We finally went to Joe Beef last week. We’ve been hearing about it since it opened, but for us it was like the hot new tv show or blockbuster film that everyone is raving about: the raving is a big turnoff. But after reading the new Joe Beef cook book, which is basically an edible love letter to the city of Montréal, we were dying to go. We’re not particularly interested in the Joe Beef approach to cooking, but fascinated by how the book perfectly captures and communicates in plain English what’s often weakly described as our city’s joie de vivre, or uncertainly defined as a certain je ne sais quoi.
The experience of the restaurant delivered what the book so expertly decodes. It’s much more than the swagger of the menu or the poise of the wine list. I’d even say it doesn’t really matter what you eat there, because everything seems infused with the same sense of terroir, the same playful irony, and the same bacon. We enjoyed a complementary course of shaved ham (the whole ham, it seemed) and hot toast slathered with a gravy of foie gras. Just because we looked like a couple of hungry guys, I guess, or because the sommelier was touched by our enthusiasm for the wine she’d recommended. Maybe everyone was getting free ham that night. It wouldn’t be surprising.
Rob had a bisque and grilled rabbit with prunes, and I had Pojarski of sturgeon, with a sauce meurette (featuring fabulously cooked mushrooms that turned out to be snails), and then lobster spaghetti. Enough food to feed a small family for a week. Not surprising I guess, from a chef who likes to eat a dozen chops in one sitting.
We didn’t have beef, but this steak au poivre is a kind of homage to Joe Beef’s Montreal. We live in the neighbourhood where McMillan and Morin worked for so long before moving their act to lower town – a strip of St-Laurent Boulevard frequently called The Main, and sometimes called the spine of the city because of the role it has played in connecting Montreal’s many cultures. At the moment, it’s mainly supper clubs, pool rooms and tattoo parlours that seem to open one season and close the next, but there are also places that seem like they’ve been here forever, like the butcher shop Slovenia.
Unless you know about Slovenia, it’s not the kind of place you’re likely to be drawn into, or even notice as you pass by. The sun has bleached all colour from the products in their window displays, and you can’t see in anyway, because the windows are completely fogged up by an ancient steam table by the front cash that keeps sausages hot for sandwiches. Once you’re inside, the tiny shop is impossible to navigate. I think the fridge where they hang the meat is larger than the store itself. In any case, we bought some beef tenderloin there once about 5 years ago and haven’t bought it anywhere else since.
This steak au poivre recipe has two major inspirations: Julia Child, from whom we enthusiastically borrow the idea of including red Szechuan pepper in the mix. The other inspiration is Ethné and Philippe de Vienne’s spectacular collection of peppers. We’ve experimented with a wide variety of the dozens they carry and are completely in love with both their early harvest green tribal pepper and their red Kampot pepper. Maybe you don’t need 5 of the world’s best peppers to make a good pepper steak, but here on the Main, this is how we like to do things.
steak au poivre
2 small, thick steaks (tenderloin and faux-filet work well)
1 tsp. grey salt or other coarse sea salt
2 tsp. wild Madagascar pepper
1 tsp. red Kampot pepper (or Tellicherry extra bold)
1 tsp. early harvest green pepper
½ tsp. white pepper
10 red Szechuan pepper berries
about 2 tbsp. butter, separated
1 lg. shallot, minced
3 tbsp. Armagnac, Bourbon, Calvados, etc.
½ C demi-glace
scant half-teaspoon of finely chopped fresh thyme
Rub the steaks with the salt.
Grind the peppers together into a coarse powder and apply to all sides of the steaks. Let rest at room temperature for at least half an hour.
In a cast iron pan just large enough for the steaks, heat a thread of olive oil and a knob of butter over very high heat, until almost smoking. Reduce the heat to medium-high and sear the steaks 2-3 min. on each side, being careful not to overcook.
Turn off the heat and remove the steaks from the pan. If they are very thick, they may need to finish cooking in a hot oven. Otherwise, just let them rest.
Add another knob of butter to the pan and bring it to a bubbling foam over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the minced shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the Armagnac. Allow it to boil for 20 seconds, or ignite it and allow the flames to die while shaking the pan very gently. Add the stock and reduce by about half while stirring – this will happen quite quickly. Turn off the heat and stir in a final knob of butter and the thyme. Do not re-boil the sauce or it will split. Check for seasoning and pour over the steaks.
Serve with a well-structured and tannic wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, or Nebbiolo.