Lux­u­ri­ous Henri Brasserie Française lives up to lovely Birks build­ing’s his­tory

Montreal Gazette - - WEEKEND LIFE - LES­LEY CHESTERMAN 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. crit­ic­snote­[email protected] twit­ter.com/Les­leyChestr­man

While plan­ning a trip to Bu­dapest last year, the visit I placed at the top of my list was a meal at the fa­mous New York Café. Re­puted to be the most beau­ti­ful café in Bu­dapest — per­haps even the world! — the New York opened in 1894 and was built in the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance style, fea­tur­ing high ceil­ings, mir­rors, chan­de­liers and enough gold leaf to cover a dou­ble-decker bus. The menu is an ode to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, with dishes like beef goulash and chicken pa­prikash, along with fa­mous East­ern Euro­pean desserts such as Do­bos and Ester­házy tortes. I first caught sight of this dreamy café in the Time Life cook­books I ogled as a child, and vowed to get there one day. And though I had to wait in line next to hordes of tourists for close to an hour for a ta­ble and the goulash was only so-so, that Fabergé egg of a room made it all worth­while. There are sev­eral such fa­mous old-school din­ing rooms the world over, trea­sures one and all — a few favourites be­ing Le Grand Vé­four and Le Train Bleu in Paris, and Rules and the Cri­te­rion in Lon­don. In our city, I al­ways loved din­ing at old Chez Delmo, be­cause the sur­round­ings felt so Vic­to­rian. These rooms are so evoca­tive of an­other era that the food be­comes sec­ondary. We head there not sim­ply to eat, but to imag­ine the spir­its who dined there be­fore. In down­town Mon­treal, the Birks build­ing is cer­tainly renowned for its Old World style. Built in 1894 and de­signed by Mon­treal ar­chi­tect Ed­ward Maxwell, it’s not a her­itage site, but with its or­nate in­te­ri­ors and stained glass win­dows, it surely ranks as one of the most beau­ti­ful — and rare — 19th-cen­tury ed­i­fices in the city. In 2016, news broke that the build­ing had been sold to the owner of Laval’s Hô­tel Le St-Martin, Jean Salette. Af­ter a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ren­o­va­tion, the Birks jew­elry shop now takes up but half the main floor, while the rest of the build­ing has be­come a swish, 120-room bou­tique ho­tel, with its restau­rant, Henri Brasserie Française, tak­ing up the other side of the main floor fac­ing Phillips Square. Imad Nab­wani, the owner of down­town’s Le Pois Penché, was asked to over­see restau­rant op­er­a­tions, de­signer Zébu­lon Per­ron was brought in to make it all look great, and chef Ro­main Abri­vard was hired to cre­ate a menu rem­i­nis­cent of clas­sic French brasseries with a def­i­nite Québé­cois and An­glo in­flu­ence. Af­ter much an­tic­i­pa­tion, the restau­rant opened Nov. 1. I saw pic­tures, let out a lit­tle gasp, heard good things and headed on over. First things first: the decor at Henri is se­ri­ously show-stop­ping. What a room! I’d still rank Monar­que as the most stun­ning restau­rant of 2018, but Henri comes in a tight sec­ond. The high ceil­ings, the mould­ings, the pea­cock-blue ban­quettes, the brass rail­ings, the zinc-topped bar, the plants — it all adds up to the kind of mag­nif­i­cent restau­rant you’d ex­pect to see in Paris, Lon­don or Am­s­ter­dam. The feel is Old World Euro­pean (très Mas­ter­piece Theatre) and quite for­mal, with white table­cloths, her­ring­bone wood floors, pil­lars, chan­de­liers, and seafood dis­played on sil­ver platters around the bar. But the true lux­ury that this restau­rant of­fers is space, which means it’s not noisy and no one is eavesdropping on your con­ver­sa­tion. And yet you don’t feel iso­lated, as the ta­bles are close enough for peo­ple-watch­ing. It’s fun to be­gin din­ner here with a cock­tail, if only to live up to the sur­round­ings. I tried their Mon­treal cock­tail — a lethal mix of Suze, Aperol, gin and rye that wasn’t quite chilled enough, giv­ing it a taste rem­i­nis­cent of cough syrup. As for the food, you can go in sev­eral di­rec­tions: meat, fish, seafood, sal­ads, tartares — there’s even a ham­burger. Prices are a bit high, but fair con­sid­er­ing the lush sur­round­ings. The wine list is also steep (es­pe­cially the whites), but I’m told they’re work­ing on it — and as Nab­wani has one of the city’s best wine lists at Le Pois Penché (top for Cham­pagnes), I’m sure this will im­prove. We be­gan with three ap­pe­tiz­ers: car­rot soup, pâté en croûte and shrimp cock­tail. Flavoured with cumin, the soup was good, and made even bet­ter with the ad­di­tion of pick­led car­rot rounds. The pâté was ter­rific, with chunks of as­sorted meats trapped in a pas­try shell that was just the right thick­ness to frame the ter­rine with­out weigh­ing it down, and the salad along­side was per­fect. My com­plaint here is that the dish was too cold, as if it had come straight from the fridge, rob­bing the pâté of its flavour po­ten­tial. Ac­tu­ally, the dishes ar­rived at the ta­ble about five min­utes af­ter we or­dered, be­fore the wine or­der was even taken. Big mis­take, but it’s early days here, so the ser­vice team needs time to find its way. No com­plaints with the shrimp — the por­tion was gen­er­ous (seven jumbo spec­i­mens for $21), the shrimp were re­silient and de­li­cious, and their creamy cock­tail sauce pro­vided the ideal retro ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Ex­cel­lent. As for the main cour­ses, two hits and one miss, the miss be­ing an osso bucco flavoured with or­anges. Osso bucco is a lux­u­ri­ous dish that should be pre­sented with style, sur­rounded by a ladle­ful of glis­ten­ing brais­ing juices. But this one was served on too small a plate, over­top mashed pota­toes, with lit­tle to no sauce, mak­ing the whole thing as dry and for­get­table as left­over pot roast. That one needs a re­think. As my din­ing com­pan­ion tack­led the osso bucco, I en­joyed a grilled New York steak. Served with Béar­naise sauce and good fries, the steak was grilled to the re­quested medium-rare and had a fine beefy taste. The Béar­naise lacked depth of tar­ragon flavour, but other­wise this was a clas­sic done right. The last of our mains was a filet of Arc­tic char, served with sor­rel and pick­led daisy buds on a pool of beurre blanc. Again, this clas­sic dish scored, as the fish was ideally moist and del­i­cate and the sides were kept sim­ple. The dessert menu in­cludes the op­tion of cheese, and though the se­lec­tions avail­able were tempt­ing, we went for the sweets. First up was a lemon tart plated in the de­con­structed style, with dabs of lemon curd, crum­ble, meringue and lemon ice cream all piled on top of each other. De­spite my aver­sion to this style, there was no deny­ing this ver­sion was de­li­cious. The “Le Cho­co­lat” dessert was also a pile-on af­fair, with lay­ers of cho­co­late cream, pra­line crum­ble and cho­co­late sor­bet. It was wolfed down pretty quickly, as was the case with the tu­ile-topped caramel île flot­tante, en­hanced with salted caramel and a sweet clover crème anglaise. My only wish on that one was that the meringue base be played big­ger, to give the dessert a more spec­tac­u­lar look. Ul­ti­mately, a lack of bold­ness in the cui­sine — epit­o­mized by that île flot­tante — was my main com­plaint at Henri. As it stands, Abri­vard’s food is played a bit too timid to live up to the spec­tac­u­lar room. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be more con­fi­dent, and the same goes for the ser­vice. But, again, it’s early days for Henri. For now, I’m happy to ad­mire the room. Here’s hop­ing I’ll soon be ogling the plates.


Henri Brasserie Française boasts the kind of mag­nif­i­cent set­ting you would ex­pect to see in Paris, Lon­don or Am­s­ter­dam.

There’s an abun­dance of seafood on of­fer at Henri.

The pâté en croûte’s shell was just the right thick­ness to frame the ter­rine with­out weigh­ing it down.

A filet of Arc­tic char was ideally moist.

A tu­ile-topped caramel île flot­tante was wolfed down quickly.

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