A WORLD-CLASS ROOM WITH OLD-WORLD STYLE
Luxurious Henri Brasserie Française lives up to lovely Birks building’s history
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.