Heni Montreal restaurant

HENI is the Montreal restaurant revelation of 2023

“Focusing on the ancient and diverse culinary traditions of the SWANA regions (Southwest Asia and North Africa), this new Little Burgundy restaurant strikes a rare balance between traditional and contemporary that feels genuine, devoid of gimmicks and entirely authentic.”

HENI, a new restaurant focusing on the ancient and diverse culinary traditions of the SWANA regions (an acronym for Southwest Asia and North Africa), is, for me, the revelation of 2023. 

In a year defined in large part by the explosion of the buvette concept and the revival of the French restaurant, the opening of an entirely non-eurocentric but altogether refined and considered restaurant like HENI is a breath of fresh air. If the driving force behind the French revival is a return to classics, then HENI takes it a few steps further by revisiting some of the world’s oldest and most influential cuisines and giving them a contemporary treatment. It strikes a rare balance between traditional and contemporary that feels genuine, devoid of gimmicks and entirely authentic. It’s a balance that requires tremendous cultural consideration and technical deftness to pull off. Fortunately, Heni has those qualities in spades.

The team behind the project is a slightly eclectic bunch — a mix of seasoned pros and first-time restaurateurs. Soufian Mamlouk (of Lulu Épicerie and Barley) is joined by General Manager Noah Abecassis (ex-Nolan) along with Omar Boubess and a sommelier known only as Rami (and who is also a winemaker in Lebanon). The kitchen is headed up by Chef Julien Robillard (ex-Pastel and Hotel le St-James) along with sous-chef Rami Nassim (ex-Vin Papillon), and pastry chef Tien Nguyen (ex-Pastel). For the ownership, it’s a first foray into the world of fine dining, but with Robillard’s extensive fine dining background, they’re more than well-equipped for the task.

One thing that stands out about HENI from the moment you enter the elegant and inviting dining room is the role that design plays in creating a defined sense of place. From the warm lighting that cascades onto a pale brick wall, evoking the imagery of a clay amphora, to the subtle but ornate tile, the swirling sand-hued granite table-tops or the tufted banquette upholstered in emerald-coloured corduroy, you feel situated in the Middle East.

On to the food. We began our meal with loubieh b zeit, a snack-sized dish of blistered green beans with stewed tomatoes, whelks and mint. Served cold, the salad is deeply flavourful, drawing on the unctuous sweetness of the tomatoes and char of the blacked bean yet surprisingly light thanks to the slivers of briny whelks and fragrant pops of mint. A squeeze of lemon wouldn’t have gone unappreciated but the dish was still quite good without.

Next up, the kibbeh nayye — a Lebanese incontournable. On a menu like Heni’s, which seems focused on more obscure or inventive dishes, putting a kibbeh nayye on felt like a bit of a crutch. In Robillard’s preparation, the dish uses rosy PEI beef, minced nearly to a paste (which is standard practice), and mixed with fine bulghur, onion and a blend of spices. Heni serves theirs with some raw radishes, green onion, a handful of mint leaves and a dollop of wild garlic toum, which is floral, fragrant and much less pungent than its traditional counterpart. It’s a delicious version that’s as good as any I’ve had. What really makes the dish, however, is the pillowy, baked-to-order Levantine flatbread that is served alongside — the combination is spectacular.

My dining companion, who doesn’t eat raw beef, opted for the kashk-e bademjan, a dish of roasted and mashed eggplant served with a sauce of fermented whey, caramelized onions, candied walnuts and saffron. Luxurious and profoundly flavourful, the star of this particular dish is the fermented whey, which tastes somewhere between tart yogurt and aged parmesan. Unsurprisingly, this dish was also a hit with the warm bread.

The entrées were undoubtedly delightful but Robillard and co’s real talents were put on display during the main course. I should make a point to mention that the portion sizes here are generous. At this point in the meal, it would have been more than sufficient to order a single main to share but for the purposes of being thorough, we opted for two: the mushroom couscous and the quail pithivier. The pithivier, for me, was the most impressive dish of the night. Made from two disks of puff pastry filled with terraced layers of meats and stuffings, the pithivier is a study in technique and timing. To pull it off, the pastry needs to flake, the meat must come to temperature and not over- or under-cook and the lot must hold its shape to reveal a magnificent cross-section. Perplexingly, it’s also a quintessentially French dish which seemed counterintuitive to the restaurant’s concept. That is, however, until our server drew the ingenious parallel between the pithivier and the Moroccan pastilla. Though slightly different in form and style, the fundamentals remain very similar and the dish works as a clin d’oeil to Robillard’s French background and to one of North Africa’s most beloved pies. To me, it’s the encapsulation of exactly what Heni does right. Moreover, the dish is exquisite. The pastry is impossibly flaky, and when cut into, reveals layers of herbs, beautifully cooked quail breast and still-runny quail egg wrapped in a mixture of pulled quail meat seasoned with almonds and rose water. I will think fondly of this dish for a very long time.

The couscous, however, is the dish that stole the show. Couscous at a restaurant like this presents a challenge — do you try and make it as traditional as possible or do you give into the understandable temptation of trying to reinvent the classic? The answer, in this case: neither. Robillard and co., using masterful restraint and confidence in their cooking, created a dish of perfectly tender and savoury couscous topped with a silky mushroom demi-glace and an assortment of chanterelles and plump maitakes. It’s a thoughtful appreciation of couscous showing that it’s not simply a catch-all tagine base but a vehicle on which exceptional ingredients can imprint. It’s this type of restraint that lets me know the cooking here is at a truly high level.

We finished our meal with the layali lubnan, a delicate and sumptuous semolina flan topped with white chocolate ganache, candied pistachios, rose water and the very last of the Quebec strawberries. It’s a dessert that’s layered with plenty of textures and tastes yet it’s entirely familiar — the way the rose and pistachio combine with the subtly malty taste of the semolina is unmistakably North African. It’s an ideal way to end an excellent meal.

I have not been so impressed with a new restaurant in a very long time and I may never have been this impressed with one that has only been open for three months. The places and culinary histories being explored by the team at Heni are endlessly rich. My hope is that, as they continue to explore and uncover the possibilities therein, they remain earnest and confident — it has served them exceptionally well so far. I am often asked for suggestions on new restaurants and to be honest, I occasionally have difficulty with offering an answer I completely stand behind. That’s no longer the case. If you want my suggestion for a great new restaurant to try, my answer is, unequivocally, HENI. ■

For more on HENI (2621 Notre-Dame W.), please visit their website.

This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of Cult MTL. 

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.