Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10
Locavore approved? YES- The daily-changing chalkboard menu features all kinds of local goodies. Although it is notorious for its unique meats (horse, rabbit), it also has its own garden out back and, when there is not snow/frost on the ground, much of its produce comes from there. Very local indeed!
Reservation required? ABSOLUTELY YES! I would recommend booking as far ahead as you can (several weeks at least), especially for a coveted weekend seat). Having said that, it may be worth calling or just showing up the day of. I booked online over a month before and the only time I could get for one person was 9:45 on a Tuesday night. However, when I called the day before to see if they could squeeze my friend in as well, I found out that I had erroneously reserved the wrong month. Despite this, they were able to accommodate by friend and I the night after anytime after 9pm. So case in point- never hurts to try!
I had already spent one month this year in Montreal earlier this year without making it to the notoriously awesome Joe Beef, and could not allow myself to be back for a week and miss the opportunity again. Lucky for me, a good friend was in town at the same time, so we ventured out together to see what all the fuss was about.
And there certainly has been a lot of fuss since this place opened in 2005 by David McMillan and Frederic Morin. They have won the title of Canada's best restaurant on a number of different rankings, and, most recently, earned themselves a place on the San Pellegrino list of the top 100 restaurants in the world. Joe Beef is the only Canadian restaurant on this highly acclaimed list since 2010.
Unlike many of the restaurants on the list that are all about extravagance and fine dining, Joe Beef is about as laid back and casual as it gets. It is located right in the centre of the city in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood surrounded by its sister restaurants, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillion. The space is quite small (expect to get cozy with your neighbours) with rustic wood trimmings, animal busts on the walls and vintage dishes with dish towels as napkins. On a trip to the restroom, you will also meet a life-sized stuffed buffalo. Before the end of the night you may think you are in a cabin in the wilderness rather than the heart of Montreal!
In keeping with the super chill decor, the service is laid back and unpretentious. They have come up with the formula for service that makes guests feel very welcome and at ease, while still maintaining professionalism and the utmost attentiveness. Such skill in making you feel as though you are the only one in the room when it is packed to the rafters. Despite the crowd, out waiter took the time to meticulously filet our smoked trout appie tableside and returned to our table over and over to see how we were enjoying ourselves. And he did it all while looking as cool as a cucumber. These guys are absolute masters of their craft.
As mentioned, the whole menu for the evening, including food and drink, is printed on a wall-sized chalkboard. The wine selection is bound to suit any taste, from the wine rookie to the connoisseur. We gave our server our preferred price point, and she chose us a lovely bottle of French wine that paired beautifully with our dishes. Because we were seated at an angle which made it difficult to see the chalkboard, our server took the time to walk us through the whole thing and was helpful at pointing out what was suitable for my pescatarian preferences. He also kindly spoke with the kitchen for me about customizing a dish for me sans meat, to which the chef kindly agreed.
On the whole, the menu is heavy on meat, particularly on more unique varieties such as horse, rabbit, and of course the beloved foie gras. As a pescatarian, I was totally fine (unlike some meat-heavy places, they do seafood REALLY well) but vegetarians will likely not find too much to please them. Having said that, you will find lots of fresh and seasonal veg as accompaniments with meat/fish and there is a nice mix of lighter and heavier dishes depending on what mood you are in.
One other thing to keep in mind while ordering- although you may want to try one of everything, you will likely only be able to handle one main and one appie per person (or share dishes like we did). The portions here are VERY generous by any standards, so you will not leave hungry!
Here are the dishes we enjoyed (a lot!!!) on the night of our visit:
Salad- Who says Joe Beef is all about meat? I have had plenty of great salad in my day and this one was in a league of its own. There was nothing magic about it, just lettuce, a bit of sheep milk cheese and pepitas, dressed in a simple vinaigrette but yet each component was so fresh and the ratio of ingredients so perfect.
Smoked trout- I am still thinking back to this dish, and it remains among the best of all those I have had in 2015. This appetizer, meant to share, was really enough for 4 people, but my friend and I happily devoured the whole thing after out server filleted it tableside. To start with, the trout (smoked whole) was melt-in-your-mouth, unlike any smoke fish I have ever had. It was paired with mustard seeds and pickled veg to balance some of the richness, then served with a creamy egg yolk sauce overtop. As if that wasn't enough, it came with house-made crepe and an herb cream on the side as an accompaniment. I still salivate just thinking about it...
Joe Beef is proof that the amazing food does not have to come with a formal dining room, white tablecloths and stuffy service. We need many more places like Joe Beef, where guests can let their hair down, relax and enjoy themselves, while eating some of the best food imaginable. If you find yourself in Montreal, just go. They more than live up to their reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world.