131 St Jacques St /Corner Lucien L’allier
Montreal, Quebec- H3C 1H2
Chef Hats: 3
Cost for 4 people with wine: $274.79 (excluding tip)
You can classify Nora Gray as a small low-key Modern Italian neighborhood gem. It practically sits alone on a stretch of St Jacques Street that is desolate and mostly inhabited by condos. Literally two doors away from the Alexis Le Gourmand, you will spot it only if are close enough to see its name etched in the framed window. The awning above the door is devoid of any sign that a restaurant exists here.
Nora Gray has been open since August 2011, it’s owned by three ex-pats from Liverpool House; Ryan Gray, Emma Cardarelli and Lisa McConnell. From the onset, the buzz around this restaurant was strong. Surely when you have worked under the guises of David McMillan and Frederic Morin, two bubbly characters who have been the fathers and mentors to many good chefs in the city. It is almost a given and a sure guarantee that if you have worked under their wings you will soar to great heights.
In the years that followed I heard so many good things about Nora Gray, everyone I knew who had been there raved about how much they liked it. I had given up on trying, as the saying goes out of sight out of mind. Until this year when Frenchie’s studio moved to Griffintown and on his walk back and forth from the office, he mentioned this little bistro he had spotted on St Jacques Street.
Alas, I knew exactly where Nora Gray was located and we decided to take his two sisters there to celebrate their birthdays last weekend. A heads up, this restaurant has no on-line reservation system and you have to call the old fashion way (by telephone) to book a table. Nora Gray is small and only seats about 50 people, if you want to book on a particular day for special event call way ahead.
Once inside you will find a very chic streamlined room with amber-colored faux wood wall panels, long dark banquettes and tables lining one wall. The bar that seats 6-8 people is on the opposite side of the room. Black and white minimalistic photographs line the walls. The room is very low-key with dimly lit candles and subdued lightly, it begins very quietly with modern tunes playing softly in the background but by the end of the night the room fills up with patron’s loud chatter reverberating and bouncing off the walls.
The food at Nora Gray although listed as Italian is not indicative of a specific region and one can find a mix of styles and local cuisine. The menu is broken up into three section, antipasti, and primi e secondi.
For starters I had a serving of antipasti the Funghi Piadina at $15.00. A small pocket of bread folded over resembling a mini calzone stuffed and topped with tiny morsels of sautéed mushrooms and wild garlic. The piadina was served warm, a perfect cushion of bread, soft, perfectly seasoned. The wood garlic was not overpowering at all. It was simply tasty and comforting.
There was a lot of items I would have loved to try on the this menu like the fresh ricotta, fennel, celery and walnut entree, the stuffed olives with Mortadella, the Cured tuna with Bottarga, or the Matane shrimp salad with saffron mayo and grilled Treviso, all very impressive.
The birthday girls- Momo and Yoko had both from the primi piatti a half portion of Gnocchi with ham and peas at$ 15.00. The tomato sauce was light and complimented the pasta. The gnocchi were actually long cavatelli and not the generic heavy fat gnocchi made with potatoes that we find in local supermarkets. The ham pieces were small rectangles of Italian prosciutto cotto, which added to the delicacy of the dish. The peas were sparse and could be seen here and there. They really enjoyed their pasta and raved at the taste.
For the secondi piatti, Frenchie had the Fegato di Vitello (Venetian Grilled Calf Liver) at $ 24.00. The calf liver had a very nice flavour not at all metallic tasting and very good. I had the Grilled Bavette with spring vegetable mix at $ 26.00, which came highly recommended by our waitress after the last dish of Merluzzo was sold to another client. The Bavette was perfectly medium rare with its juices. The spring vegetables were a mix of fiddle heads and sliced colored peppers. I believe I had the best dish and everyone who sampled my dish said they should have gone that route.
Momo had the Coniglio Parmagiana at $27.00, two thin cutlets of lightly breaded rabbit in tomato sauce and topped with parmesan and mozzarella cheese. Momo thought the morsels were tender and not gamey for Rabbit. I would have loved to see Rabbit on the menu the old fashion traditional way my parents used to make it stewed in white wine and wild mushrooms.
Yoko had the Seafood Stew at $ 29.00, a large plate of mixed shellfish like clams, mussels and a large spiral shell resembling a crab shell. She scooped it out of its shell and it looked like a huge escargot which was very tough and chewy. The rest of her stew was perfection.
For dessert, the girls had carrot cake topped with sour cream ice cream and Frenchie had chocolate mousse cake topped with baked meringue at $ 8.00 and a cappuccino. All desserts were decadent. I opted out for dessert and only had a short espresso but was charged for dessert nonetheless. We only noticed after leaving the restaurant and looking at our bill.
Our very leggy waitress, weary very sexy lace shorts was professional and very pleasant. Even though we couldn’t help ourselves from staring at her shorts and not her face. She switched easily from English to French with ease. Not an easy task with us. She was however very accommodating but did not make any recommendations for the wine; even after I asked her if what we choose would be good with the meal. So for wine we ordered a bottle of Barberi D’Asti at $ 52.00. Everyone wanted red, and it went well with the three meat dishes we sampled.
All in all, we found our experience at Nora Gray just run of the mill. It kind of lacked the oomph factor that we so much were expecting. That is maybe not entirely their fault. We felt kind of pressed for time and rushed out as they needed the table for the next seating. With no room at the bar, we finished our conversation outside on the curb. Maybe a few drinks at the bar could have made this night more memorable. Nonetheless, a great neighborhood restaurant.