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July 30 marked the last service at the most famous restaurant in the world, El Bulli. This 25-year-old monument to all things molecular was a groundbreaker of a restaurant, whose chefs, Ferran and Albert Adrià, quashed all the haute-cuisine rules. With the Adriàs, there was no right or wrong, two concepts that ruled the world of high-end cooking. Danish chef René Redzepi, a former El Bulli commis and owner of the highly inventive restaurant Noma, said of his experience there: “The courage and freedom to do what we do in Noma came from here. I thank El Bulli for helping free my imagination.”


So now that El Bulli is no more, we stand here palms facing upward wondering what’s next? How are today’s chefs going to channel all that courage, freedom and imagination that has them left shunning the French gastronomy format that became the international reference for fine dining, yet now seems as dated as a multi-layered vegetable-mousse appetizer?


The rules, now, are that there are no rules. The idea, it seems, is to avoid the predictable high-end format in favour of an intensely personal dining experience. Chefs like Redzepi, David Chang, Inaki Aizpitarte, and even Montreal’s Martin Picard are renowned not for offering the most intricate and luxurious cuisine but for doing things their way.


Right now the kings of doing things their way on our scene are Joe Beef’s chef-owners David McMillan and Frédéric Morin. I can’t think of two chefs in Montreal, Quebec or even Canada right now who are riding as big a wave of admiration. But it didn’t happen overnight.


Since opening in late 2005, Joe Beef has steadily evolved from a fun 30-seat restaurant – where you could suck back oysters with an obscure biodynamic muscadet before plunging into a plate of something decadent like lobster spaghetti – to a restaurant that’s drawing international food-press attention.


At 75 seats, Joe Beef 2011 is bigger and, as much as I’d be tempted to say better, I always thought the food was pretty great. It’s certainly more interesting. In the early days, the style was French retro, as in sole meunière and pot-au-feu. Now it feels unique, or as I heard someone recently describe it, “Joe Beefy.” There’s a playfulness to this food, which can range from truffled beer-can chicken to their version of the KFC double down made with foie gras. And as for what’s on your plate, the quality of ingredients is unparalleled. Shellfish is sourced on site in P.E.I., many vegetables and greens are grown behind the restaurant, and meat and fish are smoked in their homemade, backyard smoker.


Sitting on the restaurant’s back terrasse two weeks ago, I’m taken aback by the beauty of this Little Burgundy back-alley scene. To my right are plants galore – tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, radishes – grown in raised boxes. The covered terrasse is full, and behind me in the main restaurant, the ambience is buzzing. Recently expanded to incorporate the former McKiernan’s space, Joe Beef now includes a handsome oyster bar. With its old-world maritime decor, this 30-seat space with nautical prints, salmon harpoons and dark walls looks plucked straight out of Prouts Neck, Maine.


There’s no way to begin a meal here but with a platter of oysters because nobody does them better. Tonight, it’s Carr’s Malpeque oysters from P.E.I. and, with that, our incomparable waitress Vanya Filipovic pours us a Beneventano Fiano 2009. Served with fresh horseradish, mignonette and a few hot sauces, the oysters are gorgeously creamy and the wine is cold, crisp, and delicious. Is there any better start to a summer feast?


The highs carry on, with three gorgeous appetizers hitting the table, all presented on mismatched old-fashioned flowered plates. First, a pretty aioli plate consisting of jumbo shrimp, lobster, fried zucchini blossoms that were stuffed with ricotta, radishes, carrots, beans, tomatoes and a dollop of unctuous aioli flavoured with – but not overwhelmed by – a good hit of garlic. Aioli is all the rage these days, and this colourful assembly is my new reference.


Smooth-textured and highly seasoned, a rabbit sausage was brilliantly enhanced with Bing cherries and slices of golden Rainier cherries. Lovely. And I can still taste the sweet flavour of my third appetizer of succulent smoked scallops. Paired with pea tendrils and the season’s first corn, these smokey babies were set on a smooth sauce made with corn milk.


Mains were just as delectable. Fork-tender braised goat shoulder and neck meat was given a light curry treatment (any more would have been de trop), surrounded by peas and topped with garden greens. Another main featured the creamy fleshed hake wrapped in prosciutto and served in a brothy tomato sauce with new potatoes, peas and a few mussels alongside. And then a pasta, the oval-shaped cavatelli, with Swiss chard and Parmesan curls, the whole bathed in a rich veal stock. And I can’t leave out one of the tastiest dishes of the night: a mound of lettuces picked from the surrounding vegetable beds, dressed with the lightest, most simple of vinaigrettes. Like locavore nirvana, that salad …


Though the ingredients may be tableside, local, Québécois and Canadian, the wine list leans heavily toward France. The oft-changing blackboard listing features about 60 whites and 200 reds. The focus is old-world with an emphasis on Burgundy, Beaujolais, and wines that are, as McMillan says, “delicious, as often as possible organic or respectful of the process, low-alcohol, and little or no oak ... wines that have a great digestibility factor.” Prices can be steep, but as the bottles are all carefully chosen, this is the place to splurge.


Further proof that Joe Beef is hitting its stride is the quality of its desserts. These aren’t fancy “dessert sur assiettes” with tuiles, foams and crumbles, but modernized French classics with a nice sense of whimsy (such an overriding theme here). I can’t get enough of their signature marjolaine cake, which includes layers of ganache and cream, like pistachio and blueberry. Garnished with a swirl of Chantilly and red fruit, this cake would fit right in at Belle Époque Maxim’s. The lemon Bavarian is less frilly, but with a bright lemon flavour, a few delicate sugar cookies and a scattering of red fruit, it’s the ideal country club summer dessert.


And then there are the profiteroles, a dish that epitomizes to me what Joe Beef is all about. Last year, Morin acquired a soft serve ice cream machine and has been experimenting with it ever since. When I first tasted the soft serve, it was paired with salted caramel sauce. Fantastic! Since when has soft serve ever tasted this good? These days it’s flavoured with old rum and sandwiched in choux pastries to make profiteroles. Arranged in a pool of chocolate sauce, the choux were not only utterly scarfable but good fun.


Fun is a big part of the Joe Beef experience. There are no tasting menus or outré wine pairings here, and brace yourself, bourgeois gourmets, because the background music ranges from Édith Piaf to Jay-Z. But chances dinner here will be fun, something sorely lacking – frowned upon, even – in the upscale restaurant experience.


It’s interesting to note that the conventional four-star restaurants struggle these days to attract customers, while the foodies flock to Joe Beef, where you might even meet a winemaker, charcutier, wine agent or sommelier sitting next to you. This is the place that’s drawing the chef and foodie cliques. And when the Joe Beef cookbook is launched on Oct. 9, those local cliques will grow to international crowds.


With no tablecloths, square plates or amuse-bouches, and a menu listed on a blackboard, could Joe Beef represent the new breed of four-star restaurant?


Yes, sir. The food is bang-on, the service is unpretentious and sharp, the wine list would wow any serious connoisseur, and the setting is so utterly personal. Right now, nobody does “our way” better than Joe Beef.




(Courtesy of the Montreal Gazette)


I have been wanting to check this place out for 3-4 years now, I should totally go now.

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