Cornish Hen With Barberries Restaurant Joon Montreal

Joon shows the natural interconnectivity between food, culture and history

The revelatory Montreal restaurant, whose name is Farsi for “soul,” serves the food of the Southern Caucasus.

In the natural wine world, going back a few years, Georgian wines in all their rustic and uncompromised glory had become this revelatory discovery. The claim to fame for Georgia — by which I mean the small Eastern European country bordered by Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and not the Peach State — was that the country is widely considered to be the birthplace of wine.

Wine has been a staple of Georgian culture for roughly 8,000 years and yet, in the Western world, its wines remain relatively obscure. Part of the Southern Caucasus, Georgia and the neighbouring countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and (just a bit further south) Iran are among the oldest civilizations on Earth and like the wines of Georgia (and their earthenware subterranean fermentation vessels known as Qvervi), their food cultures, traditions and techniques have been vastly influential the world over. 

Just south of Little Italy’s northern gate, on the west side of St-Laurent is a restaurant called Joon, Farsi for “soul,” which serves the food of the Southern Caucasus. As far as I know, it is the first of its kind here in Montreal. It’s hard for me to say whether or not there is or has ever been a great Georgian or Azerbaijani restaurant in Montreal, but if there has been then it has been a well-kept secret. Joon however, has been getting buzz ever since chef-owner Erin Mahoney (formerly of Bête à Pain, Impasto and le St-Urbain) started doing Georgian and Persian pop-ups a few years back. Joined by her husband Ilya Daftari and backed by Impasto principles Michele Forgione and Stefano Faita, Joon has the perfect balance of passion and clout needed to be a hit in the city. 

Let me save you the trouble here and say that Joon is exactly that — a hit. The inviting space, designed by Ménard Dworkind, is open and warmly lit and I was lucky enough to be seated at one of the two gorgeously upholstered banquettes that take up the prime real estate by the front windows. The menu is fairly succinct: 15 dishes in all including three desserts and the idea is to share dishes in the way a meal would be shared around a family table. It’s a cliché to a certain extent; there’s no shortage of small-plate, order-the-whole-menu-and-leave-hungry places in town, but Joon is different. The Joon experience is familiar on paper and yet altogether new and exciting. 

Lamb shoulder stuffed with ghormeh sabzi herbs, with a herb-lime-bean medley (Restaurant Joon)

Take for example something as simple as a bowl of warmed olives. What could be more quotidian, especially in Little Italy? And yet Joon’s is sensational. Mahoney serves a varied mix of olives bathed in fruity olive oil, flecked with bits of torn coriander and finished with delicate teardrop-shaped angelica seeds (known as Golpar in Iran) which taste like caraway, rose and rooibos tea. Instantly, a humble bowl of olives is enlivened and intriguing in a way I’ve not experienced in a long time. It reminds me of the first Georgian wine I ever tasted — a 2015 Rkasiteli from Our Wine. Deep amber in colour, completely unfined and unfiltered and cloudy with sediment, the wine was astringent with notes of dill, quince and apricot — it too was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. 

Another simple but extraordinary bite was a leavened flatbread called Barbari, which is topped with sesame and nigella seeds. There’s no long romantic description for this one, it’s just a magnificent piece of warm bread, which is plenty romantic in itself. 

Other dishes, like the grilled sucrine (a sweet and buttery variety of little gem lettuce) served with yogurt and a Sekanjabin glaze — a sweet and sour reduction of honey and vinegar with a touch of mint — is phenomenally delicious, seamlessly flowing between bright and acidic and that specific kind of nutty caramelization that comes from grilled lettuce. I could eat heaps of that dish. 

Restaurant Joon

Though it was one of the more expected dishes, the kebab was also delightful. Fairly standard in terms of form and presentation, the kebabs themselves were miles above the average kebab shop offerings and landed, for me, somewhere between Balkan Cevapi and Turkish Köfte. Served with homemade lavash (a soft, ultra-thin flatbread from the South Caucasus), it is a meal unto itself. The Lahmajoun (or Lahmacun in Turkey), which somewhat reductively gets called Armenian/Turkish pizza is, again, of a particularly high standard at Joon. Topped with a mix of fresh herbs and pickled veg, it’s not to be missed.

I think for me, however, the most thought-provoking dish of the night was, surprisingly, the cornish hen. A half-hen is braised in a saffron and rosewater sauce and contains almonds, lime and pickled barberry. Upon tasting the dish, I’m immediately transported to a version of cornish hen dish I once ate at Nora Gray — the specifics are hard to remember but it was a grilled hen severed with an agrodolce. Joon’s braised hen is vibrant, colourful and full of emblematic Persian flavours and somehow my mind is drawn to Italy. But then again, it was during the Muslim conquest of Sicily that agrodolce is purported to have been introduced to the regional cooking practices. 

Just like the recent rediscovery of Georgian wines, the discovery of the influence this region has had on many of the most revered cuisines in the world is just evidence of how narrow our understanding of food culture is. How can we claim to discover something that’s been there, in plain sight, for thousands of years? Joon does the thing that I love most about food — it shows the natural interconnectivity between food, culture and history. It offers a better understanding of the world, served in a comestible and utterly delicious package. In 2021, my dinner at Joon has been my most enjoyed meal to date — I can’t recommend it more highly.

For more on Joon (7130 St-Laurent), please visit the restaurant’s website. This review originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.