Joe Beef

Montreal Winter-Melting (Pot) Moments

Visitors often comment on Montreal’s neighbourhoods. Each one has a different feel.  Some parts of town feel European, others like they could be anywhere. Montreal neighbourhoods are always changing. Areas popular with immigrants transition as groups establish themselves. Blocks that used to be run down slowly morph into cool and hip.

Two recent restaurant meals tell the story better than I can.

H4C, a restaurant in that very zip code is in the heart of Little Burgundy, an area long known as poor, tough, and undesirable. It is now seen as an up and coming, if not even maybe “here and now” young neighbourhood, minutes away from downtown, close to the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. The Joe Beef gang began the restaurant gentrification several years ago, and now the wave is continuing west, with solid names like Tuck Shop, Rustique Pie Kitchen, Satay Brothers and thankfully, H4C.

The restaurant’s website told me I would be in for something special. How many restaurants have an “Architecture” tab on their site?  The space is beautiful. An old post office was converted into a perfect dining room. It is open, but not too open. Airy without being cold or severe. Lighting is perfect, which is rare. Service is knowledgeable and reservedly friendly, which seemed to suit the space.  Diners can peek into the super-equipped kitchen, while noise and cooking smells are kept out of the dining room itself. Now, onto the food!

Every plate was beautiful. Every morsel was delicious. While menu descriptions sounded simple, execution proved the level of detail was anything but.

Carmelized liver mousse, huckleberry, pickled onions, toast

Caramelized liver mousse, huckleberry, pickled onions, toast

Braised veal cheek, salsify, black trumpets, brussel sprouts, black garlic

Braised veal cheek, salsify, black trumpets, brussel sprouts, black garlic

One of the deserts we devoured won the Montreal Gazette’s dish of the year (click link for the complete article and a video). “Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oatmeal, maple” was a triumph.

Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oat, maple

Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oat, maple

Lesley Chesterman, a critic not afraid to call it like she sees it wrote:

“This unique dessert at H4C was just beyond the beyond. The mix included an apple sorbet, an apple brunoise, apple jelly, muesli and a large quenelle of buckwheat ice cream. The way that gorgeous ice cream played off the muesli was brilliant, but the inspired addition of a slice of cheddar cheese in the middle of it all took this dish to another level. It was not only the dish of the night, but one of the best desserts I’ve ever sampled: the perfect example of technique meets innovation meets deliciousness. Bravo!”

A few weeks later we finally made it to Impasto in Little Italy. Stefano Faita, a local foodie celebrity, and Michel Forgione, a well respected local chef opened this corner restaurant last summer. Did I mention it is based on “local”? The restaurant is across the street from Stefano’s family’s “hardware” store (specializing in kitchen ware and hunting equipment!) and Stefano’s cooking school. It is a few blocks from the all-important Jean-Talon market. Décor is simple, and perfect, in a much different way. The exterior blends in seamlessly with the block. No “look at me” here! The interior says “Italia”, from the terrazzo floor to the sleek walnut paneled walls to the marble tabletops.  The vibe matches the style of cooking. It is friendly, comfortable and Italian. While I understand this restaurant is all about the pastas, I have to say they were fine, but not the standouts of our meal. The charcuterie was exceptional, and (some of you readers may shudder), the porchetta was the best I have ever even IMAGINED eating. The fact that desserts were delicious actually came as a surprise – I am usually disappointed at Italian restaurants in Montreal. The tiramisu was not too sweet or too airy, and the chocolate-hazelnut cake was so good I am still craving another piece.

Reflecting on this blog and thinking how lucky I am to live in a city this diverse and foodie-friendly, I popped into Cheskie’s bakery on Bernard Street. That was the clincher, and I found myself chuckling. There was an orthodox Jewish man buying bread and some cookies. A young religious girl was buying an assortment of pastries, including the requisite sponge cake. Next, a hipster French-Canadian girl ordered chocolate croissants. Two very large Black guys were next. In French, they ordered sandwiches. One of the guys knew no meat was served. He was about to order a tuna sandwich when he spotted something and asked what it was. When told it was lox spread, his face lit up, and he said “one of those, and one for my friend”. I knew I was in Montreal, and left the bakery with the best babka in town and a smile.

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Therapy

What IS it about going to your favourite restaurant?  It is more than the food or wine list which, in my case, is epic.  No, it is the ability of the experience to assure you that everything is right in the world.  It is a feeling I cherish, and only recently have begun to question. Somehow it presses a “reset” button on my emotional outlook.  The next morning I wake up (maybe a little hungover, but) with a smile. These dinners are not just meals. They are truly about “dining”. And delight in the senses. My eyes are busy between plates and faces. My ears pick up bits of conversations and music.  The iPod’s playlist always says something about the mood in the kitchen. Is tonight an indie night or are we really listening to rap- the words blurred by the general din of guests? My nose is often in a glass, discovering a new wine find. And of course, as far as touch and taste- textures and flavours never disappoint.

I am an oyster snob. I only like them if they are exceptionally good. Otherwise, I’m happy to let my dining company enjoy them. It isn’t that I’m worried about getting sick – I just don’t like them enough to eat oysters that are “ok”.  I have to admit I almost ordered more, for the first time, ever. We ate wild Beausoleils hand-picked by divers. They were too good to dress with anything. Mmmm. Sorry the photo is so fuzzy –  I refused to use a flash.

Wild Beausoeils

I have a love/ hate relationship with “inventive” cuisine, often finding it contrived without being particularly good. But when it is done well, it makes me giggle (ok, not always obviously). Last night “Buffalo Mozzarella di Bufala” had me grinning like a fool. Deep fried balls of good mozzarella that were breaded in cornflake crumbs in a pool of buffalo-wing sauce with blue cheese and garnished with thin slices of celery. I heard that stupid “angel” music in my head! My mouth is watering as I write.

Buffalo mozzarella di Buffalo

Pumpkin Pie soft serve…Before

…and AFTER

The final word goes to what we drank with our soft serve. Dessert wines and I don’t often go in the same sentence. But maybe I’m turning a corner. We tasted, for the very first time, a Mistelle. A what?  Imagine Port, less sweet, and less hot.  in fact, I read after that mistelles are fresh grape juice which the fermentation process has been stopped by the addition of alcohol. Mistelle is a fortified wine, and the most well known examples are Pineau des Charentes and Floc de Gascogne. Learn something new every day.

To all my friends who are part of my favourite restaurant, who always look happy to see me and take a few minutes when they are in a service rush to say “hi”, thank you for reminding me what it is all about.  Life is good.

For External Use Only

Usually when I taste something I like, I need to make it. To have more of it and to be able to “own” it. Such was the case with a mostarda I was lucky enough to taste at a Mark Vetri evening last year at Joe Beef. Mostarda is a fruit (or veggie)  conserve that combines the intense spice of mustard with the sweet flavors of candied fruit.  The artichokes were unreal. Sweet, nose clearing perfection.

Mostarda fruits

Essentially the recipe is:

1 lb. fruit or veggies such as quince, peeled + seeded squash, clementines…

1 2/3 c sugar

4 c water

¼ c liquid glucose or light corn syrup

And here is the interesting part: 2 drops essential oil of mustard, or 1 or 2 tsp pure mustard oil or mustard powder

I saw a magic bottle of essential oil of mustard at Joe Beef, up on a shelf and cloaked in mystery. You see, this stuff is basically liquid mustard gas! Apparently, there are a few pharmacies in Italy who sell the stuff (I can’t wait to go and ask for it in my horrendous Italian and see the look on the pharmacist’s face). But alas, I had to make do with “pure mustard oil”, which is almost as hard to track down.  I forayed into a dusty East Indian grocery to find a bottle.  The FDA and Canadian Food Inspection Agency require imported mustard seed oil to be labeled ‘for external use only,’ so this is the label on this bottle. As the spice expert Gernot Katzer says:

”Because of the erucic acid and maybe also the isothiocyanates, mustard oil is not a legal foodstuff in most western countries, including the EU and the USA, and it must not be sold as a cooking oil. Nevertheless, Indian food shops often sell mustard oil, but to circumvent these paternalistic laws, their mustard oil is labeled ”For external use only”. There is no need to take that remark seriously, although mustard oil does have cosmetic use in India (e.g. as hair balm).”

Unfortunately, the brand I bought was almost tasteless, and the mostarda was a non-event…I will give it another try after my next trip to Italy.  BUT WAIT – I found some pretty darn amazing mostarda on this side of the pond at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA. 

They have a great selection, including a quince paste (already yummy) mostarda. Break out your cheese or salumi….it is seriously mmmmm

Day 1 – toss the fruit/veggies with the sugar in a bowl and let sit overnight uncovered at room temperature.

Day 2 – put the fruit into a colander set over a bowl and rinse with some of the 4 c of water. Rinse the bowl with the rest of the water (you don’t want to throw any of it out). Set aside the fruit/veg. Add glucose / corn syrup to the liquid and boil until you get 220 degrees F (attach a candy thermometer to the pot).  Add the fruits and reheat to 220 F. Immediately remove from heat and let stand uncovered overnight at room temperature.

Day 3 – drain the fruits/veg and boil the liquid over high until it reaches 222 F for 10 – 15 minutes. Return the fruits and heat until you get back to 222F. Immediately remove from heat and let stand uncovered overnight at room temperature.

Day 4 – do it again to 224F

Day 5 – same thing to 226F. Once cooled to room temperature the fruits/veg should be soft and covered with syrup. Stir in the mustard oil. If using powder, first stir it into ¼ c of the syrup and heat them until powder dissolves. Add back into rest of syrup

It will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Please tell me if you make it.  I want to hear the story