Last night, I vomited in a great restaurant.

It was toward the end of a long and extravagant meal in Montreal. At Joe Beef, crouched on the floor of a bathroom tacked up with souvenirs of old Quebec, wondering if anybody outside could hear me retching, I reflected how my own capacity for pleasure had shrunk to the size of a toilet bowl. I felt shame.

A long time ago in France, people understood gluttony. They felt no shame. The writer Alexandre Dumas, a man disguised as a triumphal arch, philosophized about how a deliberate surfeit of the best things to eat and drink can engorge one’s feeling for the world. Even a less gargantuan writer, the Englishman John Cordy Jeaffreson, noted how the titanic pursuit of gastronomy “enlarges the affections, stimulates the intellect, and inspires…lofty ambitions.”

Joe Beef understands this. David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and Allison Cunningham opened this place in 2005, on rue Notre Dame Ouest, in Montreal’s unglamorous Petit Bourgogne district. They named it for Charles “Joe Beef” McKiernan, a famous tavern owner of the 19th century, an atheist, champion of the economically and socially fucked-up Montreal, and an unstinting provisioner. McMillan and Morin cooked in the tradition of Quebec’s working-class bistros, which preserved the no-bullshit spirit of bistros in France, when they were genuine places for working people.

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McMillan and Morin’s 2011 book, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef (with Meredith Erickson), is one of the best, most evocative, and lavishly opinionated cookbooks published this century. They have since opened Liverpool House, a casual walk-in restaurant, and Le Vin Papillon, a wine bar, on the same block of rue Notre Dame.


Joe Beef is French without being either dickish or pinched. It is the most generous and least judgmental restaurant in North America. It enlarges, stimulates, and inspires. It is dangerous.

Hours before last night’s bathroom epiphany, my husband and I submitted to Joe Beef’s mercy. We were seated in the humid terrace out back, at the top of an L-shaped garden with board-box lettuce beds, a massive shock of lacinato kale, up against the brick of the adjacent building.

The menu is chalked on a couple of monumental boards; the phrasing of the dishes can be elliptical. Three times I walked from our table to the boards to look; three times I came back confused, lost. Samia, our server, had a fierce, theatrical beauty, with heavy lips and deeply rouged cheeks. I told her to just bring us stuff.

“Joe Beef is French without being either dickish or pinched. It is the most generous and least judgmental restaurant in North America. It enlarges, stimulates, and inspires. It is dangerous.”

It was like shoving a sliding door all the way open, before the 50-mile-an-hour gusts of le mistral.

She brought us an aperitif-like cocktail and a bourbon highball. Then a grand aioli de Provence on the scale of Curnonsky, a plate covered in vegetable thatch. There were radishes with faintly sandpapery leaves, Sneetch-necked garlic scapes, warm-boiled potatoes, cockles, and a creamy-yolk egg. Thick garlic mayo showed a pale, serpentine green in a screw-thread jar not precious enough for Pinterest. A couple of big fried squash flowers in spectral batter, next to abdomens of Quebec lobster, succulent and jiggly.


I was spared having to consult the runelike scratches of the chalkboard wine menu. I told Vanya Filipovic, the manager here and at Vin Papillon, that we wanted something crisp and mineral; she brought four bottles and lined them up on the table like the differently contoured vibrators in a sex shop. Competent and ponytailed, she described their natures.

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We had smoked-meat croquettes rolled in rye crumbs, dabbed with yellow mustard that could’ve been French’s. We had chilled soup from a pitcher, zucchini purée charged with gobs of cream in an extravagant fantasy of la cuisine bourgeoise. Samia poured it over fresh-peeled favas in our bowls, as well as lumps of tangy Quebec chèvre and shavings of aged French goat cheese: a concordance of ruminants, Old World and New. It was delicious. I ate a lot.

A plate of horse tartare arrived—an oval crater of oxidized red, filled with viscous duck-egg yolk, golden like an orange with the pith removed. It came with half slices of warm brioche, proofed and baked within the ribbed shaft of an ordinary can. “Where are you getting the horse?” I asked. I was trying not to burp audibly.

“Pennsylvania,” Vanya said. I’d had a couple of glasses of a Riesling from Domaine Ostertag by then and this sounded reasonable.

“It’s like we took drugs,” I said to my husband, “and we don’t know when they’re going to peak.”


A thick lobster sausage, bronze-colored after an ardent sear, nuzzled matte-green tendrils of pea vines. I cut the heart out of it, not knowing what was coming next or when it would all end. I was feeling full. I was starting to feel desperate. I was burping.

lobstersausage
“This is all just meant for you to take a few bites,” Vanya said as she dropped a platter of chitarra pasta, sauced with butter, corn, and bacon smoked at the back of the garden. “Just taste and move on,” she said, shaving an Umbrian truffle over the yellow clump of noodles. “Taste and move on.”

“Ooh, what’s zis?” said Luc-Pierre, a Quebecois server with a lumberjack beard and Harry Potter glasses, pausing behind Vanya as she shaved.

We had wisps of piglet ham—pink like a toddler’s palms—scattered over delicate vegetable wafers, surrounded by a thin sauce of cream steeped with corn. The burps were erupting regularly now. My husband shot me a look.


The chef, Marc-Olivier Frappier (Marco), dropped off a sandwich—a long brioche, split lobster roll–style and stuffed with thin slices of smoked tongue, scattered with sautéed girolles. Luc-Pierre poured something from a sauceboat up and down the length and around the perimeter. “Just a lee-ttle butter sauce,” he said, and giggled. It was the best version of the shitty Canadian smoked-meat sandwich I’d tasted.

By now our Riesling was cashed. Vanya showed up toting upside-down glasses and a bottle, a Beaune premier cru. “Something to take a breath with,” she said, raising a hand like she was summoning the wind (I’m pretty sure she’d caught me burping). “Just breeeathe.”

“It’s like we took drugs,” I said to my husband, “and we don’t know when they’re going to peak.”

Samia brought scallops—eight of them, seared a cordovan brown on top, but pure, white, and elastic underneath. They were on top of a sort of chili of chickpeas and gnarled little lobster pieces, fancy and yet not. Thoughts of throwing up were beginning to anchor the blurry swipe of my consciousness.

The wine was cold, bracing. I told Vanya I liked it when she came by again. “Isn’t it nice?” she said. “It does all kinds of things to my mind.” Samia set down bowls of blueberry sorbet, a deep violet-red, with a small, clear pool of elderflower eau de vie at the bottom. I ate a few spoonfuls, and then—my fateful trip to the bathroom.

The shame I felt, in part, was for my lack of appreciation for the last meditative courses: a slice of marjolaine as big as a trade paperback, smooth layers of chocolate ganache alternating with smoother layers of pound cake, with butter as a kind of fungible currency between them. “Our little homage to Fernand Point,” Vanya said as she dropped it, then returned with a bottle of sweet, fizzy Bugey-Cerdon. I couldn’t manage more than a token taste of either.

chitarra
“Let’s take a walk and let things settle,” Vanya said. “Bring your glasses.” She led us to the back of the garden, to see the double-door smoker, near the trout pen, where fish moved invisibly in the dark. Across the parking strip some guys were playing soccer under lights, flashes of gold nylon on the brilliant green.

“And here,” she said, pointing to a wall of enormous leaves that seemed to be scaling a wall next to a parking space. “We kept throwing our pumpkin seeds here, and finally, they grew into something marvelous.” I was drunk, in love with the idea of magic seeds creating an edible world in a parking lot. I parted the leaves in the dark, and saw the same kind of blossoms we’d started the meal with.

“This is amazing.”

We drifted back to our table, paid the bill, and walked out to rue Notre Dame, into an Uber that smelled unapologetically of farts, and a world that seemed newly elastic, and with an expanded capacity for joy.