It’s on a balmy Friday evening under an iridescent sky that I arrive to eat at Alma. Nestled between a dépanneur and a laundromat on the cozy, tree-lined Lajoie street in Outremont, it’s the neighbourhood’s newest wine bar. Opened in May, Alma is owned and operated by Juan de Dios Lopez Luna, the chef of St-Viateur lunch counter Farine and his partner Lindsay Brennan who works alongside Vanya Filipovic for the wine importer Vin Damme-Jeanne. A modest 35 seats inside, its capacity doubles thanks to an intimate terrasse set out front of the restaurant. Upon arriving, we are greeted by a smiling and warm Brennan while another server seats us. Brennan quickly vanishes inside, understandable as the restaurant is full tonight. Comfortably seated on the terrace, it feels like I’m sitting down for dinner in a friend’s backyard. Alma’s crowd is decidedly older than neighbouring wine bar Boxermans and, without question, the terrasse is populated by residents of the notoriously expensive neighbourhood.
The menu and wine list arrive and are placed in front of us by our waitress. I am immediately struck by the number of Catalan wines present on the list. This should come as no surprise, however, since Brennan’s former importation company Vin i Vida was focused on her passion for the region. The list is also full of wines from wonderful producers including cuvees from Evan Lewandowski, Jean-Phillipe Padie, and natural wine legend Jean-Pierre Robinot, and gives testament to Brennan’s knowledge of good wine. On the other hand, for me, the skill and competency of a sommelier is best shown not in their ability to pick great wines that come with requisite high prices, but to also create a price diversity within the list without compromising quality. At Alma, you’ll find the majority of wines priced between $70 and $100, with only a small handful priced less than that. Although there are spectacular wines available on Brennan’s list, I believe drinking well in a wine bar should be a given, not a luxury reserved for those with deep pockets.
My date and I order a bottle of Que Pasa from Domaine Leonine in the Rousillion, an orange wine with 15 days skin contact made up of grenache blanc, grenache gris, and macabeu, an assemblage of essential Catalonian varietals. The wine is chalky and has flavours of dried apricot, fresh (read unbrined) olive, and rosemary, with a salinity hinting to the regions proximity to the sea. It’s a delicious wine, but with tax and tip, be prepared to spend nearly $100.
The first plate to arrive is a pair of grilled toasts dressed with salted anchovies and black fennel ($7). The bread is drenched in butter, literally pooling in the plate. Butter in excess is usually something I can get down with, but the grilled bread was losing its crispness by the second from butter saturation. One of the pieces—more accurately blackened than grilled—tasted of nothing more than carbon and salt, while the other piece, perfectly grilled was so soaking wet with butter it lacked texture and was overall just a piece of greasy, salty bread. Less butter and a squeeze of lemon would have greatly benefited the dish, allowing for some textural contrast and acidity to balance the saltiness of the anchovies and the richness of the butter.
Next to arrive is the pan con tomate ($9), a tapas essential. Having travelled extensively through Spain, I have developed a strong affinity and relationship with tapas, so to say I have an opinion on pan con tomate is to put it lightly. Lopez-Luna’s take is delicious. Grilled country bread is rubbed with raw garlic and slathered with a tart and savoury tomato sauce, and generously topped with boquerones (vinegar and oil marinate anchovy fillets). Bright and acidic anchovies and tomatoes are balanced by a hearty country bread, smokey from grilling. But one major question arises between my date and I: Why bother with two anchovy-on-grilled-bread dishes? The size difference is negligible, not even amounting to the difference of a single extra bite. My advice: Skip the focaccia, as the pan con tomate is the better dish.
The Matane shrimp ($14): Lettuce and shrimp sit atop ribbons of Lebanese cucumbers set in a pool of buttermilk and a subtle green oil, and topped with a cascading pile of fried shallots. The first bites are extremely salty, and the dressing is not incorporated. The dish regained tenacity after being tossed, but whether this is the intention of the chef is unclear as no indication was given from our server. Buttermilk and salt is not an adequate substitute for vinaigrette. The dish overall is too salty, and the intention of creating a shrimp-forward dish is lost to aggressive seasoning and too subtle of a dressing.
Blistered shishito peppers ($10) are served in a smoked crème fraiche, with scattered bits of crispy pancetta. It’s savoury and delighfully smokey, maybe the best dish of the night. Lopez-Luna is proving himself skilled in executing the more Spanish-leaning part of his menu.
The last dish of the night is underwhelming: A pile of a dozen or so pasta clams is served in an under-seasoned tomato broth and garnished with parsley ($15). The lemon seems to have been forgotten as it was lacking a balancing acidity to carry the dish; either that, or it was added too early in the preparation and the brightness was cooked out. I love simplicity, but execution is key when you’re playing it simple, and this dish really wasn’t better than the sum of its parts. Adequate, but not much more.
I want to like this restaurant, and there are aspects that I like: The ambiance is friendly and warm, the restaurant is beautiful, but two strong dishes out of five is not a good showing. Having only opened a few months ago, I hold out hope that Alma will work out its kinks, perhaps suffering from trying to manage an unexpected early popularity. I have liked Lopez-Luna’s food since his days at Farine, but tonight I felt the execution lacked the care I am normally accustomed to.
I plan to check back in with them for their Sunday night vermouth tastings in the near future. But with so many other options available seemingly right around the corner, if it’s a good bottle of wine and a few small plates I’m after, I won’t have to look too far. In this town, good food and great wine are never hard to find. ■