1240 Philips Square/ Union
Tel: (514) 370-3000
Cost: 4 87.26
Chef Hats: 4.5
Last year, when everyone was in quasi hibernating mode and getting ready for another harsh Montreal winter, a new boutique hotel owned by the St. Martin Hotel Group, was slowly getting ready to open in the Maison Birks building downtown. The beautiful landmark century old building facing Philips Square, is no stranger to the Montreal landscape. After more than a century of being in existence, it was sold in summer 2016, to make way for a new hotel. The flagship Birk’s Jewelry store, on street level still remains open, but has been downsized from 20,00 square feet to 7,500. The other half now houses a French Brasserie by the name of Henri. Gone are the Birks Corporate offices upstairs.
Birks and Sons story began in 1894, when Henry Birks a reputed jeweler partnered with his three sons to open the flagship store and corporate office in on St Catherine and Union Street. What began as one man’s dream became an iconic Canadian brand that is now distributed internationally. The decision to sell the building probably came about, when an announcement was made that a Saks Fifth Avenue was to open across the street, bringing fierce competition. Jean Salette, owner of the Hotel St. Martin group had been eyeing the property since early 2000’s. He had approached Birks a decade ago, but they were not ready to sell. With changes in retailing, where everyone is now buying on the internet and big box store are struggling to survive, they decided to move their corporate offices out of Montreal and focus on new business concepts in Ontario. Birks has been renovating and relocating some of its stores in the last several years, to be able to survive in the market. In 2017, it announced the renovation a flagship store in the Manulife Centre of downtown Yorkville Toronto. Part of a $100 million mall renovation that included the addition of Italian food concept Eataly to open later this year. Meanwhile, here in Montreal, the old Birks building was totally renovated and transformed into Hotel Birks. The main floor was totally refurbished and what remains is half of the store and its namesake.
The second half and back section of the ground floor is where you will find Henri- Brasserie Française. The entrance of hotel is accessible from Union street, which leads to a narrow but swanky hotel lobby, all done up with large round console and large flower arrangements. The hotel is a sparkling jewel of Montreal’s hospitality scene and the restaurant is a prized Parisian style gem serving delicious meals. The hotel and restaurants’ luxurious interiors, shimmer with light, glamour and a mix of timeless chic. The main floor still contains reminances of the beautiful ornate ceiling and moldings done in Beaux-Arts theme. Accoutrements styled in Greco-Roman themes permeate the desk registration area, with white comfortable couches and a baby grand Piano.
Brasserie Henri interior was designed by non-other than Zebulon Perron, the famous Montreal restaurant designer who has created some beautiful restaurant spaces in this city. He fashioned Brasserie Henri in the style of an authentic 18th century Parisian Bistro with black and white themes, marble, brass bar and mirrored walls. Visually stunning and magnificently decorated, it is a beauty. Other remaining touches of the past are the preserved stained-glass windows that were found in the back Birk’s store that now sit strategically in the waiting area and at the back of the restaurant. They are still stunning and a pleasure to admire.
The Brasserie, exudes class with its white linen service, French speaking waiters, silver flatware and crystal glasses. The food is typical of French cuisine, but it incorporates fresh local produce at the highest standards. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner are served for the hotel guests and for anyone who also wants to dine there on any given day. You can also just go for an appetizer and aperitif at the bar that seats about thirty people. The restaurant has a capacity for about 120 people, it has a lounge and two private rooms for special events. The space is impressive, and beautifully managed, its tall windows overlooks Phillips Square, making it great for people watching and a relaxing atmosphere, if it were not for the present construction zone. The richness of the materials used in the design of the restaurant is evident. Carefully planned to the minutest detail, its sophisticated, luxurious and comfortable. Even the color scheme of the banquettes and menu reminds me of the little blue velvet boxes that were traditional when purchasing a fine piece of jewelry at Birks.
The last time I visited Maison Birks was back on early 2015, to have afternoon tea service at Jerome Ferrer’s Birks Café. Who was to predict that it was soon to be gone and replaced with something even better? So, with the news of the renovations and of the new opening, we were curious and wanted to see the changes. So, we decided to make reservations at Henri for a quick lunch after our downtown shopping spree. Of course, these days there are issues with parking in this area, but there is a parking lot on City Councilors across the park for $ 15.00 for the day. After looking for parking for close to an hour, and being late, we were happy to final arrive, sit and relax. We were greeted by a friendly but professional waiter with a French Parisian accent. We were given the menu which we perused quickly before deciding on our choices of a Croc Madame and Cheeseburger along with two glasses of wine. Henri’s little blue menu lists mostly traditional French cuisine, inspired by local Quebec and Canadian products. Chef Romain Abrivard, formerly of M. Mme, 400 Coups and Auberge Saint-Gabriel, creates well executed plates that are inspiring and very gourmand. Perfect for business lunch, it is also great for a tète a tète between two girlfriends who just want to have a light lunch.
The menu has lots of seafood, like oysters and lobster, and shrimps. You will find tartars made with either arctic char or smoked salmon. The lunch menu changes slightly depending on the week. Also listed is a cold carrot soup made from local Hochelaga carrots and a fish soup that is an homage to Paul Bocuse. Also, on the menu are French Bistro favorites like, Bavette, Hamburgeoise with sweet onion compote, salads and daily fish. The dinner menu is more extensive and offers plenty of seafood, meats and French specialties such as escargots, sea urchin and Coquilles St. Jacques. All dishes are carefully selected and perfectly executed, placing on the forefront, traditional French cuisine, and some fusion dishes like Hamachi, a Japanese Amberjack fish, thrown in there for the those who just want something different.
We began our meal with two glasses of wine, a rose Beaujolais from Chateau Cambon, France for $15.00 by the glass and a white from Verdejo, Chili for $ 12.00. Suggested by sommelier Colin Beaudoin-Lambert, the wine list comprises of private imports as well as local Quebec and Canadian wines. Champagne is the way to go here, serving some excellent champagne, from Dhondt-Grellet, that just made their introduction in Québec of late. As for cocktails, Eddy Germain is the mixologist formerly from Le Lab, and 4 Mur, who is responsible for the bar area. The bar has many Classique cocktails, but they also have many cocktails that are creative and original in concept, like the Moulin Rouge, The Hemingway Mescalita, and Le Jack.
We were here for a light lunch and decided to go with a just a Croc Madame, the female version of a ham and cheese sandwich, which came topped with a fried egg. The sandwich served on crusty French country bread was the best I have ever tasted. The butter made a difference, it was delicious and creamy. Served with a light vinaigrette green salad, it hit the stop and was plenty for me.
My dining companion went with the Henri Hamburger one of their signature lunch dishes served with a deliciously sweet onion compote, a slice of Quebec cheese from Charlevoix and frites. She adored the sweetness of the onion compote; the meat was Grade A, the fries crispy. She was very happy with her choice and far one of the best gourmet burgers she had tasted lately.
Henri also serves breakfast and you are welcome to stop in for just a croissant and coffee. If celebrating an engagement while picking a ring at Birks, you can treat yourself to festive indulgence of champagne and oysters in the privacy of your own room. Whatever it be, Henri and Hotel Birks is the epitome of class and a crowning achievement in restorative architecture and much-needed change in the area. It is very sad though to see yet another long-time running business that has permeated the Montreal landscape for centuries up and leave for the shinier lights of Toronto. As the bleeding continues in Montreal, one can’t help but feel we are losing our past. The old guard of successful business that once held court here at the turn of the century and made Montreal what it is are being replaced by many Francophone businesses. Not to say they are bad, they are just very different, in a good way.
Let us just hope they survive as long as others have. I just wish that our city politicians would get their act together and do some better planning when it comes to road repairs and infrastructure. Now, it’s just time to fix the bloody street or this town will really become a ghost town.