Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Joe Beef

Joe Beef

"Joe Beef? Joe Beef?!?" Yes, Joe Beef is back.

Joe Beef was originally the nickname of one Charles McKiernan. McKiernan came to Montreal in 1864, a British officer who was stationed in the city's garrison on Ile Ste-Helene. He had served in the Crimean War and had picked up his sobriquet because of his uncanny ability to find food for himself and those around him in even the most adverse conditions. He ran the canteen on Ile Ste-Helene from 1864 until he was discharged 1868, at which point he started up the establishment that would make him in/famous across much of North America: Joe Beef's Canteen (201-207 rue de la Commune). McKiernan was an iconoclast, a figure whose force of character was monumental, a rogue to some, and a hero to many others. His policy of never refusing a poor man a meal, "no matter who he is, whether English, French, Irish, Negro, Indian, or what religion he belongs to," made him an idol to the working class and underclass, but the "impropriety" of such an environment simultaneously made him perhaps Montreal's most detested individual, a public enemy to Montreal's social set. What made him even more of a threat to the elite classes were his anticlericalism ("He cares not for Pope, Priest, Parson or King William of the Boyne; all Joe wants is the Coin. He trusts in God in the summertime to keep him from all harm; when he sees the first frost and snow poor old Joe trusts to the Almighty Dollar and good old maple wood to keep his belly warm, for Churches, Chapels, Ranters, Preachers and such stuff Montréal has already got enough.") and his radical pro-labor views (culminating in his support of the 10-day Lachine Canal laborers' strike over Christmas 1877). Adding to the sense of mystery that surrounded McKiernan was his basement menagerie, which included "four black bears, ten monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine and an alligator," according to one source, and apparently one of the bears was brought up into the tavern from time to time "to restore order." When his wife died, McKiernan chose an assortment of the strangest, most exotic critters from his collection and had them pull the hearse through the city streets. The "incorrigible Joe" did things on his own terms and he managed to make them work because of his sharp business sense and his impressive self-sufficiency (which included a farm where he raised his own livestock). When he died in 1889, while his detractors continued to demonize him ("For 25 years he has enjoyed in his own way the reputation of being for Montréal the wickedest man. His saloon was the resort of the most degraded men. It was the bottom of the pit, a sort of cul-de-sac where thieves could be corralled".), Joe Beef received one of the largest funerals of the century. His establishment (some semblance of it, in any case) remained in operation for almost another 100 years, until it finally closed 1982.

Joe Beef's Tavern may be nothing but a distant memory at this point in time, but as of a few months now, there's a new Joe Beef on the scene. This time around Joe Beef is not exactly a teeming Old Port tavern--it's a small bistro and bar located on a gentrified stretch of Notre Dame, directly across the street from the Corona Theatre--but the memory of Charles McKiernan has hardly been invoked in vain. The atmosphere is warm, laid-back and convivial, the decor is retro and eclectic without being precious, and the portions and cuisine are generous. With much to recommend about Joe Beef, two things stood out: the oyster bar and the sirloin steak. On the night we visited, Joe Beef had 4 oysters on offer, including Caraquets, "Jumbos," and an Irish variety. At $3 a pop they weren't cheap, but they looked amazing, we were in the mood, and we'd never had Irish oysters, so we gave them a try. When the resident oyster shucker behind the bar struck up a conversation with us regarding that night's offerings, we were glad we had. Turns out Mr. Oyster Shucker is a real, honest-to-goodness oysterman, that he imports all their oysters himself, and that he has personal contact with all the oyster harvesters the restaurant deals with. You could taste it in the oysters. They were absolutely phenomenal. We'd been having Caraquets for a couple of months, but we'd yet to have Caraquets as fresh and flavorful as the ones we had that night. The real revelation, however, was those Irish oysters, which were the most full-bodied oysters I'd ever come across. Fantastic. The oyster selection changes from week to week, and on any given week might include oysters from B.C., the Maritimes, the U.S., or Europe. Don't miss 'em. As for the sirloin, it was simply magnificent. It came with a lovely assortment of vegetable sides, including sautéed spinach, smashed potato homefries, and fried artichoke hearts, but it's a good thing these came on the side, because the plate could barely hold the slab of steak that rested on it. The steak was big and thick, and it came topped with freshly cracked spices and adorned with the most heavenly red wine reduction you could imagine. We're talking a major-league steak, and, just between the two of us, the beautiful little portion that remained when all was said and done that night made for some major-league steak and eggs the next morning. Other highlights included an asparagus appetizer that came with a delicate vinaigrette and plenty of freshly microplaned Parmesan, and a pasta with crab dish that included two different types of crabs (spider and Chesapeake), and was very satisfying, but would have benefited from the addition of a well-chosen vegetable (peas, for instance).

The new Joe Beef is not about to become a haunt for the city's disenfranchised, and it's not going to be ruffling too many high society feathers. It's rather pricey (figure $25-$55 per person, before wine and tip), but the ambiance is disarming, even downright charming, and the food is well worth a visit. It reminded us of some of the fine, fresh, no-nonsense neighborhood bistros we've been to in New York--a style which has a somewhat distant parallel in a place like Au Pied de Cochon, but otherwise has been slow to take hold in Montreal for reasons we've never really understood. In other words, Montreal was long overdue, so it's not exactly surprising that this latest Joe Beef has once again taken the city by storm.

Restaurant Joe Beef, 2491 Rue Notre Dame West, (514) 935-6504


Ronald T. Harvie, "Montreal's Saloon Santa Claus"
Quebec Heritage Web, "Griffintown and Point St. Charles Heritage Trail"


Kareen said...

Have a Happy New Year guys!

From our hearts,
Kareen, Michel, William and Owen

aj kinik said...

Hi Kareen,
All the best to you and yours in 2006! Can't wait to meet the new addition.
Anthony and Michelle

Anonymous said...

Please check out a blog on happenings in the Wine Country.

Ades said...

Wow, I love that tale. I am always intrigued by Montreal's recondite history. Thanks for the lesson.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for keeping my Great,Great Gradfathers name alive with your restaurant and tales on this web page!! I will be sure to come down the next time I am in Montreal.

Anonymous said...

Joe Beef is way overpriced. The service was punctuated by the rudeness of the staff who cant wait to get you out the door!!Food is average at best filet mignn tasted like boiled beef, wife's lobster crepe was smaller than the palm of my hand.

aj kinik said...

Anonymous #1,
You're very welcome.

Anonymous #2,
I would agree that JB is overpriced. Definitely one of the reasons we've only been there once. As reported, though, on the night we went there we had excellent service (even though it was their last night open before a 2-week vacation), and very good food, with particularly high marks going to the superb steak and the oysters on the half-shell. The seafood pasta dish I had was very generous but could have used some flair. The only misstep of the evening was a sole meuniere that was good but uninspired. I'm surprised that you're complaining of skimping--our experience was the complete opposite: everything was enormous. In fact, Michelle brought home enough of her steak to serve steak and eggs for 2 the next morning.

Anonymous said...

aj kinik,

may be we went on an off nite, but weve never had a worse dining experience. The bus boy was clearing our plates before we were finished, and the blonde waitress informed us we had to be out before the second seating. Not only will we never go back but im making it my mission to spread the word, as ive heard several other people had the same experience.

aj kinik said...

That seems perfectly acceptable. If I'd had the same experience, I'd be doing the same thing. That said, I only have my own experience (an overwhelmingly positive one) to go on.

lukky said...

I went this weekend (Oct. 29) and I have to agree that, while the food is good, it is outrageously overpriced. I didn't feel like splurging on wine, so I chose a Spanish wine from the lower-priced section of the list, a Juan Gil Jumilla, priced at $55. To my shock, I checked the retail price of this when I returned home, and saw that it sells for $11-$15 - Joe Beef's markup is five to four times the retail price. Two times or even three markup can be reasonable, but this was absoulte robbery. I noticed that the champagnes are similarly excessively overpriced ($125 for Veuve Cliquot?).

We had a dozen oysters - $40 for a generous dozen (I think we actually were given 14), and this was worth it, even if the price was a bit on the high side. Appetizers at $14 to $19 were reasonably priced for what they were - I had the white asparagus, which was very good, but my wife's appetizer, which was the more expensive of the two, was not memorable (which is why neither of us can remember what it was).

At $45 for the sirloin steak (plus the "best steak of my life" comment in "The List" on this blog) I was expecting something ethereal. I had a steak at The Restaurant in Edinburgh last year that was my personal "steak of my life," and I was hoping to repeat that experience. The sirloin at Joe Beef was good, but very far from the greatest steak ever, and even though the portion was substantial, it wasn't worth the exorbitant price tag. It certainly was no comparison, neither in flavor, texture nor even the size of the serving, to a dry-aged prime porterhouse I had a month ago that cost about the same. It would have been a good value at $30 - $35, but at $45 I felt ripped off.

In fact, overall I felt ripped off by the whole experience and more like I was funding the owner's extravagant lifestyle or desire to get rich quick than I felt like I was given a dining experience worth $150 per person (including tax, tip and a very average bottle of wine) - I felt it would have been a reasonable value at, say, $85 to $100 per person. Granted, there are some more reasonably priced items on the menu (the chicken for two at $24 per person seemed like a good deal, but my wife didn't want chicken), so if you're careful with your choices (and order beer or a cocktail instead of anything from the criminally overpriced wine list) you may be able to get out of there relatively financially unscathed. My experience was not worth the money, and I doubt I'll ever return to Joe Beef (Au Pied de Cochon, on the other hand, is worth every cent and then some).

FWIW, the service was friendly and efficient.

aj kinik said...

Hi Lukky,
Wow, this is becoming a real referendum. Thanks for the extensive feedback. Sorry you were disappointed. I hope we didn't lead you too far astray. I still stand by our story. Maybe we just lucked out (hard to believe, because seeing as we were their last table on the last night before their Xmas vacation, we were kind of asking for it), but that steak was one of the very best restaurant steaks I've ever tasted. That said, I've never been to Peter Luger or any of the other legendary steakhouses you always hear about. Nor have I ever been to Edinburgh. I too found the wine list prices higher than usual, and in a province where retail wine prices are already CRIMINAL to begin with, that's bad news. I still find myself dreaming of those oysters, though. Of course, if this were a real city and we had ourselves a Swan Oyster Depot, well... As for Au Pied de Cochon. My trips there outnumber my trips to Joe Beef by a factor of 7. Enough said.