Before going ahead, here are some of the latest updated material related to current web site:
(I)A recap of all my reviews of Montreal’s finest bistrots & fine dining ventures
(II)My 3 and 2 Star Michelin web site
(III)Latest updated restaurant reviews:
-Meal at 3 star Michelin Dal Pescatore (June 14th 2012)
-Meal at 3 Star Michelin Le Calandre (June 16th 2012)
-Meal at Maison Boulud (May 31st 2012)
-Meal at Café Sardine, Montreal (June 26th 2012)
–Montreal’s top 3 Isakayas (Japanese Bistrots) – August 2012
(IV) SEE ALSO: the reports on Venice + Cinque Terre, Milan & Parma. .
Food rating: Benchmark in its league (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7)
Type of cuisine: Contemporary Mediterranean/Portuguese-inspired bistrot
Addr: 438, rue McGill – Montreal,
Phone: (514) 878-1555
Helena is an upscale Contemporary Mediterranean-inspired bistrot whose owner is the Executive Chef and also owner at Restaurant Portus Calle, a Portuguese fine dining destination on Saint Laurent Street. The bistrot, situated in the vieux Montreal, has a very elegant/chic modern decor (with respect to other diners right to enjoy their meal in privacy and comfort, I try to never point my camera at a dining room full of people, or in the very rare cases I did so, it was done very discretely and faces were blurred. The room was not empty, therefore I refrained from taking pics, but if you go on their web site, you’ll find plenty of pics showing how elegantly the dining room is decorated). As it’s always the case nowadays when you dine solo, you are offered to sit at the bar. A trend you end up getting used to.
I am fond of Mediterranean fares (for ie: Italian, Portuguese, Greek, etc) but do usually have hard time with their upscale versions since I tend to expect the latter to be more than just the act of laying down elegantly what I would have sampled at lesser fancy restaurants. Furthermore, when you have been cooking since your tender age, you tend to be impatient when you are served with restaurant food you could have done yourself. All normal reactions especially given you can have great Italian or Portuguese food in their more humble restaurants, one fresh example was my recent trip to Northern Italy where the laidback trattoria A cantina de Mananan‘s savoury dishes in Corniglia outshone, in my view, those of my 3 star Michelin meal at Le Calandre (Rubano). And I’ll let you guess the difference in $$$ between both.
The other thing about Portuguese cuisine is that it is a very ‘accessible’ cuisine in the sense that you do not need to be Portuguese to ‘understand’ Portuguese food, nor to appreciate it. And although it is always a good thing to know what authentic Portuguese food tastes like (Montreal is blessed with a strongly present Portuguese community and great authentic Portuguese food can be sampled at some of their close-to-traditional eateries in town), you won’t really need to be stuck with those notions while eating at some of the contemporary Portuguese dining ventures, a feature that I do appreciate since I was born in a country where some of the most delicious food pertain to the topic of acquired taste. Portuguese food is accessible, indeed, since even the most traditional fares (make friends with Portuguese and ask their grand parents to cook for you. It’s the way to go!) are not challenging at all (not drastically at the opposite of what our Western palates have been used to).
In Montreal, Portuguese restaurants represent just a fraction of the restaurants that are opened in town. After 15 years in YUL, you end up knowing them pretty well. My appreciation of Portuguese restaurants went through various phases: once, Ferreira Café (think of a contemporary and refined take on Portuguese food as opposed to Traditional Portuguese) on Peel Street was a favourite but I gradually lost interest in that place. Then I was once charmed by Douro (Think of an updated take on traditional Portuguese) on St Laurent Street before, again, giving up on it. In both cases, the ‘value for food’ aspect was the main issue I was personally having and I also, at times, had some minor qualms about the service at Ferreira Café (as usual, your experience might be completely different). Between the two, if I had to go back to one of them, I’d probably return to Douro (the food at Douro is closer to my ideal of what Portuguese traditional fares should taste like) way before thinking about Ferreira. Again, a matter of personal prefs as usual.
A restaurant that I did appreciate and still do, without particularly ‘knocking my socks off’, is Portus Calle (the big brother of Restaurant Helena). I kinda liked Chez Doval for its traditional fares (wished I would be as equally impressed by the service, though), but my personal long time favourite (unfortunately, a bit pricey in my opinion) has always been the very traditional Casa Minhota on St Laurent (I am not saying that you should all flock there and that it is particularly special; all I am saying is that it is the Portuguese that, in Montreal, has pleased me the most up to now) . The rest are mostly rotisseries with some other eateries that you certainly do not want me to elaborate about, since they just do not worth one single second of my time.
The thing that I have always found laughable is when people sample Mediterranean fares with the fear to stumble upon predictable food. You know, the kind of simplistic suggestions like ”nothing here you probably haven’t tasted before”. Rfaol! A bit as if I go to the beach and suggest that I saw nothing here you probably haven’t seen before! I am afraid that this is the kind on non sense that is driving lots of cooks away from mastering the basics of real good cuisine. I am not against modernist food, but it has to be mastered properly, and for such you need to get the basics done right in the first place. And basics done superbly well translates in the type of food that catches my attention, it is also the only expectation that I have for Mediterranean cuisine.
Last but not least, I have always maintained a certain ‘reserve’ in my appreciation of most contemporary interpretations of Mediterranean cuisine: I find that many Chefs tend to believe that they can convert to Mediterranean cuisines on a split second decision, just because it looks so easy to cook. Wrong move! This is food that only shines in the hands of Chefs who have gathered long years of practice and cooking memory alongside those who have traditionally cooked this very well with no need of written recipes
The FOOD –
There is no menu currently on their web site, so I’ll explain: it is divided between several sections, for ie a section of soups and salads (between $7 to $10, the popular Portuguese soup caldo verde being available), cold starters (in betweeen $15 to $35; octopus carpaccio $15, Asparagus salad $13, plate of charcuteries $10 per person, Alaskan crab salad $35 for 2), warm starters (between $6 to $15, examples are cod croquettes, blood pudding, fried items like sardines) a section of meats (Between $25 to $30; for ie, Gaspor farm suckling pig, clams, fresh coriander at $30, a Francezinha sandwich Porto style with beef, ham, San Jorge Cheese at $25, Osso Bucco, etc), a section for seafood (between $30-$60 for ie, cod confit brandade at $30 — I’ll observe that we are in serious fine dining league’s price tags in this seafood section, probably due to the top quality produce being imported). The menu features French/English/Portuguese brief description of the courses.
Tabua de grelhados lulas plovo e chourico $15 – Grilled squid, octopus, chorizo. All grilled to the point, the quality of the ingredients fautless, the octopus superbly tenderized, seasoning well judged. We are not on the on the shores of the Mediterranean sea, and yet this young team of cooks did quite a nice job in these circumstances in pulling off appealing flavors, well timed cooking. Better than this, it’s cooking brought to you by an experienced Portuguese cook who has spent decades at home piling up the entire culinary tradition s/he has inherited from previous generations, Rfaol! This is exactly what I wished I had experienced on my meal at F Bar in December. Good 7/10
Then another classic of the Portuguese, The grilled sardines $7 – Clearly, they do not joke with the quality of the produce here. Generous plump fresh sardines of remarkable quality, atop a superb ‘tapenade’ of black olives. Again, for better, you take the plane and land on the Mediterranean coast! 7.5/10
Ameijoas gratinadas, milho, chourico e sao jorge $10 – Gratineed clams (gratineed with Sao Jorge cheese), a fabulous cream of corn underneath (on its own, this cream was so well executed both in textures and work of flavors – a benchmark cream of corn if there’s any), red onions. It might not be rocket science (we are, after all, miles away from Ferran Adria’s or Achatz works of shapes and tastes), but this is a great refreshing example of beautiful creativity when it comes to a contemporary interpretation of Mediterranean fares: mingling lightness of flavors with thoughtful plating that adds to the former intent. Perhaps the tiny clams will hit on some nerves, and it’s important that the wait staff ensures that the diner is sampling this dish before any other items (I didn’t play attention at the fact that it was at the table, so I sampled it after the two other courses it was served along… you have guessed it: gratineed clams, not eaten on the spot, it’s a recipe for defeat, Lol) , but nothing should distract from the observation that its conception is thoughtful. I found this one impossible to score since the clams were so tiny and the remarkable corn cream not quantitatively significant.Rating this would be more accurately an assessment of glimpses of what this dish is really is. Perhaps 3 big clams (instead of multiple tiny ones) and more of the fabulous corn cream would pave the way to a better appreciation of this course.
Feijoada de Mariscos $30 – A seafood ragout with lima beans, squid, shrimps, clams. There’s usually pork in similar Portuguese ragouts. This being closer to what a Brazilian version would tend to be like (using seafood). They kinda cook this too in the Acores. I need something a bit more Mediterranean here, for eg: add some mint like what they do in Portugal. At this point, I concluded that this team of young Chefs, although offering something clearly different from what an experienced Portuguese Chef fond of his homeland traditional cuisine would perhaps cook, had managed to showcase beautiful skills with respect to the contemporary genre they have adopted: dish after dish, the food was delicious, remarkably well balanced and the cooking always carefully mastered. This Feijoada de Mariscos was no exception to that rule. Delicious, and in its contemporary style, really well done, but this, I have to underline, did not feed my mind with some flashbacks of Mediterranea . 8.5/10
Wine choices on this evening were flawless, for my taste: A glass of Soalheiro Alvarinho 2011 had the necessary appealing depth of mineral aromas to balance perfectly with the starters I had. The Feijoada de Mariscos was served along another beautiful wine: a subsidio 2008 of fantastic taste. You have right there, with both previous wines, great examples of affordable (on the market) wines, both of private import, packed with chararacter. All wines were properly introduced, their bottles presented as it should, except for the very first glass of wine, and without wanting to sound too picky, it’s worth couple of words because I found it amusing, funny (although I’ll recommend it is avoided ) : to boot, I asked if they had some Portuguese Sparkling wines. The gentle young woman at the bar responded with an enthusiastic YES! I started to build expectations in my mind: would that be one of the little sparkling gems of Murganheira or Quintadalixa? Both being excellent Portuguese wine producers (of sparkling wines as well). The glass is filled, but no bottle shown. I insisted to see the bottle: bingo, it’s a Freixenet cordon rosada from Spain. Ha! That’s why I didn’t see the bottle, Rfaol! A bit embarassed, the young woman at the bar was sorry and explained that it was an exception and assured me of all following wines being Portuguese as I requested. Not a big deal, and I really find this more amusing than anything else, especially with such a delicious Spanish Cava, but please, do not hesitate to be upfront: if there is no Portuguese Sparkling wine, then there’s none. There’s no problem with that, Lol. PS: Not really a complaint since we all know that it is mainly on wines that restaurants make their profit, but it would be also fair to observe that prices of a glass of wine are on the steeper side here ($11 for the glass of subsidio 2008, which at least is privately imported; $12 for the glass of Freixenet cordon rosada, a wine I can find at the SAQ for $14.25, but again, this is normal restaurant prices for such; $14 for the glass of imported Soalheiro Alvarinho 2011. The logic I could see here would be that imported Portuguese wines cost more to be imported. Regardless, those were at least fabulous wines).
The little things I really loved...delicious food, well balanced. There’s definitely real talent in this kitchen brigade. For sure I do not expect miracles from a kitchen brigade that’s miles away from the Mediterranean coast, but with what they have in hands, they’ve accomplished the essential: showcasing good skills, delivering tasty food, and offering an interesting North American interpretation of Contemporary Mediterranean fares.
The little things to improve upon …. Nothing is perfect and life goes on, Yep, I know and I also know that I may sound not enoughly cool here, but as usual, to be taken constructively (for sure, nothing dramatic here, just those little details that bring you a long way) :
***When the patron has the wine list opened by its side, ask him if he is done with it before whisking it away. I may sound picky here, but with the elegant layout, the big efforts done by the rest of the wait staff, ….
***Never hesitate to be upfront with the customer: again, not the end of the world here, but that little episode about the cava should be avoided. Just tell the customer that you have no Portuguese bubbles. That this is an exception.
I am going to insist on this since I would like to convey as much accuracy as I can : I am being really picky here since the overall service was fantastic (the ladies at the bar were amazing, really cool and accomodating; the gentlemen serving me were all great professionals ), but on the other end, when I decided to write my side of the story about restaurants, it was mainly because I wanted to portray things the way they appeared to me instead of serving as simple advertising proxies or trying to sound cool / pleasant (as I have always maintained: Not meant to be mean here, not at all, but I do not care about what ppl think on what I write, I do not care about raving wherever I judge necessary, doing the opposite wherever I believe it has to, as long as I reach out to my own principles of bringing things the way I am experiencing them).
As for this one specific dinner at restaurant Helena, all I can say is that their mission of bringing an interesting North American take on Contemporary Mediterranean-inspired bistrot fares is accomplished. All simple stuff, but well done and tasting good. Blown away? Nope. Satisfied? Yep, this team knows how to cook. Did I feel transported on the shores of Mediterranea? Nope, but that is a tough task to accomplish, virtually impossible when you are not in Mediterranea.
PROS: Tasty food, technically without reproach. I prefer this over Fbar, but I prefer more rustic Portuguese.
CONS: Next time, get me a bit closer to Mediterranean shores. Learn from those who have cooked traditional cooking for long and pick couple of tricks from them. Add some of those tricks to current offerings and many will fall for this place.
Overall food rating: 6/10 Above average for what I am accustomed to at comparable restaurants/dining category
Overall service rating: 8/10 Mostly young, professional on this evening.
Décor: 8/10 Elegant, colorful, contemporary. Go on their website, WYSIWYG!
IMPORTANT: ‘Overall food rating’ HAS NOTHING TO DO with the arithmectic calculation
of all dishes. It is my personal subjective rating of the overall food performance
on the specif meal I am sampling only.
WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER: That 6 over 10 as an overall food rating for that meal seemed accurate to me, based to what I came to expect from this type and standard of eatery. It was not an average (5/10) meal for sure, not a 7/10 neither (in my view), but a meal delivered with flawless technique and they went as far as a non-portuguese team outside of Portugal can deliver on an above average basis. I read a review of my favourite food critic in Montreal, Marie-Claude Lortie, one she wrote about Helena bistrot where she criticized the lack of spicyness of the food as well as some inconsistencies in the cooking. The spicy-ness, yeah perhaps. Well, it is more of a North American take on Neo Portuguese bistrot, so I knew that it would be hard to be transported on the shores of the Mediterranean (a point I actually clearly made in my review). But the inconsistency in the cooking…well certainly not on the meal I sampled there. She might be right, perhaps there were inconsistencies in cooking when she ate there, but it is important, before talking about cooking inconsistencies, to really put things in their context. The latter being only possible when you first get to know what you are talking about (that is why you won’t see me reviewing food that I am not familiar with). Surreal complaints like the pizza was not enoughly cooked at an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria or the seafood is raw at a sushiya are thankfully less and less of an occurence nowadays, but I still suspect many people to carry cooking standards from their part of the world to food that has nothing to do with those standards. And you might be surprised to find relatively knowledgeable persons indulging in such mistakes: a while back, I was seating not far from a food journalist (no, it was not Madame Lortie if you ask, it is a gentleman and it was in the US) who was complaining about his meat not being at medium rare temp. Wrong call: medium rare is not the way meats are cooked in the cuisine covered by the restaurant where we were eating.