s like, ‘We don’t f-k with you if you don’t f-k with us.’ ” He and his partners, Morin and Allison Cunningham, opened the restaurant two years ago as an antidote to what might be described as the city’s square-plate cuisine: tiny, exotic portions that are almost too pretty to eat. Only the wine list is extensive. If you want gin, it’s going to be Hendrick’s; only one vodka is on the menu, and don’t you dare order it by the bottle. “Everything was fine on St. Laurent Street until bottle service,” MacMillan laments. “All of a sudden we had 30018-year-olds drink-
ing vodka till three in the morning.”
The food, meanwhile, is just plain big. Morin and MacMillan are contemporaries of Martin Picard, the chef and culinary hedonist at Au Pied de Cochon, and it shows. Portions are proudly outsized, right down to the hors d’oeuvres plate brimming with oysters from Rhode Island and Raspberry Point, P.E.I. The steak is larded with the salty, roughhewn flavour of grass-fed beef; the lobster pasta, a menu staple since Joe Beef opened its doors, is a near-overpowering attack of cream, cheese and tender crustacean.
The trio have since taken the Joe Beef aesthetic next door to McKiernan’s, a wine bar and takeout joint, and Liverpool House, a similarly themed, though ostensibly more Italian, restaurant. Why the expansion? “Because we have a phone that keeps f-king ringing,” says McKiernan’s manager Donna Colmenero.
Joe Beef himself might have been proud, though he probably would have tut-tutted the prices. Born Charles McKiernan in Cavan County, Ireland, McKiernan was a British army general whose brigade was stationed in Montreal in 1864His men nicknamed him Joe Beef for his ability to find them food and shelter. After his discharge from the British army he opened the Crown and Sceptre Tavern, commonly known as Joe Beef’s
Canteen, in the Griffintown neighbourhood of Montreal. The tavern quickly became a boozy respite for the mostly Irish and French workers blasting out the Lachine Canal. McKiernan kept a pickled scrap of meat behind the bar, allegedly pulled from the gullet of a dead patron, as a reminder to properly chew one’s food. He also kept a beer-guzzling bear on the premises; Joe Beef’s Canteen was the only place in town, temperance enthusiasts observed, where alcohol turned both man into beast and beast into man.
Today, vestiges of the old, tougher-than-thou Joe Beef have been reincarnated. A filthy chalkboard serves as a menu. The bathroom doors once belonged to a barn. Lobster claws are draped behind the bar. There is also a $10,000 Peter Hoffer painting hanging on the wall, and the lobster bisque is $18. This might be Little Burgundy, nearly as destitute now as Griffintown was back then, but as MacMillan points out with evident glee, “We’re just a trickle down Atwater Street from Westmount.”
As if on cue, one of Joe Beef’s regulars stops in front of MacMillan, and the two shake hands through the window of his $80,000 SUV. “I was serving that guy at Globe since I was 22 years old,” MacMillan says afterward, shaking his head. He used to party a little too hard, MacMillan says. Now he is on his best behaviour whenever he sets foot in Joe Beef— which has earned him what passes for respect in the chef’s eyes. “He’s a moron, but he’s a nice guy.”
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