HENI, a restaurant focused on the SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) region of the world—a decolonial term for what’s commonly referred to as MENA, or the Middle East and North Africa—represents many new pathways for its owners, for its neighbourhood, and for Montreal.
As the city’s commonly presented as a crossroads of North America and Europe, that description easily lends itself to how Montreal can be a largely Eurocentric place in the world both in tastes and presentation.
At HENI, the script isn’t being flipped per se, but expanded: As the restaurant makes a place for relatively underexplored parts of the world in the city’s dining scene, it starts with Lebanese terroir and its interpretations of modern viticulture, expressions of SWANA cuisine through Quebec ingredients, and a whole new after-dinner surprise unlike any other in the city.
It’s a new-ish place that softly launched in the summer of 2023, and—with its grand opening this January that’ll open up its cellar—it’s now officially ready to rub shoulders with heavyweights like its trifecta of its fine dining neighbours like Joe Beef, Vin Papillon, and Liverpool House.
More importantly, it’s ready to hold its own among them.
HENI is an Arabic word that describes someone who’s wholesome, jovial, full of life and smiling through the ups and downs of life.
A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
Walking in, you wouldn’t know a wine cellar holding thousands of bottles at a time lies below your feet, a treasury that forms a significant part of what HENI has to offer: A creative, culinary, vinaceous collection of cultures.
Helmed by partners Soufian Mamlouk of Lulu Epicerie and Barley, Noah Abecassis (formerly NDG’s Entre-Deux and Saint-Henri’s Bonheur D'Occasion), Omar Boubess of the hospitality design office Studio Circa, and nomadic winemaker and cofounder of the artisanal and cultural collective Azkadinya Rami Bassil El-Sabban, the restaurant’s a labour of love and fascination with the vastness of its regional focus.
The interior’s rich with brick, mahogany, walnut, and pressed wood, coloured in earthy tones of brown and dark greens. Long, corduroy-backed and backlit banquettes run along every wall, and a half-circle central bar forms a centrepiece, but its ceilings draw the eye the most: Cork pieces resembling the Lebanese and Moroccan mountain ranges not only evoke the inspirations of the place and its focus on wine, but also provides a dulcet sound insulation in the space.
“HENI is an Arabic word that describes someone who’s wholesome, jovial, full of life and smiling through the ups and downs of life,” Rami explains.
The restaurant features an open kitchen churning out flatbread from an imported Lebanese oven, where chef Julien Robillard (previously of Old Montreal’s Pastel, and the executive chef of Le St James Hotel) crafts the seasonally-fuelled menus that are so central to HENI: Expressing a cultural focus as deeply as possible with farms, fisheries and beyond from Quebec and surrounding regions.
The menu’s focused and intentional approach delivers and blends different flavours through both traditional and inspired dishes, respectively, and is separated into family-style selections of mouneh (snacks from the ‘pantry’), entrees, mains, and desserts.
Marinated olives use sea buckthorn berry instead of orange zest, kibbeh can be made with PEI beef or duck hearts, the tomato sauce-rolled green beans of loubieh bi zeit is punched up with clams, and fatteh and couscous is treated to wild mushrooms.
There’s also dishes like pithiviers encasing a quail egg wrapped in Moroccan-spiced quail rillette with rose water and arak, and a brined quail breast—a twist on Moroccan-style bastilla—and Persian-style sholeh zard rice pudding with quince cream and pistachio praline infused with saffron and a rose gel.
Meanwhile, the cocktail programme comes from Emile Archambault (Le Mousso), building off an OG menu from Simon Lemay who developed drinks based on old Arab drink recipes from different holidays like using teas made with hibiscus or tamarind, or an apricot drink taken after Ramadan to soothe a fasting stomach.
Now, the bar encompasses private import spirits like infused arak from the SWANA region, and hopefully vermouths in the months to come.
Our cellar is equal parts producers who highlight our terroir and producers who champion our philosophies and our culture all over the world.
THE JUICE & RECONNECTIONS WITH CULTURE
But we don’t talk about HENI without talking about its wines, as the restaurant's the vessel for the group’s private import agency Sienna and its Lebanese wines that flow through the place.
Sienna’s catalogue represents one of the oldest winemaking regions on Earth, as Lebanon’s modern market for fascinations like natural wines and its newer generations of wine producers is relatively young.
That’s made room for agencies like Sienna to act as a fresh conduit, bringing in bottles from places like Mount Lebanon’s Faqra Valley, the country’s first biodynamic vineyard in the Batroun village of Nehla, the southern village of Ainata, and the central Ras El Harf village.
Our concept talks about movements through history, regions, and cultural traditions, and our wine program captures that. Rather than having the traditional offerings of France, Italy, the old and new worlds, we want to focus on wines that were produced around events from our region.
“Lebanese wine culture has a strong historical French influence, but there’s been a renaissance of sorts in the last ten years. Younger generations like ours are going back to Lebanon and are refocusing on indigenous varietals that have been around for thousands of years. These winemakers are creating a whole new path, one that showcases the unique expressions of our terroirs,” Mamlouk says.
“Our concept talks about movements through history, regions, and cultural traditions, and our wine program captures that. Rather than having the traditional offerings of France, Italy, the old and new worlds, we want to focus on wines that were produced around events from our region,” explains Abecassis when asked about how Sienna’s wines will play out at HENI.
Oftentimes, the wines will be new to Montreal’s tastes, placing Beqaa Valley alongside names like Bordeaux, but the restaurant stresses familiarity by offering options that diners can be either as comfortable or as adventurous as they’d like.
Served by the glass and the bottle, the restaurant eschews long booklets in favour of curated selections—wine, let alone the wine world, can be complicated, so service is intended to be lax and conversational but happy to abide by anyone who has precise tastes.
“Our cellar is equal parts producers who highlight our terroir and producers who champion our philosophies and our culture all over the world,” Mamlouk says.
Lebanon shares a lot with other mountainous, Mediterranean winemaking regions like Greece or Puglia, but its limestone-rich soil in certain areas, altitudes, and hot climate makes for the right chemistry and long growing seasons which—when paired with connections to age-old Phoenician wine culture—makes it possible to produce rich bottles only a half-decade old that rivals something five decades old.
Lebanese wine culture has a strong historical French influence, but there’s been a renaissance of sorts in the last ten years. Younger generations like ours are going back to Lebanon... creating a whole new path, one that showcases the unique expressions of our terroirs.
Sienna’s wine catalogue began as and continues to be something based around an act of cultural heritage preservation, with a mandate of casting light on underrepresented regions.
Right now, they’re looking to add Jordan and Cyprus to the catalogue, with hopes to bring in lost treasures from Morocco and Algeria.
It’s like moving to someone’s living room after dinner to hang out.
Below the restaurant lies another dimension of an invite-only, 22-seat lounge: Badin.
At Badin, we don’t want to limit ourselves to the SWANA region, we want to let loose and draw inspiration from everywhere.
As Mamlouk’s a music lover, a deeply-insulted cave of sorts has been carved out in the basement. It features a collection of his own equipment and hybrid amps brought together by a set of 50 year old vintage JBL studio monitors (JBL 4350) meticulously restored by Charles Murdoch. Deeply insulated, with sound treatments to every surface, guests can look forward to a setting that will feel like that of a sound studio.
It'll also have a cocktail programme run by Archambault from HENI.
Badin’s the French word for HENI, but if it’s pronounced as ‘bah-din’ instead of ‘bah-dan’, it means ‘afterwards’ in Arabic.
“It’s like moving to someone’s living room after dinner to hang out,” explains Rami.
“At Badin, we don’t want to limit ourselves to the SWANA region, we want to let loose and draw inspiration from everywhere. It’s a completely modular space, one that can shift to realize different visions and occasions,” Mamlouk says.
“We hope to build an exclusive experience for the guests of HENI. Eventually, we hope to open up the space to outside guests as well, while retaining the absolute intimacy the program downstairs seeks to offer,” Mamlouk says.
A NEW OFFERING
Imagined as another launchpad for HENI, the lounge is one of many unique offerings that joins the reinterpreted food and the wines pulling from the SWANA region—all a step well outside what can currently be found in Montreal.