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Elena the Beautiful
My thoughts on the wonderful new Elena. As always, all opinions are my own. -JRS
If awards for well-designed restaurants exist, Elena merits one—you would never know this from the outside, however; the building, a brick and cement block on Notre-Dame West in St. Henri, is bland by any standard. Were it not for the two modest “Elena” signs, one in the window and one on the upper-right corner, you would have no idea you were staring at one of the city’s most exciting new restaurants.
This only serves to magnify your wonder when you step inside: You feel as if you’ve wandered into some stunning, secluded speakeasy. To your right, a spacious dining room bordered by orange banquette seating behind white or dark marble tables and contrasting blue chairs. A service bar lines the centre of the room, big works of art the walls. The room is open, generous, comfortable. Classy.
A dividing wall, the top section of which is a single piece of smoked glass, separates the dining room from the bar area, the latter lined by a long, curving marble bar top, punctuated at intervals by gorgeous, gold-colour lamps. This must make for one of the most beautiful restaurant bars in the city. Some fourteen diners can dine here comfortably; the main room seats thirty or more.
In short, Elena is dazzling, and clearly the product of a lot of thought and investment. A great space to dine in, it also speaks to Elena’s aspirations as a restaurant: They didn’t come to play around—and yet, refreshingly, they appear not to take themselves too seriously.
The service, in a word: fantastic. In a few more: competent, professional, eager, friendly. Staff appear very excited to be a part of this project, yet their enthusiasm never strays into arrogance. The front of house provides excellent, expedient service and speaks knowledgeably and passionately about the food and wine. Good help, I imagine is hard to find; Elena scores big in this regard.
Speaking of wine: Like most new restaurants of this calibre, Elena serves natural wines, all private imports. Bottles are fairly priced and some eight or ten wines are available by the glass. Having tried five or six, I can speak both to the quality of the wines as well as the accuracy of staff recommendations and descriptions. Feel free to ask—and trust—their advice. Cocktails and beers are also available.
The food at Elena? Italian, obviously: a few starters, a couple of salads, four or five pizzas, three or four pastas, and two larger sharing options. Always a good sign on a menu, brevity—but Elena also adds levity (e.g. “Kale César!”, “Spring Chicken!”, “Charred Char with Char”), something not common to restaurants of this calibre, but most certainly welcome. Food should be fun, no?
Despite three visits to Elena, there were sections of the menu I missed: no salads, no contorni, no shared mains. Of the starters, I ate only one, the “Suppli al Telefono”. Suppli, similar to arancini, are typical of Roman cuisine; Elena stuffs these tubes of rice with cheese, breads and deep-fries them, and serves the suppli on a tomato sauce, garnished with shredded cheese and basil. It is what it is: a simple, delicious starter. $9.
To my experience, pasta is generally poor in this city, whether you’re in a place like the popular L’Académie, any of Montreal’s myriad red-sauce joints, or even its more elevated and expensive restaurants. Typically you end up with quantity over quality and/or mushy texture and/or mediocre taste.
Not so at Elenea: The pasta here is top-notch and rivals—or at least comes close to—the best pasta I’ve eaten anywhere, even in Italy. Let me put it this way: Were you to eat a plate of this pasta in the “Old Country”, staring out a window onto the Po Valley, say, or the Almafi Coast, you would rate it among the best pasta you’ve ever had. How’s that for hyperbole?
The tagliatelle ($19) appears to be a menu mainstay, and rightly so. It is a terrific bowl of pasta in a richly deep and well-balanced sauce. Excellent. Equally exceptional was the “(No) Ziti?”: long, curving noodles coated in a wild mushroom and cream sauce. Intense, creamy mushroom flavour and nutty notes, deftly offset by the addition of pepper. Perfect. $18.
Another stellar example: “Cappelletti!”, which were wonton-like packages of pasta stuffed with lobster and scallop, served with a butter sauce, chili oil, basil and lemon zest (pictured page top). How good was this dish? Well, five pieces of pasta at a price of $24 makes it nearly $5 a pop—and it’s worth every penny. Phenomenal. This, like a “Linguini!” I had on my second visit, was a seasonal item; Elena served that dish with mussels, house-made ‘nduja, fennel, wild garlic and breadcrumbs. Superb. $19.
This kitchen can clearly cook pasta well. The pizza, as it turns out, is another story. My first experience marked a theme that continued, to one level or another, across all five of the pizzas that I tried: They were burnt in places to various degrees or, even when they appeared properly cooked, a bitter, blackened taste lingered. To quote Ralph Wiggum, “They taste like burning”.
To be clear, black spots are common on pizzas cooked at high temperatures, and welcome. As I noted in my article on the Laurier location of No. 900 (a far better pizza, to my tastes), they serve as a bitter flavour component that, when balanced, adds additional complexity and interest. But, a little goes a long way, and at Elena, that burnt-toast flavour was mostly overpowering. This puzzles me: Perhaps it has to do with Elena’s dough recipe, or the oven. No idea. (And, yes, I have eaten pizzas from wood-fired ovens in the past.)
But that’s not the only problem: Even without that bitter flavour, the pizzas at Elena were not particularly interesting. Take the Diavolo, for instance (hands-down my favourite style of pizza). Elena serves theirs with fresh chillies and slices of small pepperoni, the kind that curls up neatly when cooked. A terrific-looking pizza—like all pizzas here—but, frankly, a little on the bland side (lacking in seasoning, perhaps?). My first go at this one was so badly burnt as to be unpalatable, but even the second one, not dominated by black, carbon flavour, did not prove interesting. Meh. $17.
The Margherita I felt similarly about: stunning to the eye, somewhat mute to the palate. $14. The Rucola, served with arugula, pumpkin seed, slices of radish and sheep’s milk cheese, was likewise lacking. White pizzas are tough: you need a lot of flavour and great crust, otherwise you end up with a boring flatbread. This pizza did not have either—and I’m not sure Elena’s crust can stand alone, in any case (I’m curious as to how many diners send the outside of the pizza back, uneaten). $16.
One final gripe about the pizza: Elena serves theirs on thin, metallic pizza pans. This perplexes me: In this spectacular setting, the pans appear tinny, tacky—especially after dozens of other dinners have scratched them up. In addition, they are so light that they slide around when you try to cut the pizza. Plates would be so much better, and more fitting.
Elena does serve desserts, of which I tried only the gelato. It’s OK if you need really need something sweet and small to end the meal (I do appreciate how they sell by the scoop, at $3 per). Other, more complex options are available, cakes and such.
My complaints about the pizza aside, I love Elena, as this article should make clear, and recommend it very highly. Go with others, and share everything—start with one pizza, for example, and test if it’s to your liking (you may not prove as picky as this writer). Definitely, definitely order the pasta, as much as you can manage. And while I have not tried them, I do feel confident that the larger sharing options (chicken or fish) would be a safe bet, given what this kitchen can do.
All in all, Elena is excellent, and I expect this restaurant to place among the best new restaurants in the city and, quite possibly, the country. Deservedly so.