Montreal, it's often said, is as close to Paris as North America gets. And there's no denying that first impression: I could feel a frisson of old France slide into my mind as we rumbled along cobbled Rue St. Paul past charcuteries and cafes up to our charming hotel in Vieux Montreal.
But from the opening bites of our first meal at Joe Beef - broiled razor clams Casino and sublime raw Stanley Bridge oysters with bracing Prince Edward Island brine - it was clear that chefs in this Francophone city had eagerly embraced the touchstone flavors of their Canadian DNA.
But that go-local impulse, thriving in Philadelphia and along the East Coast, hits a lusty high gear in Montreal, where the meat-centric kitchens cook for winter all year long, and even warm-weather meals come laced with rich poutine gravy and foie gras. The adventure eater here is in for decadence overdrive.
And the cozy leather booths at tiny Joe Beef, the adventurous "néo-bistro" in Petite Bourgogne named for one of Montreal's historic tavern-keeps, was the ideal place to start. A huge rib chop of butter-basted, grass-fed Ontario beef, minerally from a 40-day dry-aging, crackled with the oniony-dill spark of house-blended Montreal seasoning. A pastry-lidded crock on the side brimmed with stewed coco beans, tomatoes, and sweet Québécois corn. An earthen bowl of toothy spaghetti glazed in lobster cream tangled with chunks of the sweet crustacean. Fistfuls of local chanterelles, meanwhile, were drizzled in a creamy tan sauce enriched with foie gras. Chef and co-owner Fred Morin, though, had also given the dish his signature pop-culture wink, tucking them "hot dog-style" inside a freshly baked bun lined with house-cured baloney, deeply smoked in the Montreal tradition.
"Maple wood - always maple," said Morin, releasing fragrant wisps of smoke as he removed a glistening mahogany pork butt from his iron smoker behind Joe Beef, where a sprawling urban garden was growing everything from salad greens and tomatoes to wormwood, the shrub made famous by absinthe.
Morin, 35, unshaven and intense as he expounds upon the fine points of charcuterie and the collection of flea-market artifacts (tuna hooks, eel forks, bison heads, creme brulee irons) that occasionally inspire Joe Beef's room-length chalkboard menu, is one of the leading chefs now redefining this city's dining scene with double-fisted nose-to-tail gusto in a bistro setting. He was steeped in the classics by venerable French mentors who came for Montreal's famous World's Fair "Expo" in 1967 and never left. But like many of his peers, Morin has since jettisoned the precious parsley emulsions and couscous pyramids of his fine-dining past for an earthier, more casual approach. It's no less decadent - dinner at Joe Beef is an expensive splurge - but there is a blend of irreverence and artisan sophistication here with a diligent eye toward local flavors that feels entirely relevant.
The nod toward smoke and that distinctive Montreal steak seasoning salt (also redolent of garlic, rosemary, coriander, and chile) has its roots in the classic Jewish delis such as Schwartz's on St. Laurent, where for 80-plus years, long lines have patiently waited for hot sandwiches of addictive "smoked meat," a pink and peppery hybrid of pastrami and corned beef that's best washed down with Cott's black cherry soda. For seasonal inspirations, one only need tour the magnificent and sprawling Marché Jean Talon, where shoppers snack on buckwheat crepes folded over local raclette, then roam the aisles tasting artisan sausages, rustic breads, splendid raw-milk Québécois cheeses such as Le Bleu d'Elizabeth. The myriad rows of farm stands display a colorful patchwork of late-season berries and sweet corn so vivid, it was hard not to stop on the spot for a picnic feast. Maple syrup, whose deep and tangy sweetness infuses everything from local port to chocolate truffles and silky natural ice cream from a funky little creamery called Meu Meu on nearby St. Laurent, is omnipresent in the city's desserts.
Such pure natural bounty is a resource that chef Normand Laprise hopes will distinguish his newest venture, Brasserie T!, which was one of June's big openings when it debuted on the grounds of the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. Laprise, long Montreal's godfather of gastronomy at haute and pricey Toqué, has clearly also gotten the down-to-earth memo, with a menu here of handcrafted classics that don't exceed $20. T!, however, was most memorable for its distinctive modern space, a long glass box that looks (and feels) like a see-through shipping container. There were certainly some intriguing nods to Québécois country cooking with charcuterie such as the guinea hen "Montreal" sausage and a terrine of crumbly white pork "cretons" glazed in lard. I also loved the "bavette" flank steak from Cumbrae Farms splashed in herb butter for the steak-frites. But largely, our meal ranged from sloppy (scallops broiled in a splatter of pastry and cream) to overpriced (a small burger - for $20 - on a less-than-fresh bulky bun) to a squashed croque monsieur and thickly breaded cheese nuggets that, for such a celebrated chef, were disappointingly unambitious. As a bistro tease for Laprise's more upscale jewel, at least, T! didn't do big brother Toqué any favors.
If there's one thing Montrealers know, however, it's that "bistronomy" doesn't have to be boring. And few restaurants make that point as emphatically as Au Pied de Cochon, chef Martin Picard's boisterous homage to offal and engorged duck liver that has inspired an international pilgrimage for extreme cuisine. Simply known to its devotees as "PDC," nothing about this high-voltage restaurant, from the raucous dining room to the fantastic wine cellar ("we love drinking here, and it shows," says Picard) to the wit and intensity of the food, is anything less than full-throttle.
This is especially true when it comes to foie gras, which Picard claims to serve more of than any restaurant in the world - more than 150 pounds a week for its 88 seats. It comes on burgers, pig's feet, pizzas, sealed in a can with herbs and duck breast, and even layered with buckwheat pancakes, bacon, cheddar, eggs, and maple syrup for the "Plogue à Champlain."
But no dish defines Picard's crusade to simultaneously "democratize" luxury and redeem junk food than his foie gras poutine, a wry upgrade to Montreal's deep fondness for drenching french fries in gravy and gooey cheese curds. It has inspired numerous variations (from lobster to duck poutine) and imitation tributes (like the one at Philadelphia's Adsum). But PDC's original is without peer for its brazen lipid debauchery, with duck fat-fried potatoes so obscenely slathered in thick tan gravy and a nearly quarter-pound slice of seared foie. This is the poster child for liver porn. And it's not for everyone - let alone for a single diner - as the appalled looks from my poutine-phobic family made clear.
PDC is capable of mild-weather seasonality - a nice tarragon dressing for the tender bison tongue? - but even these dishes arrive with an almost medieval excess. A platter of roasted whole guinea hen over polenta, for example, came stuffed with fistfuls of steamer clams and corn that tumbled out of its cavity and every crevice. Or the creamy wild mushroom risotto that rolled up to a neighboring table overflowing from the hollowed-out center of a wheel of Parmesan.
After a meal of such unbridled consumption, the desserts here are surprisingly homey and demure. And many, naturally, have the distinctive resonance of maple syrup, from churros to the "pouding Chômeur," a humble Depression-era indulgence lathered in maple cream (known in English as Poor Man's Pudding) that's become Québec's signature dessert. With one happy bite of such Canadian comfort, Paris couldn't have been farther from my mind.
Real Montreal Steak Spice
Makes 2 to 3 cups of seasoning, about 60 servings
1 onion, finely diced
10 garlic cloves, finely diced
3 small red dried chiles (such as Thai birds), minced
1/2 cup of salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 bunch rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem
1/2 cup coriander seeds
6 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dill seed
1 tablespoon paprika
1. Turn on the oven to 225 degrees. Combine the onion, garlic, chiles, salt, sugar, and rosemary, spread on a baking sheet, and bake until the onions are dry, about 2 to 3 hours. Keep an eye on the oven temperature to make sure onions don't burn.
2. When the mixture is nice and dry, remove and let cool. Pulse in food processor, with just two or three pulses to break up clumps. Combine with the remaining ingredients and store in a sealed jar up to a month, or freeze in a bag and use within 6 months.
Note: This is an all-purpose seasoning used in many Montreal-style dishes, including beef and pork as well as steaky fish (like skate). At Joe Beef, a fistful of the spice is added with a nub of butter toward the end to lend their giant dry-aged rib steak a local flair.
Per serving: 5 calories, trace fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrates, 0 grams protein, 931 milligrams sodium, trace fiber
'Côte du Boeuf' à la Joe Beef
Makes 2 to 4 servings
1 2 1/4-pound rib steak (about 1 kilo), best quality available, preferably dry-aged and cut about 2 inches thick
7 tablespoons butter, divided into 3 and 4 tablespoon batches
1 1/2 tablespoons Real Montreal Steak Spice
2 tablespoons fresh grated horseradish root (optional, for garnish)
1. Let beef come to room temperature, leaving on counter for about two hours.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a large cast-iron pan over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of butter, or just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When butter froths, add the rib steak, and cook about 7 minutes on each side.
3. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter on top of the steak, scatter Montreal Steak Spice on top, and place in oven. Cook until just medium-rare, about 20 minutes (depending on oven; a meat thermometer should read 130 degrees).
4. Remove and let rest for 10 minutes, then cut into thick slices and serve on platter with grated horseradish mounded on the bone. Excellent with a side of fresh arugula salad.
Per serving: 775 calories, 61 grams fat, 30 grams saturated fat, 188 milligrams cholesterol, trace carbohydrate, 51 grams protein, 1,210 milligrams sodium, 0 grams fiber
Slow-Cooked Boston Pig Butt
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 Boston pork butt, ideally 3 pounds
1/4 cup yellow mustard
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground bay leaves
1. If cooking on a smoker, prepare maple wood chips according to smoker's instructions, and set the temperature at a steady 225 degrees, with enough fuel to burn 9 hours. Follow the seasoning instructions below.
2. If baking in an oven, preheat oven to 275 degrees.
3. Combine the spices in a bowl. Rub the meat thoroughly with mustard, then cover with spice rub. Put in the oven in a roasting pan, with ½ cup of water. Cook uncovered for about 9 hours, checking every hour to make sure pan isn't burning on the bottom.
4. When it is ready, the meat will be completely relaxed, with no bounce-back when pressed with a finger. Serve shredded in a sandwich as pulled pork with barbecue sauce. (Fred Morin's preference is for a maple barbecue sauce.)
Note: as a variation, Real Montreal Steak Spice and be used in place of the rub spices.
Per serving: 565 calories, 42 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, 42 grams protein, 255 milligrams sodium, 0.3 gram fiber
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.