New York-based Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats recently hosted its annual Butcher Blackout at the Montreal restaurant Joe Beef. Despite the dinner coming directly on the heels of my gluttonous maple syrup feast at Pied de Cochon's sugar shack (it was the next night) I knew better than to turn down an opportunity to eat a massive meal of Fleisher's famed beasts multiplied by Joe Beef's spunk.
Fleisher's is run by former vegetarians (!) Joshua and Jessica Applestone, a duo with a serious commitment to ethical animal practices. All of their meats are sourced from small farms, where healthy animals have access to grass and open pastures. Their old-fashioned philosophy has drummed up a tremendous amount of attention in the seven years they've been in business. (You also may have heard of Fleisher's from SE's meat t-shirt contest, or, for better or for worse, through Julie Powell's butcher memoir, Cleaving). As a restaurant renowned for both its creative fare and exclusive party atmosphere, Joe Beef was the perfect showcase for the Fleisher's crew and their gourmet meats.
At 10 PM on Friday night, I walked into the restaurant, and was immediately handed a sweating bottle of Czechvar. I wandered to the back terrace, which was littered with empty champagne bottles and well-gnawed ribs.
As we plucked hot morsels from the oversized grill and charcoal pit, welded together by chef and co-proprietor Frédéric Morin, I sampled all manner of Fleisher's famed beasts, including tiny bites of lamb sausage and suckling pig. While admiring the remains of a charred kid goat they picked up at the Atwater Market earlier that day, I was handed a paper plate, heaped high with cold, sticky pork ribs. Shivering in the frigid air, I happily chewed on the fatty, yielding meat.
Back inside, Joe Beef's cozy dining room pulsed with energy. A few scattered candles threw shadows on the walls. As I settled into a booth tucked behind the oyster bar, the Black Keys and Neil Young blared from a stereo. The staff at Joe Beef remained mysteriously mum about the evening's proceedings, and we were given no hints as to what the menu would entail.
Fingers tacky with barbecue sauce, I clapped excitedly when our first dish was placed on the table. A scattering of thickly cut, deep-fried bacon, served with chartreuse-hued sour pickle dipping juice, provided a cracker-like snap of flavor against the dregs of the Czechvar.
A huge platter was piled high with smoked ham, spicy pickled vegetables and whole garlic cloves. It also contained Joe Beef's riff on the iconic American after-school snack, "ants on a log." Joe Beef's dinner-appropriate variation substituted peanut butter for a blue cheese spread, studded with walnuts and tucked into the crunchy curl of a celery stick.
Pork belly returned again only moments later. Crispy, wafer-thin strips of bacon, stacked high on a plate, glistened provocatively under the candlelight. Before I knew what was happening, our server struck a lighter, and the entire dish went up in flames. The flambéd finish (provided by a glug of Ballantine Scotch whisky) imparted a boozy, caramelized edge to the gently incinerated bacon.
Our server, Vanya, brought over a dozen glistening Massachusetts oysters, declaring them "ocean cupcakes." Prince Edward Island native and champion shucker John Bil (his record is 18 perfectly shucked oysters in one minute and 26 seconds) had prepared these gorgeous specimens, which were half Chopper's Choice, and half Cotuits. Set on a bed of cold ice, and with plenty of fortifying seawater tonic still cradled in the shell, the oysters were vessels for only the most simple of dressings: a delicate flurry of grated horseradish, thick wedges of lemon, and mignonette sauce.
Though I don't normally gravitate towards Ontario wines, Vanya poured us cold glasses of Norman Hardie's Prince Edward County Muscadet. It was delicious, bone-dry and full of gritty mineral and shades of light citrus.
A buttery omelet dappled with pickles, chopped peanuts, matchsticks of carrots and daikon, and a flurry of cilantro and mint was distinctly Vietnamese inspired (it was similar to a bánh xèo, or sizzling pancake), though the lacy pouch of translucent deep-fried pork skin was a decadent, French Canadian touch. The crunchy, fresh dish was a winning match with Yvon Métras Fleurie, a lively red Gamay. (If you catch them on the right day, and in the right mood, Joe Beef can be even more generous than usual. Vanya reappeared ten minutes later, with another omelet for our table. "Here, have it. We made extras!" she beamed).
The "light" portion of the meal over, I waited expectantly for the more showboat meats to arrive. A thick rectangle of toasted baguette, fried in pork fat and soaked with veal jus, served as a starchy mattress for two decadent layers of veal: a juicy slice of veal jowl, topped with four velvety medallions of veal cheek. The dish was scattered with candied figs. As I sipped on a glass of Chateau Yvonne Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny, I wondered why the jowl, in particular, was so ineffably delicious. How was it possible that the side of my fork slid so cleanly into the meat? I peered into the candlelight to inspect my bite, and the answer was clear. Most of the jowl was nearly molten fat.
Served on a bed of onions cooked in goat's milk, the Goat Pojarski (explained as a "reconstituted goat chop") was the apex of the meal. Inspired by Russian Pojarski, which typically makes use of chicken or veal, the Joe Beef and Fleisher's concoction consisted of finely-ground kid goat, wrapped in caul, and cooked until tender and faintly crispy.
The final dish, a gigantic salt-crusted rib eye steak cooked to medium rareness, was a cool idea, but the crust had leeched way too much salt into the flesh for me to enjoy more than a few bites. The side of smoked oysters and sautéed oyster mushrooms that came with the steak rang of umami, but the dish's extreme salinity blew out my palate. Glasses of Premier Cru Volnay were being passed around, but the wine was totally closed. (Wine nerds were debating whether it tasted like cherries or dirt, but all I could think of was musty libraries).
In a desperate bid to maintain a shred of gustatory dignity, I asked for no dessert. My pleas went unheeded, and the kitchen sent out a towering St. Honoré cake, named after the French patron saint of bakers.
Piled high with choux puffs -- made from pâte à choux, a dough most commonly seen in French profiteroles and éclairs -- and filled with crème Chiboust, the ornate cake was topped with tart raspberries and a delicate, glassy cage of caramel. To aid us in our digestion, Vanya poured us grappa nonino, a potent pomice brandy infused with rue, a bitter medicinal herb (Vanya called it the "abortion weed").
The collaboration between Joe Beef and Fleisher's was a brilliant move, and it's great to see Montreal celebrating more ethical meat practices.
About the Author: Natasha Li Pickowicz is a San Diego-born music and food writer, and a recent Montreal transplant. In addition to updating her food blog Popcorn Plays, she contributes to a number of music publications. She also curates experimental music concerts as Popcorn Youth, and is the baker at Dépanneur le Pick-Up, a popular restaurant in Montreal. She loves Richard Olney, Cabernet Franc, Ina Garten, pizza, and goose fat.