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.
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