Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi and a slew of popular cookbooks from across the pond, Su is dragging well-dressed Westmounters to Verdun, LOV is doing it vegetarian in the Old Port and Barbounya is nabbing brunchers in the Plateau.
But nothing’s cresting higher than Damas, which relocated last year to digs in Outremont after a fire in its Parc Av location. The owners took the opportunity to create an open space dining room (actually, two rooms), peering onto an open kitchen. Tongues of flames lick the air above the charcoal grill, which adds smokiness to everything from lamb to fish to eggplant. The chef also took the opportunity to tweak the menu; there’s also a new $75/per person tasting experience for the whole table and the à la carte menu caters easily to vegetarians and even gluten free people like, despite the prevalence of oodles of pita bread (note: gluten free but, yes, not so Celiac friendly).
The result? Damas is even better than ever. And while prices have crept on up, the food is top notch. If you think Middle Eastern cuisine is all hummus, shawarma and garlic sauce, think again.
The priciest dish on the menu is the Reesh ($54), a 14 oz Alberta Rack of Lamb grilled with seven spices and tarator sauce (a tahini-based sauce with cumin, cayenne, garlic and lemon juice). You only get four little lollipops of meat, but it’s perfectly seasoned and gently char-grilled to perfection. I could eat those summer-y bombs of cherry tomatoes all day. And the fried shishito pepper adds a gentle kick of heat that even Montrealers can stand. Well, not the French.
I’m pretty sure this was the eggplant mutabbal ($9), which is not the same as baba gannouj. The difference is mutabbal is a simple combo of eggplant, tahini, yogurt and garlic. Baba gannouj ($19, and comes as a salad below) has pomegranate molasses, walnuts, tomatoes and parsley. But gosh, what does the name matter when the chunky flesh is so pungent with tahini and the juicy-sweet pomegranate seeds cut through the slick olive oil? In this case, that salad has pomegranate seeds, too – another step away from tradition into beautiful plating and tongue-tantalizing eating. They’re so pretty that Damas puts them on everything, as they should. The black dots are the molasses made with the stuff, a sweet and sour condiment that tastes like aged balsamic mixed with cherries.
I’m pretty sure this was the maqlouba ($39), its saffron rice and eggplant hidden beneath the lamb shoulder or braised beef short rib. But honestly I don’t remember. Clearly it was great, though, because I didn’t enough time get to eat much of it and take note.
The char-grilled octopus was a very popular dish, and possibly the most expensive octopus I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. But I got the piece of squiggly, charred tail with all the salt and charred bits latch on to, so I was extremely happy:
The menu says the only octopus dish is one with chickpeas and coriander, so this summer version with cherry tomatoes has changed since. Doesn’t matter; the octopus itself will be just as juicy.
And last but not least, the seabass. This was awesome. It’s called Samké Harra and comes stuffed with walnut, coriander and spiced vegetables. On the side were potato wedges doused in tarator sauce, sumac, pine nuts, one giant caper berry (that I should have shared but didn’t) and a wedge of lemon. The radish sprouts made the whole thing feel lighter and added a bitter note to contrast the sweet-fleshed fish and pungent tomatoes. It’s market price, so think in the $40-$50 range (and one person could definitely eat it by him or herself…), but gosh it’s good.
I didn’t mention the wine and cocktail lists. I didn’t try a cocktail, but my dining partner who did gave it rave reviews. The wine list, however, was spectacular. Like Le Petit Alep, the list features a lot of private import wines with bottles from the Middle East that you don’t see in many places in the city. Expect stellar Syrah (it was born in that area, native son/sun) but also some other interesting mono-varietals and blends.
All in all, it makes for a pricey evening and you’re probably going to wait for a special occasion to come (e.g. Valentines Day, a birthday). But, sometimes, splurges are worth it. Now if only the restaurant weren’t so loud (what am I? 80?). I went with two older people they couldn’t hear anything they said. Doesn’t make for great conversation, even if you’re the one with working ears and a penchant for boisterous, hip restaurants.*
1201 Avenue Van Horne
Hours: Tues-Thurs 5:30-10pm, Fri 5:30-11pm, Sat 4-11pm, Sun 4-10pm
Price: $80-$100 per person including tax, tip and a glass of wine
*The fact that I just used the words boisterous and hip in the same sentence demonstrates that I am certainly not hip and probably not (generally) boisterous.