Montreal is quickly becoming known for its vibrant food scene as Quebec’s distinct local culture is being celebrated throughout its many eateries. Living and eating well are paramount there and often a meal in Montreal becomes a feast. The culinary heritage has its roots in France of course, but with the benefit of a uniquely Canadian influence, dining out in Montreal can be truly magical.
One of the most celebrated restaurants in Canada is Joe Beef. Taking its namesake from an irish-born 19th century tavern owner who catered to the working class and the down and out. The Joe Beef of yesteryear served labourers, beggers, longshoremen, sailors and ex army men with easy service and most surprisingly, “a menagerie of wild animals.” Joe Beef current day is a massively popular restaurant serving whimsical French market cuisine to locals and vistors alike in the not-so-quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Little Burgundy. The animals are gone, for the most part (the washroom boasts a bison…).
Since 2005, Owners Frédéric Morin, David McMillan and Allison Cunningham, have transformed a small street just north of the Saint Lawrence into a bonafide culinary destination. Joe Beef is well regarded, popular, and often fully booked. In order to keep up with the influx of diners, The Joe Beef team opened Liverpool House (a tavern) and McKiernan (a luncheonette since closed) within the same block.
A mid-autumn road trip to Montreal called for some quality cuisine and I was lucky enough to score reservations for Joe Beef. I could not have been more excited.
If Joe Beef has anything, it’s personality. The decor is eclectic, in a ‘found-and-meaningful objects’ way. The walls are lined with wainscotting, subway tiles and a hodge-podge of collectibles and old maps. Chalkboard menus spell out the evening’s offerings, changing weekly and featuring five or six new dishes at a time. Renowned for a number of things, (rustic decor, oysters placed on inedible objects, liberal use of foie and seasonal ingredients) the Joe Beef kitchen creates whimsical dishes with intense flavour.
We were seated at a table on the heated back patio overlooking the impressive garden. A Series of raised planters and garden beds provide fresh vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. A DIY smoker in the backyard allows the chef to serve home made, house smoked, homegrown and thoughtful dishes with an artisan approach. Joe Beef is all about the locally sourced and seasonal and having relationships with the purveyors, as well as top notch hospitality.
Unassuming, cabin-life decor, comfortable with decedent eats; Joe Beef is on any gourmands must-dine list, and is a true testament to the spirit of Montreal. If you cannot manage the trip check out The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts.
Duck Steak au Poivre ala Joe Beef
This is the kind of dish that used to be prepared tableside in Montreal chophouses.
1 large duck breast half, about 15 ounces (420 g)
1 tablespoon black or green peppercorns, crushed in a mortar until somewhere between whole and powder
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped French shallot
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon brined green peppercorns, drained and patted dry
2 tablespoons Cognac
½ cup (125 ml) beef shank stock
¼ cup (60 ml) whipping cream (35% butterfat)
Remove the skin from the duck breast by running a sharp knife between the skin and the meat, lifting the skin away from the meat with your fingers. This is a detailed, annoying task, similar to unwrapping a new dishwasher. When you’ve separated the two, you can set the skin aside to use for a confit.
Cover the meat with plastic wrap and pound it with a rolling pin or the side of a giant cleaver until it is flattened by about 20 per cent. Lightly score the meat to prevent retracting. Rub one side of the duck steak with the black peppercorns to season it, and salt the other side.
Heat a nice (you’re serving tableside, remember?) pan over medium-high heat. Let it get quite hot, add the oil, and when it is hot, add the steak. Cook, turning once, for 1½ minutes on each side.
Take the steak to a plate and set aside. Pour off any fat from the pan, and then wipe it clean.
Put the pan over medium heat, add the butter and sweat the shallots for 4 or 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the mustard, green peppercorns and Cognac, and mix for 30 seconds. Add the stock and reduce until almost syrupy, about 2 minutes. Add the cream and mix well, taste and adjust the seasoning, then reduce for a full 2 minutes. If you reduce the sauce too much, add stock or water, not cream.
Return the steak to the pan and toss it in the sauce for a few seconds on each side. Serve on a silver tray with the sauce and fries on the side.
You could also tie two small duck breasts together, flesh to flesh, and raost them in the pan for 3 min per side then finish in a 425F 220C oven for 4 minutes.
(From: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef , published by Ten Speed Press)