Something is off at 6568 Boul. St-Laurent. The canopy above the door, which once advertised a leather-and-granite-swathed lounge typical of this Montreal strip, has been painted over with Dayglo dinosaurs and limousines by what must be an over-stimulated 10-year-old. Someone—possibly the same child—has spelled out “Bethlehem XXX” using those little italic black-and-gold letter signs usually reserved for mailboxes. Inside, the place is decorated in what might be called Jesus-obsessed gypsy chic: draped curtains, photocopied pictures of holy men, homoerotic portraits of Taliban militants. The menu, ostensibly Italian, includes “baby breaded cow brain on drugs.”
Oh, yeah. Bethlehem XXX is a restaurant. And a bar. And in a city with its share of studied faux-authentic restaurants, where throwback food is prepared by mustachioed men with full-sleeve tattoos, a bit of a gong show.
Brett Stabler, the man responsible for Bethlehem XXX’s odd existence, is in the back. Forever wary of the press, the 40-year-old Calgary native opens up over two fingers of bourbon. The filmmaker-cum-model came to Montreal by way of L.A. and London with a bad case of burnout. “I went to L.A. to make movies. I fell into modelling, and I went from having $7 in my pocket to $10,000-a-day jobs, Burberry, Mario Testino, booze and drugs, fancy people, fancy rooms,” he says. “It took a toll on my soul. I came from London after a s–tty breakup, trying to prove that I’m an interdisciplinary artist to the feds. I get here looking for something real and everyone’s broke. Things are almost too real.”
His restaurant, which opened last May, is in some ways a result of this torment. In contrast to the painfully artisanal restaurants typical of the neighbourhood, the food is relatively cheap (those veal brains were $10, tax included), and everything—the décor, the cuisine, the wine list—is ephemeral.
Stabler found a kindred spirit in chef Beaver Sheppard, whose CV includes Au Pied de Cochon and Triple Crown Café, who wanted to work in a place where he never cooked the same thing twice. If Italian’s not your thing, wait a week: it might be Persian, Burmese, Thai or Mesopotamian (Bethlehem is moving to month-long menus this year.) Sheppard crash courses the culinary history of the region of choice, and then experiments. (For Zanzibar week, he made a shark doughnut.) The menu’s look is something between a band poster and ransom note. “Brett doesn’t even like food,” says Sheppard, who doesn’t go by Jonathan, his given name. “He just had this concept and wanted to shove culture in people’s faces.”
The three-by-three-metre kitchen has an oven you’d find at Sears and an iffy-looking deep fryer. At my first Bethlehem experience last fall, the food was late, the roasted vegetables became a cucumber salad and my sweet-and-sour beef was served on a plate straight out of Shawshank Redemption. I would have eaten another, it was so good, but by then, Sheppard had given up on cooking. He needed to dance.
Those baby breaded cow brains are actually on a bed of spicy lentils. Tweaked with lemon, they are perfectly succulent—with the crunchy, buttery consistency of his zucchini frittelles, which come next. Spaghetti baccalà is a happy mess of garlic and chipped cod (Sheppard is from Newfoundland). “The drink of the night is rum and eggnog, we’re just waiting on the eggnog,” the waitress says.
Dining there is an exercise in distraction. Stabler’s video mashups—grainy Arabian equestrians looped with Punjabi cartoons and a smidge of Christmas-themed porn anime—play on the flatscreens. People pile in, drinks are poured, everyone seems to be hugging and dancing. One waitress dons a guitar and sings a few of her love songs. At 10:30, a customer approaches the bar, seeking food. “I’m sorry, we’re not serving anymore. The chef is getting ready for his show.”
Sheppard and three friends soon wander out of the kitchen wearing monk robes, and pick up their instruments. Description is difficult: Depeche Mode meets emo screamcore? Suffice to say, it’s loud and you could easily dance the rest of the night away to it.