GO FOR THE GRILLED OP­TIONS AT HE­LENA

De­spite a few bright spots, the ex­pected level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion just wasn’t there

Montreal Gazette - - WEEKEND LIFE - LES­LEY CHESTERMAN

I first vis­ited this week’s restau­rant, He­lena, when it opened six years ago and I re­call the ex­pe­ri­ence per­fectly. A fan of chef and co-owner He­lena Loureiro, I an­tic­i­pated a mar­vel­lous meal, and yet that was not the case. From the blasé greet­ing at the door, to the so-so food, to the weak ser­vice, it was a letdown, and an ex­pen­sive one at that.

The re­view that en­sued was far from pos­i­tive, which was un­ex­pected as I have al­ways en­joyed Mme Loureiro’s other restau­rant, Por­tus Calle. That es­tab­lish­ment, which last year moved from The Main to the top of the for­mer Delta Ho­tel’s rooftop re­volv­ing restau­rant space, al­ways of­fered good food and sharp ser­vice, so there seemed to be a dis­con­nect be­tween the two es­tab­lish­ments. He­lena is not only the fancier of the two, it is lo­cated on what has be­come one of the city’s best din­ing streets, along­side ex­cel­lent restos such as Ikanos, Gra­ziella and, more re­cently, Lov, Hà and the glo­ri­ous Pas­tel. With so much go­ing for it — ac­claimed chef, su­perb lo­ca­tion, stun­ning decor — how could He­lena have fallen so short?

For the past six years, that very thought crossed my mind when­ever I passed by or when the restau­rant came up in con­ver­sa­tion. A com­mon take on such sit­u­a­tions is that I dined there on an “off night.” If I had a dol­lar for ev­ery time some­one told me I hit his or her favourite restau­rant on an off night, I’d have a tidy pile of cash. Truth is, I never bought in to the old “off night” ar­gu­ment. Chefs are trained pro­fes­sion­als and ser­vice staff should be ready to fend off ob­sta­cles through­out a ser­vice. Sure, a cou­ple of glitches are bound to oc­cur at even the most fa­mous restau­rant, but when a meal con­sists of a marathon of mis­steps, chances are it’s not an off night as much as an off restau­rant.

Years later, the time seemed right to re­visit He­lena. Just the fact it is still open and pretty full on the Tues­day night I dined there proves they are do­ing some­thing right.

The room was as gor­geous as I re­mem­ber, with its pat­terned high ceil­ings, sunny yel­low walls and long bar where chefs were busily as­sem­bling plates and plat­ters. The greet­ing was miles friend­lier than I re­mem­ber. I don’t see Loureiro on-site but no big­gie, she might be across town at her other restau­rant. We were handed menus and a thick wine list, and when I re­quested a house cock­tail, our waiter rec­om­mended a white port spritzer.

It was good, we were hun­gry and I was happy to be back.

The menu fea­tured the usual Por­tuguese sus­pects, such as grilled sar­dines, caldo verde, fresh fish and the fa­mous “pasteis de ba­cal­hau,” a.k.a., cod cro­quettes. Hop­ing to sam­ple a wide va­ri­ety of flavours, we opted for the tapas tast­ing menu. Set at $60 (or $100 with wine pair­ings) this menu can be topped up with ei­ther a meat or fish main course for an ex­tra $10 or $20. Main­course prices run high, so this is the best way to en­joy more for less. And for those in­ter­ested in the wine pair­ings, rest as­sured, pours are gen­er­ous.

And now on to the food. Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter or­der­ing, a cold tapas plat­ter ar­rived fea­tur­ing mar­i­nated sword­fish, quinoa salad and a Matane shrimp salad. We were told the sword­fish mari­nade in­cluded ly­chee, which you’d never know be­cause the raw sword­fish cubes served on a bed of crème fraîche didn’t re­ally taste of much. The quinoa salad was paired with four mus­sels as well as sliced red cab­bage and greens, and the shrimp was moulded into a round with some ca­pers, crispy bits of who knows what, cit­rus and rice. Noth­ing on this plat­ter was mem­o­rable as it all tasted as though it were made sev­eral hours in ad­vance, es­pe­cially as most ev­ery­thing was straight-from-the-fridge cold and dry.

The next dish, an as­para­gus salad, was one of the best. A house spe­cialty, the “sal­ada de es­para­gos” in­cluded grilled and shred­ded as­para­gus along with Ser­rano ham, toasted al­monds and São Jorge cheese. The mix of flavours and tex­tures was just de­li­cious, though I won­der why they don’t switch out the as­para­gus for a more sea­sonal in­gre­di­ent. When I asked the waiter where the as­para­gus came from he an­swered, “Que­bec, ev­ery­thing comes from Que­bec.” Con­sid­er­ing the lo­cal as­para­gus sea­son ends in early sum­mer, that’s a bit of a stretch.

Mov­ing right along .… Af­ter our waiter ar­rived with a sin­gle cod cro­quette (very nice dipped in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing aioli), we were served a grilled oc­to­pus salad. In Mon­treal you’ll find many great grilled oc­to­pus sal­ads, and this one was a win­ner be­cause the oc­to­pus was ten­der and tasty as all get out. Even my oc­to­pusa­verse din­ing com­pan­ion gave it a thumbs up. I wasn’t es­pe­cially wowed with the chick­pea, pat­ty­pan squash, tomato and pep­per salad un­der­neath, but the oc­to­pus made up for a lot.

At about the time we were pol­ish­ing off the ten­ta­cle, along came a dish of shrimp and cala­mari. Doused in piri pirien­hanced but­ter, the jumbo shrimp were ten­der and beau­ti­fully cooked, but the cala­mari were a miss. Sliced to re­sem­ble lin­guine, the thin strands of squid were in­cred­i­bly salty. When our waiter came to ask how ev­ery­thing was go­ing, I men­tioned the salt prob­lems, but he just said, “Oh,” and walked away. Why ask then?

By mid-meal, at least three dif­fer­ent wait­ers had worked our ta­ble. All were friendly, yet none was es­pe­cially com­pe­tent. While serv­ing our wine, one waiter not only told us he wasn’t a som­me­lier but also that he knew noth­ing about Douro wines (the most renowned in Por­tu­gal) in­clud­ing the one he was serv­ing us, that he said, “tasted like flow­ers.” For real? At these prices and in this city, that kind of wing­ing-it ser­vice doesn’t cut it.

The last two cour­ses sealed the deal on the meal. We re­quested an ex­tra fish course to share, and I specif­i­cally asked for hal­ibut. The filet ar­rived on a small wooden board and I was im­me­di­ately skep­ti­cal. Hal­ibut has a supremely del­i­cate tex­ture, and a gor­geous mar­ble-like opaque­ness to its flesh, but this filet was beige and had the more gelati­nous tex­ture of cod. Yet no mat­ter what the fish, the veg­etable ac­com­pa­ni­ments — a bread-crumbtopped tomato, a salty veg­etable purée, broc­coli, cau­li­flower and baby corn — were bet­ter suited to a mid-range ho­tel din­ing room. I mean, se­ri­ously ... baby corn?

A tray of as­sorted sweets ar­rived for dessert, the best el­e­ment be­ing tiny, warm natas tartlets and the worst be­ing a mound of whipped cream speared with ap­ple slices, choco­late chip cook­ies, cold waf­fle quar­ters and a square de­scribed by the waiter as a brownie that turned out to be a ba­nana and choco­late mousse cake.

Save for the natas, noth­ing was very good and ev­ery­thing was ar­ranged among piles of crumbs and crum­bles and dabs of whipped cream. Again, for these

prices, a higher level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion isn’t too much to ask.

With tax and tip, din­ner came in just over $300 for two. That’s a lot of money for such an un­even ex­pe­ri­ence. An “off night?” Hmm. Once, maybe. Twice, un­likely. crit­ic­snote­book@gmail.com Twit­ter. com/Les­leyChestr­man You can hear Les­ley Chesterman on ICI Ra­dio-Canada Première’s Médium Large (95.1 FM) Tues­days at 10 a.m., and on CHOM (97.7 FM) Wed­nes­days at 7:10 a.m.

PHO­TOS: DAVE SID­AWAY

The restau­rant He­lena was full on the day Les­ley Chesterman made a re­turn visit.

He­lena’s grilled oc­to­pus salad was ten­der and tasty, writes Les­ley Chesterman. “Even my oc­to­pus-averse din­ing com­pan­ion gave it a thumbs up.”

One of the best dishes was the sal­ada de es­para­gos, with grilled and shred­ded as­para­gus, Ser­rano ham, toasted al­monds and São Jorge cheese.

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