Tuesday, March 19, 2013

HOTEL HERMAN


Hotel Herman opened in the summer of 2012 in the same space that was previously home to La Montée de Lait. In the increasingly restaurant-friendly neighborhood that surrounds the corner of Fairmount and St Laurent, Hotel Herman joins other popular spots like Lawrence, Fabergé & Cafe Sardine, breaking up a seemingly endless stream of expensive furniture stores and contributing to a burgeoning food scene on the border where the Plateau meets Mile End.

Dominic Goyet who, in addition to Hotel Herman also remains co-owner of another Montreal favorite, La Salle à Manger partnered up on this endeavor with Ariane Lacombe and Marc-Alexandre Mercier. When cooks progressively move their way up the ladder of a kitchen brigade, a ceiling is eventually reached and restauranteurs inevitably must realize that there's a choice to be made. Either they understand and accept when young talent outgrow their environment and must look outside the restaurant for career advancement, or if they're financially capable of doing so and confident in the prospect they expand, grow, and invest in the talent of the young man or woman they've had a hand in cultivating. For Goyet, that talent was chef Marc-Alexandre Mercier, who prior to Hotel Herman spent time working under chef Samuel Pinard at La Salle A Manger, eventually further honing his chops at NOMA in Denmark, regarded in recent years to be the world's best restaurant.

The focus at Hotel Herman is seasonality and terroir. Not unlike NOMA, the principles that govern Mercier's menu are looking inward rather than outward for inspiration, exploiting that which is native to your surroundings rather than relying on importing goods from abroad. With abundant summers and meager winters it requires a great deal of flexibility to work with the bounty native to Quebec, depending on the season, creativity becomes key.

The restaurant is well lit with fixtures over the bar reminiscent of the shape of shade you might find over a pool table except these ones are clear. The space makes use of several building materials bringing texture, depth and tasteful contrast to the room. A large U-shaped bar topped in an unnatural, white, melamine-like material is central, seating approximately 20 diners. Tables and rigid metal chairs seat just as many, if not a few more in the surrounding space. The crowd was young, and hip, but there seemed to be an equal amount of smartly dressed young professionals as there were mustaches - if you catch our drift.

Though the wine list didn't present many familiar bottles, it did offer tremendous value with more than half of the available options at 55$ or less, and at least four whites and four reds offered by the glass. The cocktail list is classy and traditional. The gimlet we ordered was splendid. Gin and lime juice shaken vigorously with an egg white gave the cocktail volume, topped with a bright punch of lime zest it proved perfect to whet the appetite.

The menu kicks off in a customary fashion for this type of restaurant where dishes, somewhere between appetizer and main dish in portion size, are meant to be shared. Bread, charcuterie, oysters, are first in line but the shallow end rapidly deepens plunging into seriously interesting but simplified descriptions highlighting the main ingredient like northern shrimp, blood sausage or marinated trout. Costars are listed below each item in an equally concise manner. We began our meal with some bread, baked daily on premises and a dish simply labelled potato, served with bone marrow and mullet caviar. A sizable bone full of piping hot roasted marrow was served next to a puddle of delectably rich potato purée, a handful of halved, sautéed new potatoes and a few dollops of black, mullet caviar. Nobody in their right mind orders bone marrow expecting a light dish, but the presentation was elegant enough to give us the short lived impression that it might turn out to be deceptively delicate. We enjoyed it very much, but the only real textural contrast was the firm nature of the halved potatoes. It lacked something, anything crisp, and having been dolloped over the potato purée, the caviar was awash in it's accompaniment's fatty, buttery nature. Placing the fish eggs around the potatoes rather than on them could have given the product a better opportunity to assert its briny essence; just a thought.

Potato, Mullet Caviar, Bone Marrow - 12$

Next, we sampled Jerusalem artichokes served with seared duck hearts and dried magret. The tubers, also sometimes referred to as sunchokes were prepared three ways, roasted whole, puréed smooth as silk and raw, sliced thinly into chips. We had never tried nor thought of trying to eat them raw before and we found their crisp texture particularly pleasing. The small ones that had been roasted whole were supple, holding their form only thanks to their earthy, edible skin. Ribbons of magret, dried, cured duck breast with a sliver of buttery fat left on them were excellent, a hint of the salty curing mixture was satisfyingly noticeable. Duck hearts that must have been just barely kissed by the heat of a pan were served quiveringly rare, we found their crimson red color and tender texture to be wonderful. Beneath the greens on the plate we uncovered a few pieces of duck cooked well beyond rare that we thought may have been gizzard, or confit pieces of heart. We asked our waitress but she said they must've simply been the tips of the heart that cooked more rapidly. We're still not certain she was accurate but didn't want to press the issue; we remain suspicious and honestly, would prefer to believe that those pieces of duck were done by means of a separate preparation and that they were meant to be cooked to that degree rather than believe they had been unintentionally overcooked due to not having been butchered uniformly.

Jerusalem Artichokes, Seared Duck Hearts, Dried Magret - 15$

Stanstead rabbit served with kidneys, Brussels sprouts and black mustard was a let down. The kidneys were great, relatively mild in flavor, and paired splendidly with the biting heat of the black mustard. The Brussels sprouts were prepared two ways, in roasted halves and sautéed leaves; they were certainly good, albeit a little bit salty. It was the rabbit sausage though, the focal point of the dish that was really bizarre, even unappetizing bordering on stomach-turning. The aftertaste was generously speaking OK, but it was the flavor on the front of the palate that there's really no way to describe other than saying it tasted like a cross between warm, flat beer and acid-reflux. We're pretty certain that's not what they were shooting for. The offensive acidity urged us to search for a culprit, we questioned whether the sausage had been poached or simmered in beer or (bad) white wine prior to searing it, but our waitress said it hadn't. We tasted it again, hoping it was just a bad bite but it wasn't - it was a bad sausage, really bad.

Stanstead Rabbit, Kidneys, Brussels Sprouts, Black Mustard - 18$

Venison tartare served with young juniper berries and smoked eel creme fraiche was excellent, skillfully seasoned without overwhelming the subtlety of the meat itself. The pickled immature juniper berries were a perfect example of adapting recipes to incorporate terroir; a clever addition redolent of capers, classically present in steak tartare recipes. Dabs of smoked eel cream were killer, applied to the plate in a proficient quantity, it's flavor was clean and smokey like freshwater fish cooked over a campfire. A burnt onion powder that looked a lot like coffee grinds was unpleasant and astringent eaten on it's own but lent a surprisingly sweet flavor when combined in sparing quantities with the rest of the elements on the plate.

Vension Tartare, Smoked Eel Cream, Young Juniper Berries - 15$

Dessert was original, exhilarating and most importantly - delicious. A decadent sliver of silky, spreadable manjari chocolate terrine was served on a slab of marble with crunchy hazelnuts and a smear of bone marrow caramel or rather, cara-moelle? The bone marrow wasn't just a gimmick either, it was clearly present. Slightly greasy perhaps but not overly so, it's overt salty-sweet nature contrasted with the chocolate like a traditional salted caramel or quality chocolate that can be found flecked with fleur de sel. Texturally stimulating and challenging to the palate it was a dish we found to be a stand-out of our visit.

Manjari Chocolate Terrine, Marrow Caramel, Hazelnuts - 8$

In food writing, the word ambitious can be tricky. Often, but not always it tends to be used as a gentle way of describing an intrepid effort or a big risk that fell short of it's mark, while other times, there's no implied or underlying meaning. Our experience at Hotel Herman can be characterized by the word ambitious in both implications. Chef Mercier is clearly pulling out all the stops, masterfully displaying the versatility of each element that graces his plates, like the Jerusalem artichokes prepared in 3 effective variations or by creating exciting combinations like the smoked eel cream and raw deer. But when such gutsy cuisine is taking place there are bound to be times that the envelope gets pushed a little farther than necessary. While we found the bone marrow caramel to be compelling and literally speaking, ambitious, there's no denying that the rabbit sausage was "ambitious" in the alternate sense. Price point was fantastic with only one dish on the menu exceeding 20$ and the majority of the remaining dishes at or below the 15$ range. Judging by the hospitality and our overall experience, we don't expect this hotel to be victim to very many vacancies this summer, so call ahead for reservations and bring a friend with an open mind and an adventurous appetite. 


Hotel Herman
5171 St Laurent blvd, corner Fairmount
Montreal, QC
514-278-7000
www.hotelherman.com

Hôtel Herman on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. So true about the word "ambitious" in reviews! Glad to read your thoughts on Hotel Herman because I've been curious since many are talking about it ;)

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