Eating Horse Meat at Joe Beef

Our experience at the legendary French bistro in Montreal.


9/11/20235 min read

Joe Beef, nestled in the heart of Montreal's Little Burgundy neighborhood, is not your typical French bistro. This place has a history as rich as its cuisine, a story that reads like a love letter between French traditionalism and the unapologetic je ne sais quoi of Quebec.

David McMillan and Frédéric Morin - the culinary mavericks behind Joe Beef - are no strangers to pushing boundaries. Their approach to French cuisine is a mix of unwavering indulgence and a dash of daring. They can be seen on Parts Unknown alongside Anthony Bourdain, who called the restaurant one of his all time favorites. So, naturally, on the recommendation of a friend and with full trust in Mr. Bourdain, we drove 6 hours from Providence to see what it really means to experience true Quebecois cuisine.

We've eaten a lot of food. From street food to some of the best restaurants in the world, we've been lucky enough to sample quite a few unique meals. So it's no small compliment to say - I fell in love with Joe Beef. It started with the restaurant itself. It is not fancy. In actuality, it's rather unassuming. I think therein lies the charm; the same energy that Anthony Bourdain spoke about was the feeling we got the moment we entered the door - the expectation of pretentiousness, the unfair assumption that storied French cuisine in the historic heart of Montreal is necessarily stuffy and inaccessible, was turned completely on its head. It's intimate. It's cozy. And without a word from the staff or the other patrons you can sense what wavelength the place is on the minute your butt hits the chair - it's all about the food. Great food, inventive food, done with a level of passion and intensity worthy of white tablecloths and tuxedoed sommeliers, by cooks who will crack a joke, toss you a beer, and laugh with you in place that looks like it could be your grandma's kitchen. This is Joe Beef.

When in Montreal, do as the French do. Or something like that. Perhaps more aptly paraphrased as, "when at Joe Beef, eat as the French eat." The menu is not extensive, but the choices are plenty. The hors d'oeuvre are a tantalizing mix of classic French dishes, with croquettes, tartare, and of course foie gras in various forms. There are classic preparations, executed with traditional French methods, which will remind you (or prove to you in the first place) why France is synonymous with food. Take for instance the escargot, which are baked in classic ceramic dish bathed in scratch made herbed butter, or, if brave enough, the delicious sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas, for the uninitiated). But there are also more esoteric menu items, depending on the availability of fresh ingredients and the current deviousness of the chefs. At our visit, we were surprised to find among the appetizers something I've only ever had in Japan - horse. Of course we had to order it. We were treated with a delicious horse tartare, salty and rich with a hint of vinegar, layered with anchovies and served alongside a pile of fresh chips. Between the escargot and tartare, we were in a bliss of buttery umami.

There are classic mains, like lobster spaghetti or steak au poivre, which have been on the menu in one form or another for decades. These will not disappoint. There is also a specials blackboard which can change with the flick of an eraser, offering fish, meat and poultry dishes of various extravagance (thick on the bone steaks the size of your head). Anastasia went for scallops, paired with crispy pork and potatoes, and I ventured for the duck. I order duck a lot, and am usually underwhelmed. Joe Beef delivered with some of the best duck I've ever had - crispy skin, perfectly tender, and in some elixir of jus and cherries that had my eyes watering. Just take a look.

At this point we were too stuffed for dessert, but if your stomach can handle more butter than ours, you'll be delighted by the options. The most famous, called Marjolaine Classique, is a layered cake with almond, hazelnut, and chocolate that by all accounts, is well worth the indulgence. Other items change, but rest assured, each of the various tarts, profiteroles, entremets, and yes even cheeses, will delight you as much as the next.

"They are Canadian. They are Québécois. And what they bring to gastronomy is a particular embrace of French Canadian lumberjack appetites and joie de vivre — coupled with a deep respect for the traditions of dining and hospitality unique to their region.

They do not look like intellectuals, historians, or gentlemen farmers. They look more like a motorcycle gang or well-fed fur trappers."

- Anthony Bourdain, Field Notes for Quebec, Parts Unknown

If there are any flaws with Joe Beef, they are not so much with the food as they are with the business of running a restaurant. The prices are not cheap - but for the food, the hospitality, and the Quebecois experience at Joe Beef, we feel well worth paying. Our only reservation is, well, getting a reservation. A seat at Joe Beef is notoriously tough to get, even on a weekday. You can book online at Resy, but be warned - plan well in advance, and plan to be flexible. We ended up at the bar at 5pm, which turned out to be great (we got to chat with the cooks and watch them shuck oysters), but the options for anything later on in the evening were nonexistent. If you're a big party, plan to jump on reservations as soon as they're released.

So there you have it - Joe Beef is equal parts quirky and classic, where French cuisine takes center stage in unapologetically Canadian fashion. If you're in Montreal for the first time (or the second, or the third...) it's a must. You won't regret it. Just take Mr. Bourdain's word for it: