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Old World Meets the New World


The Pitch

Two of the fastest-growing trends in Montreal's dining scene of late are the buvette and the modern Middle Eastern eatery.  From the former we recently got Annette, June Buvette and Buvette Pompette – which all rhyme for no reason.  As for the latter, newcomers included Babacool, Hayat and SHAY.

Combining both of these concepts into one is HENI, which opened its doors last fall in the restaurant-dense stretch of Notre Dame Street West in Little Burgundy.  With backing from a diverse and seasoned team of restaurateurs hailing from the likes of Barley, Lulu Ιpicerie, Nolan and Pastel, all the ingredients are in place for a winning formula.

The Mood

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Occupying the retail space right next to popular brunch spot Barley, HENI's interior has been redone with great care and flair.  Exposed brick walls enclose a two-part space putting forth earthy tones with touches of dark green.  Wine shelves greet you at the entrance before your eyes immediately land on a snaking, contouring marble bar which splits the airy, spacious dining room in half.

The ceiling is adorned with a series of textured, layered free-form shapes resembling mountains.  The Saturday night crowd – which nearly filled the restaurant – was young and evenly divided between couples and groups of women.


The Food

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The kitchen at HENI suggests a modern take on the rich and diverse cuisines of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.  Dishes representative of Persia and the Levant are reimagined using Quebec ingredients du terroirKibbeh is made with duck, sayadieh is made with scallops and kebab are made with bison (more on those below).

The menu is seasonal and may have included some Moroccan influences at some point, but those were absent on this visit.  The wine list is entirely private and largely consists of Lebanese grapes – the widest selection in town – plus a Palestinian bottle in addition to European vintages.

Rounding up the drink selection is a very short but intriguing list of Middle Eastern-inspired cocktails.  I went for the milk punch which combined clarified goat's milk with whiskey, gin and ras el-hanout – there's your Moroccan touch – resulting in a refreshing, appetite-opening delicacy with a hint of spices.

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Traditionally a Palestinian specialty consisting of roasted and spiced chicken legs, here it took the form of a rillette topped with olive oil and pine nuts.  Both texture and taste were amazing, asking to be scooped up with the soft homemade flatbread.

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The Lebanese version of moussaka, this classic chickpea-tomato stew hit all the right notes with sweet/peppery paprika and fresh mint leaves.  The twist here was the addition of sliced calamari rings, which gave a squishy bite and a hint of fishiness.

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The most fusion-y dish of the night saw a Lebanese fish-and-rice pilaf served as an appetizer on a scallop shell, with the white fish substituted for cubed scallops and a sabayon on the side.  Not a bad rendition but awkwardly assembled and a tad fussy.

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Shish Barak

Another Levantine classic – one of my favourites from back home – consisting of dumplings – in this case stuffed with trompettes de la mort mushrooms – swimming in a luscious yogurt/labneh sauce.  Showcases HENI's unique concept at its best.

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Kebab Tut Berri

Iraqi cuisine is known for its kebab with karaz – wild cherry – normally made with ground beef.  But the folks here opted for bison meat, a leaner, gamey substitute and switched the cherries for wild blueberries.  Another winning transformation.

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The least modified and true-to-form dish of the night was a pair of fried pancakes folded into the shape of a crescent.  Stuffed with cheese and generously drizzled with rose water and topped with rose petals, these were a perfect crunchy delight.


The Service

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A large and very competent squad took care of the dinner service tonight.  From the host to the waiter and everyone in between, there is clear professionalism and dedication all while projecting a sense of fun and youth.

Even my cocktail got attention when the bartender left her station to serve and explain it to me tableside.  As for our waiter/sommelier, we understood he was a partner in the venture and may or may not have been a winemaker back in Lebanon.  Needless to say; we could not have been in better hands.


The Verdict

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The word heni is Arabic for someone pleasant and full of gusto, which seems to fit the bill here.  HENI reflects the owner group's own life itinerary, revisiting their homeland cuisines in a way that sheds light on their new home by focusing on Quebec ingredients.

Where some of the aforementioned modern Arabic restaurants feel gimmicky and lose sight of their identity, this buvette found a way to mix traditional with contemporary while remaining genuine and most importantly; delicious!

tagged:  SOLID

Price per person:  $48

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Montreal restaurant and bar reviews brought to you by two regular guys who like to eat and drink.  We will go anywhere and we will say it like it is.

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