438 McGill St. (corner St-Maurice St.)
Chef Hats: 4.5
Cost = $189.67 (excluding tip)
If you are looking for an exceptional Portuguese restaurant to dine at Restaurant Helena in Old Montreal is the Go TO place. Located on McGill Avenue and corner of St Maurice, two steps up from street level, this restaurant which opened in summer of 2012 is a shrine to Portuguese fine cuisine and tapas. I consider it to be one of the best in town by a long shot with its innovative techniques and its beautiful presentations. It is fresh, hip and fun for all age groups. Restaurant Helena is named after Chef Helena Loureiro. To some, her name may be obscure, to others if you remember Le Vintage on St. Denis or Portus Calle on St Laurent; she is the one manning the kitchen.
Helena Loureiro was born in a small village near Fatima, in central Portugal. Her passion for cooking took shape in the 1980’s when she studied at the Catering Institute of Lisbon. In 1988 she moved to Montreal and completed her training at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, obtaining her diploma in 1990. She then worked as Executive Chef at Le Vintage Restaurant, and at Alexis le Traiteur for twelve years.
In 2003 she opened her first restaurant Portus Calle, a fine cuisine Portuguese restaurant in the Plateau area. With many years under her belt and lots of experience Helena has now opened this restaurant in her namesake and another gourmet boutique called Cantinho de Lisboa selling Portuguese specialties. She has a huge passion for bringing us the pleasures of her maternal homeland through fine dining.
Upon entering the space that houses Helena Restaurant I was taken aback by the wonderful decor. The front of the house really gives you a feeling that you have entered an urban chic European restaurant in upscale Lisbon with its huge display of folkloric plates mounted in a boxed frame on the wall. The space is bright with its high floor to ceiling windows and exposed brick walls. The orange honey wood floors, dark blue chairs, orange banquettes and bar stools, evoking the colors of Azores islands. The tin embossed ceiling tiles emanating rays of sunshine in the dimly lit room. In the center of the space as the room narrows you will find a busy bar and a more private area in the back for larger groups or parties.
We got a table across from the bar which aside from the kitchen was really the epicenter of the hustle and bustle. We got to watch the waiters and waitresses coming back and forth for drinks and got to witness their symbiotic camaraderie. Through the loud music our sympathetic and friendly waiter greeted us with a smile and explained menu . He suggested as first timers to the restaurant we sample their Tapas degustation menu which consists of 6 items that were going to give us a rounded idea of their best items of the house and an introduction to Portuguese cuisine. We decided to go with Tapas although I thought at the moment it may not be enough food, but I was wrong. I was so stuffed by the end of the meal I hardly had room for dessert.
The dinner for two Tapas degustation menu at $55.00 per person ,consisted of Red tuna pavé “saisi”, with cream of green peas, mint and chouriço, the Salada de Esparagos-Grilled asparagus salad, Serrano, roasted and mashed almonds, & São Jorge cheese, the Lulas Grelhadas com molho verde -Grilled squid, with salsa, U-10 seared scallops, foie gras torchon,bacon marmalade and corn purée, Chouriço assado-Grilled chouriço, garlic and parsley, and an dessert tray of nanta ,chocolate mousse, cookies fresh fruit salad, watermelon, raspberries and strawberries, cheesecake triangles and espresso’s. For wine we went by the glass a Rose Douro-Red Ninfa $13.00 and red Papa Figos at $ 11.00. It perfectly complimented the mix of meat and fish tapas we received.
We got as a complimentary bowl of olives, bread and pâté of cod to start our meal and to nibble on with our glass of wine before the array of tapas began. The first tapas dish to hit the table was the tapas of seared tuna with white and green peas, sautéed with slivered onions and a hint of mint. The tuna was perfectly seared on the outside and red on the inside, tender and tasty with just the right flavors.
The second tapas was their big draw asparagus and Serrano ham salad, a definite must, it is the best and a meal in itself. Constructed around a twirl of shredded raw asparagus, the dish also contained two grilled asparagus steams, grilled almonds, slivers of Sao Jorge cheese and ruffles upon ruffles of that sublime Serrano ham. The bitterness of the raw asparagus offset the rich Serrano and salty cheese.
The third dish was a grilled squid atop a fresh cubed tomato salsa and zucchini grilled rounds. The squid was perfectly grilled and not overly chewy, offset by the freshness of the cubed tomatoes, onions and zucchini, and a few asparagus tips, a total palate cleanser. Frenchie who is not a big seafood fan loved this.
The next tapas dish was big what they call U-10 seared scallops, with foie gras torchon, bacon marmalade and corn purée, U10 scallops are dry packed scallops that are not packed in any kind of preservative that cause them to absorb water and lose flavor. Top chefs will use only dry packed. The U10 designation means that they are 10 or fewer to the pound, which means that just a few of them make a substantial meal, and the creamy, rich flavor is all there. The U10 scallops are great, best baked or broiled. These were just the right consistency, the torchon de foie gras adding to the flavor as scallops can be rather bland, the bacon marmalade I could not taste because of the softness of the foie gras, the corn purée sauce hit the mark and drove the dish over the top.
The last dish was the grilled chorizo, two slices of diagonally sliced grilled chorizo, topped with peppercorns, salt and spicy in consistency, a great ending to the meal.
To finish, for desserts we received one platter for two which consisted, of a combination of the small desserts typical Portuguese favorites, small natas tartlets, cheesecake, mousse and fresh fruit and our usual espresso’s to complete this fine meal.
We loved Helena’s, and will definitely return, the service was exceptional , our waiter is what cemented the deal and next time we will return and hang out at the bar to enjoy more of their delicious tapas and wine.