Saturday, October 20, 2012

Travels in Taste - Joe Beef - Montreal


Sometimes a night out at a restaurant becomes more than just good meal, sometimes it's a divine experience. The right combination of food, service, decor and company can make a lifelong memory. The meal I had on September 15, 2012 at Joe Beef in Montreal's Little Burgundy definitely qualifies.

So, with a combination of pictures and words, let me tell you the tale of an epic culinary evening. To begin, let's set the scene: September 15 is the anniversary of when Kari and I decided to become a "couple" and it also happens to be the weekend of the Montreal Comic-Con. Needless to say, a trip to "La Belle Province" was warranted. As was making reservations about 2 months ahead of time...

Once we were in Montreal and it was close to dinner time, we walked up Rue Notre-Dame to the resto, taking in the cozy charm of the neighbourhood. Now, considering the reputation of the place, I kind of expected a bit more flash, but it was rather subdued in outside and interior decor. Well, the five seconds we saw of the interior before being sat on the terrasse.

Very unassuming, which is classy in itself

Beautiful dinner date!

Now then, whilst the interior was somewhat understated (lots of lovely wooden accents everywhere, but also quite snug and dimly-lit), the terrasse was perhaps one of the loveliest urban outdoor locales I've ever had the pleasure of seeing (and dining at). We had the fortune of being seated right at the end, next to the herb garden. Yup, they grow their own stuff at Joe Beef. As you'll see below, they had herbs a-plenty, but there were also cabbages and zucchini and all manner of veggie goodness growing behind where I was sitting. There was also a smoker (behind Kari's arm in the photo) that was in use, so the entire patio area smelled of smoke, herbs and rainbows (rainbows have a smell, right?).

The view whilst we dined. All those plants are ingredients used by the kitchen.

Needless to say, we were already in a great mood thanks to the natural splendour of the place, but what came next was far more exciting: THE MENU!

Now, most high-end restaurants these days (and maybe since always, but I haven't been eating in high-end joints for very long) don't have a fixed menu. They either print by the day/week or have the server read it out or whatever. Something that seems to be all the rage is the "blackboard menu", which makes sense to me. It gives an opportunity to constantly keep things interesting and keep customers coming back to try new things. It also gives people the chance to keep looking and thinking what they might get later, appetites permitting, or on their next visit, if they're lucky enough to have that same menu item available. Either way, the restaurant keeps the customers coming in.

In the case of Joe Beef, their menu was kind of mind-blowing. It was quite difficult to figure out what to pick. If you take the time to magnify the pic below, make sure you get a good look at all the offerings. It was REALLY hard to pick just one entree and one main dish.

The menu

I have to admit, I got kind of stuck figuring out what to order without some guidance from our server (whose name escapes a month after the fact... d'oh). At least for the entree part. The main was a no-brainer in my case, but more on that later.

After an explanation of a few items, my mind was pretty well made up. I ordered the Terrine de foie "Bone-in". This meant that the terrine (which was basically like a paté) was served on/in(?) a piece of bone that was cut in half, with the marrow removed (and then cooked into the terrine!!!!!)

My 1st plate - Terrine de foie "bone-in"

The verdict? Wow, just wow... The flavour of this dish instantly brought me back to childhood memories of my grandmaman's paté de foie gras, even though this was all pork (I think) while hers was either goose or, more often, chicken liver. The dish was also topped with a lovely assortment of pickled veggies that gave the whole thing a nice crunch and tang to offset the rich, velvety texture of the terrine, a richness that was doubly accentuated by the use of marrow. The bread was also quite tasty, but its main function was as meat vehicle. All in all, it was freakin' delicious.

As for Kari, she went for one of her favourites, gnocchi. In this case, it was a ricotta gnocchi served with pig skin and pecorino cheese.

Kari's 1st plate - Ricotta Gnocchi with pig skin and pecorino
I can't speak too much to the dish as I only had one bite (needed to save room for terrine goodness!), but I remember the tomato sauce was bright and fresh (they probably picked the tomatoes from their garden that morning!) and the pig skin had this chewiness that could have easily been off-putting, yet I found it fascinating and complex.

Of course with our first dishes came the wine! We went with a simple Burgundy red since there was a lot of meat in play and the food was far too rich for white. It was a delicious bottle of wine and really went well with all the food. So, kudos to our server (Justin or Julien maybe?) for picking a perfect accompaniment for 15 bucks less than my wine budget limit!

A lovely bottle of red to go with dinner.
And, since it was our anniversary dinner, I figured a little present for my favourite girl was also in order...

A little added bonus to the festivities
As we ate and drank and soaked in the awesomeness, the sunset decided to come along to provide the evening's visual entertainment!

Not a bad little view...

So, moving right along, it was time for the mains!

First we'll quickly talk about Kari's Pojarski de lapin "hot et délicieux". This was a riff on an old Quebec classic known as "hot chicken", which is essentially a shredded chicken sandwich smothered in gravy and peas. In this case, though, it was rabbit meat, minced and reformed Pojarski-style (Pojarski was a chef for Czar Nicholas I) and served on the bone. It too was smothered in gravy and peas, and pieces of chorizo, and God knows what else. It was rich, delicious goodness, but I'll admit I only had a quick bite so I don't quite remember how it tasted. I only had a quick bite because I needed to keep room in my belly for my main dish....

Kari's main: Pojarski de lapin "Hot et délicieux"

And now we come to one of the most decadent, rich, insane plates I've ever had the pleasure of not being able to finish.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Deer Belly. Yup, roll that factoid around your noodle. Deer. Belly.

As you may know, bacon comes from pork belly. That is the only time I've heard of an animal's"belly" meat being used in cooking (well, Haggis involves a sheep's stomach, but I think there's a difference between stomach and belly when it comes to butchery and cooking). I've had duck and lamb bacon, so they probably used the belly meat and I just discovered that "beef belly" is more commonly known as brisket! (thanks Interwebz!).

But DEER Belly?!?!?!? Who'd a thunk it! Well, the crazies in the Joe Beef kitchen, that's who! (either Chef David McMillan or Chef Frédéric Morin, I guess). Needless to say, I HAD to try that shizz out! Oh and as you might have seen from the menu picture, it came topped with escargots. Of course! In fact, it also was served with lovely Chanterelle mushrooms, cauliflower, jus, some kind of half-butter, half-potato mash. And then there were the pockets of garlic butter to round out the "bourguignone" style of the escargots. I peg this sucker well into the 4-digit calorie range.

So how did it taste? Oh my God... the drool, must stop drooling on keyboard... It was one of the most uniquely decadent dishes I've ever had. The belly itself was likely roasted then seared, so it had this great little crust on it. The meat was just a little gamy, as deer should be, and probably the densest meat I've ever had; dense, but not tough. And the accompanying medley of flavours from the snails, garlic, mushrooms and cauliflower made it a once-in-a-lifetime sort of dish.

It also made it incredibly filling. I tried as hard as I could, but I wasn't able to finish the last couple of bites. I felt foodie-shame, but at least I didn't rupture my tummy.

My main: Deer Belly w. escargots à la Bourguignone
Kari pretty much felt the same way I did by the end: So. Full.

In the end, we wound up walking back to our hotel room and passing into respective food comas.

Maybe we shouldn't have had Schwartz's for brunch that morning... Next time I go to Joe Beef (because I'm damn well going back), I'll make sure to eat only rice cakes beforehand...

So there you go! Another culinary escapade to Montreal! Luckily the next day involved walking around Comic-con all day, so at least some of the 8 billion calories were burned off...

Till next time, eat and cook better than you ever thought you could, because life's too short for crap food!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Pig in Autumn - Part 1

Hello again,

It's that most wonderful time of the year: Fall! Now's the time when our ursine side takes over and we start padding our midriffs with richer fare in preparation for that long hibernation period which is coming up in a couple of months. Well, at least it's hibernatory for those folks who choose not to have fun in the snow... Wimps.

All kidding aside, Fall cooking has got to me some of my favourite. No longer do I need to concern myself about the restrictions of heat and heaviness that makes eating rich food in the Summer time about as pleasant as punching yourself in the gut. It's also somehow a bit more acceptable to use the oven instead of the BBQ (not like the weather is that cold, but there's something pretty comforting in having the oven on for a few hours, warming up your home), while in Summer it's somehow blasphemous to NOT grill your food.

In Summer, for me, it's all about smoked pork, whether it's Ribs, Pulled Pork or Bacon, whatever... all of these have been important culinary undertakings for the past 3 months (including making enough pulled pork to feed a festival, sort of...). But now that I'm far less inclined to step outside (it's been raining A LOT this month), I'm looking for different ways to make use of pork and different ways to cook it, specifically indoors. So this and the next post will look at fun ways to make porky good times without having to step outside.

One way that Kari's been egging me to re-familiarize myself with is the slow cooker. A slow cooker is basically an electric element that heats a large ceramic container in which you put food and let it cook for several hours. The idea is that a) it is less time consuming because you just prep everything in one go, throw it in the cooker before heading to work and it's ready at dinnertime, and b) it allows tough cuts of meat to break down and become super-tender over the 'low and slow' period of several hours without having to keep a fire going.

So, I happened to have a hunk of heritage Berkshire pork shoulder sitting in the freezer (an impulse buy from the Farmer's Market) and I figured, even if it was the most expensive cut of pig I ever bought, it should go in the slow cooker and become something delicious. I was thinking something between a pulled pork and a stew, with a lot of wine and flavours that comfort the soul in cold weather (even though we were still in double digit weather at the time). Maybe I was jumping the gun, considering it was still technically Summer, but I figured it couldn't hurt to have a preview sampling of winter flavours.

And here's what I made!

Slow-cooker Wine-Braised Pork Shoulder

Serve LOTS!

- 4-5 lbs. bone-in pork shoulder
- 4-5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2-3 celery ribs, chopped
- 2-3 carrots, chopped
- 2 potatoes, diced
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 tsp. thyme (dried or fresh)
- 1 tsp. rosemary (dried or fresh)
- 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
- pinch of cinnamon
- pinch of nutmeg
- salt and pepper to taste

- Place all ingredients in slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours.
- Skim layer of fat from slow cooker every 2 hours or so.
- Serve in a bowl with crusty bread.

My slow cooker: soon to become one of my best friends!
As time went on, the pork broke down beautifully into strings of tasty goodness. See for yourselves:

After 8 hours or so...

 The flavours came together into a stew reminiscent of Boeuf Bourguignon, which was the comforting, warming profile I was hoping for. Cook anything in enough wine and it'll be comforting! Served with a hunk of sourdough baguette and a cold beer, it was pretty much a slice of domestic heaven!

Not so much on the "light" side, but tasty and comforting as all get out!

Another serving application is to cook up some old-fashioned egg noodles (y'know, back before it was all called 'pasta') and serve the stew/ragu over top.

So, we've already got one way of cooking up pork that doesn't involve the smoker or grill. Next we'll look at our friend the oven, using both the stovetop (stew) and the oven itself (RIBS!).

'Til then, oink oink!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Burger Time! - Part 3 - MADNESS! (with a patty and a bun)

Hey kids!

I'm back, wrapping up my thrilling burger trilogy with over-the-top meat and bun creations that would make all but the most stalwart gastropod cringe in fear. And in keeping with the "trilogy" theme, let's put it this way:

If my previous posts were the battering rams you see the Uruk-hai use in Two Towers, this post is Return of the King's muthafrakkin' GROND, b*tches!

Don't worry, I am NOT making a Wolf's Head Burger...

Scared yet? Nah? Well, ok. You will be. You. Will. Be.

As I've said before, the burger has basically become a staple of the North American diet. And it's also become a canvas for complete over-the-top food experimentation. If you've ever seen Man vs. Food, you've seen just how crazy some places make their burgers.

Here's an example (the most expensive one) of just how far one will push a burger:

A 5000$ burger?!?!??! WTF LORD!???! Alright, before my 99% sentiments get the best of me, I'll just say that that's pretty effing crazy.

And I totally want one RIGHT NOW!!!!

But beyond the crazy (and really freakin' expensive) is something that is beyond obscene, beyond hedonism... It's an invitation to gastronomic suicide! Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you the Luther Burger. The Luther Burger is a really big patty (half a pound to a full pound of meat), fried up, covered in cheese, topped with bacon. And then the crazy part happens: you sandwich all this between a glazed doughnut sliced in half, which you then fry up in the leftover burger grease. That's right, the bun is a doughnut. Enjoy the heart attack, kids!

What obesity epidemic?
Now, the Luther Burger is a bit over the top. Just a little bit. But I still want one desperately, especially if it was made using Suzy Q Doughnuts' Maple Bacon doughnut as the bun. That's a mission for the future, I guess, because even I am afraid of this. It sounds SO TASTY! I just don't know if I'd live through it...

So, while leaving the Luther Burger to crazier cooks than I, I'd be a liar if I said I hadn't tried a little bit of burger craziness in my own right.

It all stemmed from a facebook conversation I was having with a couple of friends a ways back about combining two kinds of meat in a single dish, not counting bacon, since bacon is a vegetable, and if it can ever work. Specifically, I think we were debating if beef and chicken can be combined in a single dish, other than a combination shawarma plate.

So, I took up the challenge as part of the burger exploration I'd been engaging in at the time. I would make a beef burger topped with chicken. Now, it's me, so what else am I going to do but smoke me some meat? I've smoked chicken before and it's no different than most meats: rub with tastiness, smoke at 225-250 degrees for 3-4 hours (for the single chicken leg I used), and eat (or in this case, shred to become a burger topping).

Here's how it went down in pictures after I'd smoked the chicken.

First, I grilled the burgers:

Sizzle me beauties!
As they were cooking, I quickly shredded up the chicken meat:

Smokey chicken goodness!!

Once the burgers were ready, I threw on a healthy whack of chicken meat on top of the burgers:

Meat on Meat!
I decided to go a little crazy and add grilled corn and creamed spinach to the whole thing. Kari whipped together a chipotle mayonnaise to top the burger and that was that!

Just a light meal...

Needless to say, I was a very, VERY full boy after this epic dinner. I guess I need to give this burger a name... The Mooclucker? The Chickow Burger? Any suggestions?

So, there it is, the end of our burger saga. Got any crazy burger concepts you want to share? Please leave a comment! I'd love to see how interesting one can make a beef patty and bun.