Restaurant Damas | Type of food: Syrian (Classic with a refined touch + their own twist) | Addr: 5210 Avenue du Parc | Phone: 514-439-5435 | Date and time of the meal: 02-02-2015 20:00 | URL: http://www.restaurant-damas.com/
Restaurant Damas has been around for several years and quickly won the heart of plenty of local foodies as well as most food journalists. Perhaps one of the few great success stories of the local food scene’s recent history. To appreciate Levantine‘s cooking, you need to understand its core elements: for eg, yoghurt is not just a notion for dessert. I took time to mention yoghurt because this is one element that a non initiated palate may find completely different from everything that has kissed its tongue,and –decades after Levantine’s cooking made its way to the West — you could still see online comments about people who are shocked to find yoghurt mixed with meat. Well, that is one feature of Levantine’s cooking. And then,you do, of course,have the olives, the leaf vegetables, plenty of creamy textures, the lentils,the chickpeas, etc.
That restaurant Damas was offering good looking food, that I knew. All I needed was to sample it and see how my appreciation would fare against the online raves on restaurant Damas.
Started with a fattoush, which featured quality ingredients that were freshly cut. The salad being certainly one legit version of fattoush —you have all the components of a fattoush (pieces of toasted flatbread, seasonal veggies) — , with — when compared to some of the traditional versions of the fattoush that I had before — the observation that they do not ‘push the envelope’ on the seasoning front (for eg, I had fattoush , prepared by Syrian grandmas, which sumac seasoning was somehow more noticeable and/or the sourness of the pomegrenate more expressive). Other main difference compared to some of the traditional versions I had: the refinement (there was a certain level of care that went into the presentation) . There was also a health conscious mind behind that salad as it was not salty. So, a fresh / healthy / almost western-friendly (which, for me, is not a reproach, btw) take on the traditional fattoush I had before. Nothing to fault, here. Good 7/10
Pursued with the fried akkawi cheese, nigella seeds, and tomato mint salsa – lots of finesse in the execution as the quality cheese (enjoyable lactic freshness ) had perfect sear, not a hint of off-putting greasyness, the overall featuring fine ingredients (by our local standards, though — and that’s the only way I could see how such dish could be improved — I can imagine how dazzling this would have been with freshly picked ingredients on the shore of the Mediterranean sea ;p). Very good 8/10
Then came the fabled lamb shank, which again … as everything I had on this evening…was done properly (they certainly know when fire, in the braising process, should start and when it should stop, they certainly know how to prevent their meat from getting dry, and if expressions like ‘fall off the bone tender’ or ‘moist’ are clichés to you, well they were certainly features of that lamb shank, too ;p), tasted fine –though not as dazzling as what I kept hearing….not the fault of the restaurant, should I stress, as my palate does not perceive this sort of seasoning —this was some perfectly legit Syrian seasoning for lamb shanks, btw – as exciting (certainly NOT unexciting neither). Still, this was good as there’s hardly anything to fault here (even the Freekeh – I picked the ‘Lamb friki’ dish — was cooked as it should, meaning seasoned judiciously, and cooked the way Syrians usually do, which is similar to cooking a pilaf – the wheat grain cooked to ideal consistency, meaning not over nor undercooked, but to the right chewy sensation that most Syrians came to expect from most freekeh-based dishes). The side of yogurt and cucumbers stood as fresh as it gets. 7/10
Service: Before I went there (my first visit at Restaurant Damas), I heard mixed reviews about the service and I was curious to find for myself. The service, on this specific evening, was approchable and sociable at the same time. It was certainly not too formal, which is what I prefer. Nothing that I could complain about, although it is worth noting that I am Francophone, they are Francophones, so the communication was flawless. Still, they also can converse in English as I saw them exchanging with Anglophone customers on this evening.
Pricey, as widely reported? It’s a place that offers some touches of (relative ) luxury (wine / mineral water /couple of luxury ingredients such as the wild shrimp from the coast of Senegal), so clearly, if you do not keep the bill in check, then your bill will remind it to you.
PROS: Unless I force my imagination otherwise, I can’t picture this kitchen failing at delivering food that’s done properly. Exciting food? That I do not know. Just remember that you can’t carry your definition of ‘exciting’ everywhere you go…as elements such as the seasoning used in X type of cuisine may be behind that definition. Food done as it should? Absolutely.
CONS: 1. They do not need to use luxury ingredients (filet mignon,shrimps from Senegal) for this type of food, meaning food that generally relies on the advantages of slow cooking, marinating meat, etc ….though I gather that the luxury ingredients are there to justify the higher price-point. With that (the price-point ) in mind, I suggest you stick to the tasting menu as it will pass as more cost-effective (than ordering à la carte). 2.I don’t understand why, as a solo diner, I can’t indulge in the tasting menu that’s advertised on the very first page of their menu. My waitress kindly explained that it’s for two persons, thus way too much for a solo diner. But it’s the job of a restaurant to adjust their tasting menu to a solo diner (this is not an issue at plenty of restaurants). She tried to accommodate me, but the alternative options were not as interesting as that tasting menu.
Conclusion: My experience was a bit different, as well as tad less impressive, when compared most online accounts –> most have raved about the most flavorful lamb shank they ever had in Montreal, the best fattoush, etc. Taste is personal, different cuisines mean different ways of flavoring food, a lamb shank can be dazzling one day and forgettable the next day depending on the supplier and so many other factors, your preference for a specific type of cuisine may define your assessment of what’s flavorful or not, and with all of that taken into account, on the strict aspect of the flavor, I still have to say that I had far more flavorful lamb shanks right here in Montreal. Which, again …has nothing to do with Restaurant Damas and should take nothing away from its lamb shank: it was tasty, seasoned as Syrians do usually season their lamb (though not boldly, which make sense as this kitchen focuses on the refinement of their cooking) and certainly timely braised, its quality irreprochable and indeed, one of the fine pieces of lamb shanks of this city…JUST NOT among the most delicious that I ever had in Montreal. For me, this not a restaurant that would feature in my top 10 in Montreal (which seems to have been the case of most online reviewers of this place), but definitely –from what I’d realistically expect from a Syrian restaurant in Montreal — a kitchen that can cook , and that does it with care.
What I think days later: A satisfying meal, good ingredients as well as a kitchen which work I certainly can’t fault, but my meal at Restaurant Damas did not ‘float my boat’ because nothing knocked my socks off…which,like to hear this or not, is what I should expect at those prices and that reputation. I can only reiterate that between a flawless meal with everything done well but nothing standing out (the case of this meal I was having) and a meal that is in general average but with one or two moments of brilliance, I prefer the latter over the former. And YES…just in case you ask, I am a huge fan of / and am familiar with Syrian cuisine since a long time. And NO, my experience with Syrian food is not limited to tasting it in the West. And oh…just in case it is still not clear enough…the sort of MOMENTS OF BRILLIANCE (in this case, I was missing a personal touch that dazzles) I am referring to are possible and expected from Syrian cuisine.