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Little Burgundy was a refuge. To escape our prior workplace, Fred and I would go for drives around Montreal, stopping at hardware stores, food markets, Chinatown, old corner restaurants. Sometimes we would browse junk shops or raid the downtown Salvation Army. Maybe we were already starting to build a restaurant in our minds, or maybe we just needed to get away from the supper-club scene on Boulevard Saint Laurent, where we worked. Either way, we were always on the lookout for old plates, oyster forks, live king crabs, shitty chairs, medicine cabinets, or the ultimate baloney sandwich. All roads led to Little Burgundy.
Little Burgundy is an area in southwest Montreal bordering the Lachine Canal. In the mid-1700s, French colonists named it La Petite-Bourgogne because of its resemblance to its namesake in France. It sits on a plateau, south of Mount Royal and just north of the Saint Lawrence River. Home to the Canadian National Railway yards and the Canadian Steel plant, Little Burgundy was, and remains, a working-class neighborhood. For the past ten years, it has been featured in every local magazine’s “next up-and-coming neighborhood” article, but for reasons both obvious and obscure, it has been slow to reach its supposed potential.
Notre Dame is Little Burgundy’s main north-to-south thoroughfare, a street full of inimitable characters, historical edifices, and appealing old boutiques, among them the amazing Grand Central antiques, the eclectic and now sadly defunct Arcadia, the Irish lady junk shop, and the All Things Vintage store. Nearby is antique purveyor Madame Cash, who earned her nickname in the 1960s from cashing government checks for residents in the surrounding row houses. Across the street stands the majestic Corona Theatre. Ella and Oliver Jones played there; so did Oscar Peterson, who was born in Little Burgundy. Around the corner is the ever-abiding Atwater Market. This neighborhood has everything going for it.
Among all this stood Café Miguel, a diamond in the (very) rough located at 2491 Rue Notre Dame West owned by a wildly passive-aggressive troll of a man. He made six killer sandwiches and espresso as strong as it was good. And while his ambition to open a small restaurant was good, he soon ran into trouble—trolls, alas, don’t make good restaurant owners. His trouble was our opportunity, and Allison, Fred, and I got to thinking. We knew we could cook, we knew what the restaurant should look like, and we knew intuitively that we could get people to come to Little Burgundy. But it would take work.
For one thing, the café was a bit of a dump, like a dirty pig that wears a dress, too many accessories, and perfume. It had a solid, yet filthy shell and was furnished with IKEA tables, school chairs, and a blackboard with sandwich listings full of spelling mistakes. There was a six-burner stove, a deep fryer, a ventilation hood, an espresso machine, and a working chimney. We would essentially be acquiring the bare bones of a restaurant, which might make it workable, since we had very little money to start.
The backyard was full of graffiti, cigarette butts, beer bottles, tiny plastic bags, and what Fred believed was industrial waste. The clientele consisted of local furniture refinishers and antique dealers—basically guys with yellow fingers who stunk of lacquer thinner. Allison, Fred, and I held meetings in my truck in the backyard, during which we brainstormed on what our restaurant might look like, what food we would serve, and who we would harass—or terrorize—for favors to get it off the ground. We had anxiety about putting it all together, and for good reason: we don’t have the organizational skills to do anything. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that we essentially have the attention spans of ferrets on speed. At least Fred and I do. Allison is the voice of reason.
So we met with three friends who also happen to be financial guys, Ronnie Steinberg, Jeff Baikowitz, and David Lisbona, to see if our idea could become a financial reality. We don’t remember much of the meeting except that it was boring, it was held in a boardroom, and after five minutes I was wearing a baseball helmet I picked off a nearby shelf and Fred was chasing me around with no shirt on. The obvious conclusion is that Ronnie, Jeff, and David convinced us it could work (if we did it on the cheap), and they agreed to partner in for 10 percent. Jeff tells us now that when we left the room, he told Ronnie and David to give whatever amount they would feel comfortable never seeing again.
We are still partners with these three, and if it weren’t for them, none of this would be possible. If you walk into David Lisbona’s office today, you’ll see seventy-five laminated newspaper clippings about Joe Beef alongside one picture of his kids. Their faith and pride in us are astounding.
Building Joe Beef
It took two months to build. We scrounged quickly to make it work. The restaurant came together with love, about twenty packs of wainscoting, and unlimited generosity and interest from friends. Mathieu Gaudet, a Montreal sculptor, friend, and Saint Henri local, built, among other things, our tables. On first glance, they look like they are ebony and mahogany, but they are actually MDF (medium-density fiberboard) combined with that really bad Masonite pressboard and many shiny coats of oil finish. He also built the bar from an old farmhouse floor that probably had fifteen coats of lead paint on it. (Don’t worry, it’s sealed; you can’t go crazy from eating at the Joe Beef bar.)
The beautiful old tavern chairs we found by chance. We spotted them when we were driving around one day and pulled over and asked the guy what he wanted for them. He said twenty bucks—not per chair, but for the lot.
Our friend Peter Hoffer did a beautiful installation of paintings: about twenty small abstracts and landscapes on one wall. We have always liked Peter’s aesthetic, whether it is of Quebec trees or girls without shirts. His art fits our rustic environment and feels like it has always been there.
The eccentric and kooky Joe Battat, another one of our friends and favorite customers, showed up one day in the dining room with a giant bison head. It looks real and is about half the size of a Honda Civic. We zapped it onto the wall of the bathroom, and it has been scaring young kids ever since.
A couple of years back, one of our customers, Howie Levine, gave Fred a fart machine with a remote control. Fred immediately hid it in an ear of the bison, so whenever someone walked into the bathroom and closed the door, Fred would go crazy on the remote and wait for the customer to emerge in a daze of confused humiliation.
The bathroom also boasts old photos taken at Bob Dylan and Neil Young concerts by Joe Battat and the door is covered with old Canadian license plates, fishing permits, and Quebec signage. Serendipitously, all the crazy elements seem to come together.
People still show up with old nostalgia-laden items that somehow fit the spirit of Joe Beef—things they’ve found at yard sales, in their grandma’s attic, at the back of the garage. We have a barracuda caught by a Quebec politico, Viking candelabras, bear heads, a grand notice of the beatification of the now good brother Saint Andre, whale bones, trophies (Best Eater: Kevin), pictures of Uncle Jack fishing for salmon in British Columbia, and glasses shaped like naked women.
In other words, ambience is a big part of Joe Beef. The lighting, the music, and what’s on the walls matter a great deal to us. Wine and food are not the only story. A true restaurateur has to be a jack of many trades. You see it all the time in restaurants: the food is good and the wine list is awesome, but the chairs suck, the art on the wall is revolting, and a Café Del Mar CD is playing continuously on the sound system. You can be a good cook or even a great chef, but it doesn’t make you a restaurateur. You have to have other interests, and you have to actually read.
Thankfully, Fred, Allison, and I geek out over the same classic stuff: a perfect Adirondack chair, a red vinyl banquette with brass nails, a pretty oyster-bar counter, old enameled cast-iron sinks, industrial lamps, a banged-up Rancilio coffee machine. We like wood, old paint, and a simple touch of cottage. This is why we love Maine, the Gaspé, and Kamouraska. I had so many bad experiences with Montreal’s “hottest” designers, who simply couldn’t design a proper service station, that I ended up buying an old medicine cabinet for Joe Beef. Its shelves, drawers, and glass bottles that once held swabs now hold knives. It works and it looks like it is where it should be. As Joe Beef came together, that’s how it felt in general: like it had always been there.
The restaurant group we worked with prior to Joe Beef never understood our cooking, but the customers did. We are thankful for the experience; it just wasn’t for us. We wanted our next project to be different from anything we had done before. We wanted to open a small, simple bistro, not unlike what Sam Hayward was doing with beautiful country food at Fore Street in Portland, Maine.
We imagined we would walk to the market and buy our produce every day. I was going to cook the meats, Fred was going to do the appetizers and vegetables, and then we were going to do the dishes . . . together. Allison would run the dining room, and John Bil would tend bar and shuck the occasional oyster. We would be open for lunch. Seventy bucks would be our top-end wine. Fred would put one lobster item on the menu, but more for him than for anyone else. We figured we might move one or two lobster spaghettis per day but not much more. We just wanted to sell a few oysters, a bit of fish, and a bit of steak.
On opening day, the restaurant was packed. It went well. The only crazy thing was that Fred and I shelled fava beans in the backyard for three hours, and we believed that it was going to be that way every day. On the second day of business, we realized we needed to get a proper dishwasher. We also realized at 4:00 p.m. that we had been there since 9:00 a.m. and we wanted to go home. One lunchtime highlight was watching a country gentleman named Mr. Barber eat Dungeness and drink Meursault while wearing classic hunting apparel. Hence, the Grand Opening and prompt Grand Closing of lunch service at Joe Beef.
When we first opened, we thought we would be catering primarily to the antique dealers and other locals who lived on the Lachine Canal. But people actually followed us from our previous workplace, and we were getting customers who wanted to pay for two-pound lobsters, small-farm beef, and small-grower Champagnes and premier cru Burgundies. Fred was thrilled to come up with these dishes, and I was more than willing to work with private wine agents who wouldn’t have dealt with us on Saint Laurent. We had the opportunity to work with modest-sized purveyors because we were working in a different context. All of a sudden, these smaller sources were not only willing to sell to Joe Beef, they were also coming to the restaurant to eat and visit!
We have never experimented with the concept of the food at Joe Beef. It has evolved in some ways, of course, but the food has always been the food we wanted to do since day one. We serve true Bocusian-Lyonnaise cuisine du marché(French market cuisine), which enables us to roll with the market in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a printed menu. Although some complained that our food “lacks presentation” or is “too simplistic,” we started getting good reviews and earning acclaim soon after opening. Chefs from every corner of the United States started showing up at our door.
One night, Fred noticed a ragged-looking Korean American guy ordering everything on the menu. Lo and behold, it was David Chang, owner of New York’s Momofuku. This was right before David was ordered to rest by his doctor. He had boarded a plane for Montreal, landed at Trudeau International Airport, and was at the Joe Beef bar a couple of nights later. The week was, of course, a complete haze of food, wine, and long nights, and David has been a good friend and Joe Beef supporter ever since. The props he gave us were a game changer for us, and now we seem to be part of the North American Food Itinerary. We’re baffled and utterly appreciative. But more important, we are truly happy coming to work every day.
Foie Gras Parfait with Madeira Jelly
Makes 10 to 12 ramekins
This dish, which calls for a whole fresh duck foie gras, has been on our menu since day one. We like it with a thin layer of our Madeira Jelly poured on top, but almost any compote, jam, or jelly can be served alongside.
1 whole fresh duck foie gras, about 18 ounces (500 g)
4 cups (1 liter) milk
1½ cups (375 ml) whipping cream (35 percent butterfat)
1 tablespoon brandy
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
6 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
Boiling water, as needed
Black truffle shavings for topping (optional)
Madeira Jelly (recipe follows)
Toasted brioche or pain de campagne (country bread) for serving
1. Place the liver in a large bowl, and pour the milk over it. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 1½ to 2 hours. You want the liver to soften and to look and feel like a giant piece of Silly Putty. When you have that consistency, take the liver out of the bowl, put it on paper towels, and pat it dry. Throw out the milk.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Put the cream in a small saucepan and place it over high heat.
3. Now, here’s the weird part: Using a table knife, split the liver in half lengthwise. There will be veins and nerves and bile ducts. Basically, anything you see that is red or green should be taken out. It’s not a big deal if you don’t remove it all. Just get what you can. Pat both halves dry.
4. Cut the liver into cubes. The smaller they are, the easier on your blender or food processor. Put the cubes in a large, wide bowl; add the brandy, sugar, and a healthy sprinkle each of salt and pepper; and turn the cubes gently to coat them on all sides. 5. Put the cubes in a blender or food processor and pulse until the cubes are all gone and you are left with a creamy consistency. Add the egg yolks and whole eggs. The cream will be at a boil by now, so take it off the burner. You want to pulse for about 10 seconds, add some cream, pulse for 10 seconds more, add a little more cream, and then pulse again. Continue like this until all the hot cream is added and the liver is smooth and creamy, like a frothy McDonald’s milk shake.
6. Pour the liquid liver through a coarse-mesh sieve into a bowl with a spout or a large measuring pitcher. You need to strain out any nasty bits you may have missed before. Divide the mixture evenly among 10 to 12 ramekins or jam jars, ½ cup (125 ml) each. Select a baking dish just large enough to hold the ramekins without touching (you may need to use 2 baking dishes or bake the parfaits in batches), and line the bottom with a double layer of paper towels. Place the ramekins in the baking dish. 7. Pull out the oven rack, put the baking dish on it, pour the boiling water into the baking dish to reach about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, and push in the oven rack. Bake for 25 minutes, then pull out the oven rack and lightly shake the ramekins. If the liver wobbles stiffly, you’re ready. If not, push in the rack and bake for another 5 to 8 minutes, then test again.
8. When the parfaits are ready, remove them from the baking dish and let them cool to room temperature. If you are using the truffle shavings, arrange some on top of each parfait. Cover the parfaits and refrigerate until chilled. Top with the jelly as directed, then re-cover and return to the refrigerator as directed. The parfaits will keep for up to 4 days. Remove from the refrigerator about 10 minutes before serving with the toasted brioche.
Makes 1 cup (250 ml)
6 sheets gelatin
1 cup (250 ml) Madeira wine
6 ½ tablespoons (100 ml) water
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1. Bloom the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cool water to cover for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they soften and swell.
2. In a small pot, combine the wine, water, maple syrup, and vinegar over medium heat. When hot, remove from the heat. Gently squeeze the gelatin sheets, add to the wine mixture, and whisk until completely dissolved. 3. If using for the parfaits, spoon a thin layer of the warm liquid over each chilled parfait and refrigerate for 15 minutes to set the jelly. The layer should be 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick. If not using for the parfaits, pour the warm liquid into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. It will keep for up to 7 days. When serving this jelly on a plate, we press it through a ricer to give it a mound of kryptonite appearance.