Vin Papillon interior [Photos: Bill Addison]
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Few restaurants in North America embolden gluttony like Joe Beef. It's the blackboards in every room, scrawled with the names of carnal pleasures in lilting French: foie de veau au girolles, tournedos de cheval aux escargot, saucisse de lapin en salami, steak de gigot d'agneau. It's the slinky knots of spaghetti, ensnaring lobster and bacon in their coils, being devoured at every other table. It's the way an arc of flowing Chablis refracts the dim lighting. It's the chat-up-your-neighbor coziness. And really, it's having seized on a reservation at all.
Like many American dining sensations that emerged over the last decade, Canada's most famous restaurant began in 2005 with humble aims. Owners David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and Allison Cunningham had worked in fine dining and longed to be their own bosses. They found investors willing to help them purchase a divey cafe in Montreal's then-scruffy Little Burgundy neighborhood. A friend built the bar from hardwoods torn out of an old farmhouse. They christened the place in honor of Charles "Joe Beef" McKiernan, a storied 19th-century saloonkeeper who was very much a man of the people. Morin and McMillian would be in the kitchen, preparing food, slightly personalized, that hewed to Quebec's bistro traditions. Dishes like foie gras au torchon, Dover sole meuniere, côte de boeuf, and profiteroles.
Locals immediately embraced the populist feel: old-timey wainscoting, posters of Bowie and Dylan, a massive bison head that an early customer brought in. As the cooking became more bombastic, while still retaining its Gallic finesse, its reputation grew internationally. Chefs and food writers proselytized. The owners swore they'd keep the place small, but by 2011 they doubled the space (taking over a luncheonette next door they'd launched after Joe Beef's success), cultivated an abundant garden and terrace out back, and wrote an exceptional cookbook.
Lobster spaghetti; radishes with house-cured ham and pesto
Success has not dulled the restaurant's frisson. Jump full-throttle into the scene with appetite and wallet. (The digs may be funky but the bill is not cheap, and it's perilously easy to over-order.) The staff—professional yet gregarious and almost familial—guides you through the menu, which changes constantly but follows similar themes.
Start with seafood from the raw bar. In summer the oyster selection was small but unerring. Joe Beef is known for its meaty spectacles but the warm weather also brought cornucopias like the grand aioli, a plate piled with cauliflower, zucchini and asparagus spears, garlic scapes, and a half a dozen other vegetables with clams, boiled eggs, and garlicky aioli chunky with potato. Radishes lent their peppery freshness to buttered toast lined with velvety house-cured ham and surrounded by loose, mild pesto.
Croquettes like overgrown tater tots shatter to reveal a filling of smoked meat, Montreal's answer to pastrami. The signature "spaghetti lobster-homard," with chopped bacon and whiffs of tarragon among the cream and butter, bridges the decadence between retro lobster Thermidor and pasta carbonara. I ordered the restaurant's take on the KFC Double Down—lobes of foie gras sandwiching bacon, cheddar, chicken-skin mayonnaise, and a drizzle of maple syrup—and wished I hadn't. It may be a moneymaker but it was as vulgar as it sounds. The dinner's other surprise letdown was veal tongue covered in shaved turnips that looked like white rose petals. Beautiful, but it was difficult to chew in a way that tongue never should be.
The foie gras double down
We forgot about the misstep when the lamb's neck landed. It sat on a shallow pool of rich polenta, scattered with slivered herbs and chile flakes and grated cheese, and it looked no more unsettling than a leg or bone-in shoulder roast. The meat was lush—tender and only faintly feral. We'll be seeing more of this on menus soon. Ebullient beverage director Vanya Filipovic kept us flush with Chenin Blanc and other French glories. Be sure to discuss pricing: Two-thirds of the selections leap into the three-digit range.
Dessert closed the meal fittingly, with classic marjolaine (a painstaking, many-layered chocolate and hazelnut cake) and a witty Yule log translated for the season with pistachios and strawberries. Joe Beef does largely manage to meet the absurd expectations that its reputation creates. Montreal has a stupefying bounty of grand eating options, but this is a restaurant around which to build a trip. 2491 Notre-Dame West, Montreal; 514-935-6504; website; Open for dinner Tuesday - Saturday, 6 - 11 p.m.
LE VIN PAPILLON
If the server hadn't pressed it, I never would have ordered celery root in July. But then out came the sex kitten of the vegetable world. Downy folds sprawled on a plate, the usually crisp texture tamed by a dressing taking its cues from bagna cauda. It was a root transformed, celeriac as charcuterie. Alongside the server poured minerally, citrusy Particella 128, an obscure white from Emilia-Romania. With the pairing, the celery root purred even louder.
Le Vin Papillon is the wine bar from the Joe Beef owners, located four doors down from the flagship (and two doors up from Liverpool House, the Joe Beef group's second restaurant). Unlike its older sibling, Papillon doesn't take reservations. In this case it makes sense: A desirable time slot at Joe Beef often requires two months planning. Slip into Papillon's 25-seat slip of a space early or late and though the meal doesn't come with the Joe Beef bragging rights, it is nearly as accomplished.
Cauliflower; Lobster with yellow squash
Turn up for the food and wine equally. As at Joe Beef, the menus revolve ceaselessly and the menus and lists appear on chalkboards. Vanya Filipovic oversees the beverage program here as well. (She runs between the restaurants every night via a back alley.) This is where she lets her wine geek flag fly proudest, serving plenty of biodynamic French darlings from Burgundy and the Loire and the Jura, but also lesser-knowns from Slovenia or Georgia (the country) and the occasional New World gems, like a Pinot Blanc from Kerner Estates in New Zealand.
Vegetables, for a refreshing change, dominate the small plates menu ($5.50-$13), though they're accented with proteins in savvy ways. Capers and crisped chicken skins highlight the grilled flavors of cauliflower cooked over a rotisserie. Hunks of lobster mingle amiably with mint, basil, and translucent coins of cucumber and yellow squash. What's astonishing is not just the finesse of the cooking, but how easily so many of these produce-driven dishes play well with wine. 2519 Rue Notre-Dame West, Montreal; website; Open Tuesday-Saturday 3 p.m. - midnight.