Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Fred Morin looked out at the gravel driveway and asphalt lane behind Joe Beef and said to me, “This restaurant wouldn’t happen in most places. Not in California or New York. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We try to keep things real and true to who we are.”
It was a hot July night in Montreal and Morin was commenting on the modest surroundings of what is indisputably one of Canada’s best places to dine. I had only briefly met Morin once before this evening. My previous journalistic interactions with the Joe Beef empire were through his business partner, David McMillan. Spending time with Morin and chef de cuisine Marc-Olivier Frappier, and getting to know more about how Joe Beef accomplishes what it does was a top highlight of my Canadian travels this year.
Morin, who can come across as a practical joker, struck me as deeply intelligent and empathetic. He talked about why it’s important to cater to all people and not only connoisseurs or so-called food experts. “Some people only make $400 a week and they maybe have two kids and they save up all they can so they can go out for their anniversary and maybe they don’t get to eat as well as some others, but their opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. I find too many critics and too many people in the industry lose touch with that.”
He appeared sheepish when a group of fans — business travellers from Texas — came over to ask for an autograph and a photo. “Ever since the cookbook came out,” Frappier told me as Morin mugged for the camera, “it’s been non-stop. People have been coming in from all over.”
The cookbook, “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef,” has won numerous accolades and broaden the appeal of the chefs and co-owners. Still, despite the success, Morin spoke about his desire to spend more time with his kids now that each of the restaurants — Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon and Liverpool House, all along Notre-Dame Street West in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood — has established itself. He talked about his love of mixed-martial arts and train travel, of the improvement in Canada’s culinary scene, and of his belief that cooking isn’t about invention, but reinvention.
“It’s about assembly, not creation. Writers don’t invent words usually and they don’t invent letters. Chefs, it’s the same. It’s about assembly. Taking the ingredients you have and putting them together in a way that seems new, but is still honouring the origins of that recipe,” he said.
It was shellfish season, so we had clams and chilled lobster and a sample of a few other dishes. All of it was great, but the food wasn’t as important as the experience of Joe Beef, where the backyard dining space delivers everything you want it to when you walk in. It’s a house party, with the best wines and the best flavours to match the splendid company.
Morin and McMillan have woven some magic in a neighbourhood that not so long ago was a rough part of the city. That edginess is part of the character of the place too. As Morin said, it’s staying true to themselves and there is no doubt that such honesty plays a part in why Joe Beef is so successful and so beloved.
Best Dinners Not at Joe Beef: I wrote about Hopgood’s Foodliner earlier this year and why I think it is Toronto’s top kitchen at the moment. But I can’t fail to mention Ayden Kitchen and Bar, a destination restaurant in the heart of the prairies. The downtown Saskatoon standout run by Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay has to be on anyone’s places-to-dine list. It ranked No. 10 on the 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. Other great meals: A fantastic opening-week treat at My Shanti, where Vikram Vij showed the varied menu items inspired by India’s many regions at his newest restaurant in suburban Surrey, British Columbia; Michelin-starred chef Oliver Glowig from Italy has taken over at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto and his menu provided the best dining experience I’ve had at TOCA since it opened in 2011; and a delightful meal at Tacofino Commissary in east Vancouver, where co-owners Matt MacIsaac and Ryan Spong demonstrated why this brand is such a favourite on the west coast.
Best Service: Hawksworth at the Hotel Georgia in Vancouver. The elegant restaurant has a battalion of classy and sharp servers and sommeliers always on standby. Far from overbearing, the Hawksworth crew do what great service teams are supposed to do: anticipate your need before you know it and deliver it without intrusion. It’s artful — just like the cuisine.
Best Lunch: Shiki Menya Ramen House in Calgary‘s Bridgeland neighbourhood opened in April and immediately found a following. The restaurant makes 150 bowls of ramen a day and the line-up to get some of that noodle-and-broth goodness can wind around the block. The noodles are made in house and spend 16 hours in a pork broth before being served. Delicious stuff. Click here to read more about Shiki Menya.
Best “Street” Food: A section of Vancouver’s Robson Street was turned into a fiery barbecue pit in September thanks to CinCin‘s collaboration with celebrity Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. The grill master and his team from South America hung Alberta ribeye beef on rungs and let it cook for about nine hours beneath carefully maintained flames. The sight and the aroma drew a crowd to the spectacle. The beef was plated later that night in the restaurant for one sensational dining experience. Click here to read about that dinner.
Best Meal for the Buck: I discovered dining in Richmond, British Columbia and came away with a revelation. I didn’t think you could dine this well for this cheap in Canada. The meals I had at places like Suhang and Golden Paramount were satisfying portions of fresh, tasty foods carefully crafted from family recipes. At Golden Paramount, the bill for a large dim sum order for four people came to $40. Read more and plan your foodie outing to Richmond.
Craft Beer Worth the Trip: Heartstopper, a stout with cayenne pepper and Mexican chocolate, is made by Paddock Wood Brewing in Saskatoon. It uses Columbus and Sovereign hops, and is so tasty and unique you’ll be thinking about it for weeks.
Most Great Food Under One Roof: The Victoria Public Market opened in 2013 and has become one of the leading foodie destinations in British Columbia. You’ll find Sutra, a small eatery under the Vij’s umbrella, Cowichan Bay Seafood, a terrific Mexican restaurant called La Cocina de Mama Oli and many more owner-operated shops serving food made from local ingredients. Click here to read more.
Best Dessert: Patrice Patissier, a block away from Joe Beef in Montreal, creates a whimsical array of delicacies, including a chou a la creme with banana, chocolate and caramel that will leave you with the same feeling as a good drug. The establishment is the brainchild of Patrice Demers, one of the country’s finest pastry chefs.
Best Hotel Stay: I have yet to stay at the Fogo Island Inn, so until then — and perhaps afterwards, too — the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto will remain my choice for best hotel in Canada. This year, I partook in the Club Level experience that turned out to be a bargain, thanks to non-stop food offerings, complimentary drinks and laundry service — a necessity for a business traveller on a long stay. Read more about it here.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The James Hotel in Saskatoon offers big, immaculate rooms overlooking the South Saskatchewan River. It’s a boutique property that manages to make you feel at home even though you are on a luxury getaway.
Best Hotel Breakfast: What a find. That’s what you’ll think when you spend a night at Abigail’s Hotel in Victoria and then start your morning with a breakfast prepared by chefs with a strong culinary background on Vancouver Island. The hotel’s chefs have or are currently working at establishments such as Brasserie L’ecole, Sooke Harbour House, Camille’s and Butchart Gardens’ Dining Room. One of the best breakfast dishes I’ve had anywhere was the German Apple Pancake that was delicate, savoury and not overly sweet.
Wilderness Resort Worth a Visit: Deerhurst Resort in Ontario’s Muskoka Region is a gateway to famed Algonquin Provincial Park and a luxury getaway that’s only a couple of hours by car from downtown Toronto. There’s an exceptional culinary program, family activities for all seasons and experiential arts programs.
This Year’s Proof of the Power of Positive Thinking: The 102nd Calgary Stampede showed the resilience and community spirit of the city as residents rebounded from the flood of 2013 to put on another fantastic edition of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. It didn’t hurt that Shania Twain was playing her first concerts in Canada in a decade. Click here to read more about the 2014 Calgary Stampede highlights.
This Year’s Proof of the Power of Getting Funky: Trombone Shorty put on a memorable show at Metropolis during the 35th Montreal Jazz Fest. His performance was among the highlights of the event considered the greatest jazz festival in the world. Earth, Wind and Fire, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello, B.B. King and Gary Clark Jr., and Woodkid were headliners at one of the most culturally important celebrations in Canada.
This Year’s Proof of the Power of Arm-twisting: I have avoided the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk since it opened in 2011. The fear of heights always got the best of me when I thought of making the walk on the outside of the western hemisphere’s tallest free-standing structure. But I couldn’t get out of the experience when a friend coaxed me to the top on a sunny autumn afternoon. How was it? If anything could induce a heart attack from an acrophobia sufferer, the EdgeWalk would be it. The EdgeWalk is ridiculously safe but if your fear of heights is irrational then walking in a circle on a steel plank that you can see through all the way down to 1,800 feet below isn’t going to conquer it. Nevermind that you are tethered to a harness that can hold an elephant or that you’re moving in a group of encouraging daredevils, the EdgeWalk is a test of your courage. I realized something I already knew — I’m not so brave.
Most Fun in the Middle of Nowhere: The Gathering, an event created by comedian Shaun Majumder to support his hometown, turns Burlington, Newfoundland and Labrador into a celebration of music, food and culture. Sam Roberts played all three nights of the 2014 event, and Majumder and fellow “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” star Mark Critch put on a world-class comedy routine for the crowd. Jeremy Charles of Raymonds was among a brigade of leading chefs from the province who cooked and grilled non-stop. The Gathering is intended to raise funds to help turn Burlington into a tourism destination — and prevent its citizens from having to relocate to more populous areas to find work.
Best Use of Sports Jerseys: 54-40 brought on CFL fans of all stripes during their rendition of “Casual Viewin'” during the band’s Grey Cup Festival concert at Canada Place in Vancouver. It was a spontaneous moment that underscored how important these football teams are to many fans, particularly those from western cities.
Example of Animal Commercialization That Works: The Coombs Country Market is an accidental tourist attraction because of the goats on the roof. The horned animals attract about a million visitors a year to the middle of Vancouver Island, where the country market offers good treats and shops that sell local products. Click here to read how the goats got onto the roof.
On the List for 2015: Tofino, my favourite place in Canada, will be on my itinerary early and often in the new year.