Joe Beef is putting Canada on the global foodie radar, writes Jill Dupleix.
Joe Beef was recently named best restaurant in Canada for 2013 by Canadian travel website vacay.ca, but there's no point in trying to congratulate the two owners.
"What? Really?" says one, Frederic Morin. "No one is the best," says the other, David McMillan, rather crossly. "It's the wrong way to look at things."
We're sitting in the leafy kitchen garden out back of Joe Beef and I'm wishing I'd never mentioned it.
"I don't know why we were chosen as the best," says Morin. "It's more stressful, because there'll be higher expectations. I'm already thinking about how we're going to change."
Morin and McMillan's contrary, pernickety, tell-it-like-it-is attitude is, in fact, why their small French-Canadian Montreal bistro has gained a cult following in just eight years. Along with the fact they tend to feed you your own body weight in Colville Bay oysters and champagne, charcoal rib steak and burgundy, foie gras, asparagus, truffles and handmade cheeses before you can say "just a salad, thanks".
"Ha! Yes, we're a little insecure and feed people too much, but it's fine, Quebec can handle meals like that," McMillan says. "When people leave Joe Beef, I want them to feel full, drunk, happy, horny. I want them to feel French Quebec warmth, and I want them to feel like they own part of Joe Beef."
Since the pair opened in the then-ungentrified Petite-Bourgogne district in 2005, they've been on telly with Anthony Bourdain, written for David Chang and Peter Meehan's cult food magazine Lucky Peach, and launched a no-holds-barred best-selling cook book, The World According to Joe Beef. They've also doubled their dining size, grown a magnificent kitchen garden out the back, opened a bubbly bistro called Liverpool House just two doors down, and most recently, a wine bar, Le Vin Papillon, two doors down from that.
The restaurant's name pays homage to Charles "Joe Beef" McKiernan, a colourful 19th-century Montreal innkeeper who refused service to no one; catered to a crowd of longshoremen, canal labourers, sailors, beggars, odd-job men, and various undesirables; and kept a menagerie on the premises, including 10 monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine, an alligator, and four bears, one of whom reputedly consumed 20 pints of beer a day. For most restaurateurs, that would be a hard act to follow, but Morin and McMillan are giving it their best shot. Both are big characters in more ways than one, although Morin has recently whittled off 18 kilograms through a highly evolved regime of exercise and (relatively) sensible eating, and McMillan has taken up boxing.
"It's important if we still want to consume food and wine in a restaurant fashion, that we be fit," he says.
For anyone who has ever sat through a 10-course degustation of delicate dibs and dabs in the "best" restaurant in town and gone home wondering what the fuss was all about, eating at Joe Beef is bucket-list material. It's not delicate, and there are no dibs and dabs. Instead, it's French bourgeois cooking at its simple, celebratory best; big-plate, full-glass, cover-the-table, elbow-to-elbow, meet-thy-neighbour dining that raises a rude finger to the current food memes of Nordic cool and techy Spanish.
Everything from the spaghetti and lobster and pork hash to the cornflake eel nuggets and ham in maple syrup reflects the very best of Quebecois produce and the character of Montreal's culinary traditions, with patrons willingly treading a fine line between massive over-indulgence and death-by-cheese.
"Restaurants are getting too clever," Morin says. "If people had the same urge to be creative with wine as they do with food, it would be undrinkable".
McMillan echoes that. "We built this place for the people. Anyone who doesn't understand that misses the point."
Joe Beef, 2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montreal, see joebeef.ca.
The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.