Le Petit Alep report (Montreal, long)

Here is a restaurant report that was appreciated on chowhound. Might be useful here too.

TLDR: Great food, great service. Had a great time will be back.

I have been meaning to make a report on Petit Alep for a while now but I had so much to say I never got around to do it. Better late than ever I guess!

I wanted to visit the Alep sister restaurants for a long time but since I am located near the Atwater market and that dinner plans usually coalesce from an improvised “hey I’m hungry lets go eat somewhere” phone call, the impulsion of the moment seldom lead us to the other side of the city. This time, however, I was with a patient friend and we were in a mood for exploring new horizons so we set out for an expedition into the unknown.

For those who don’t know, the Aleps (Alep and Le Petit Alep) are sister restaurants located right beside one another near the Jean-Talon Market. Both are well known to represent a more elevated version of Levantine cuisine than the one we are subjected to in food courts all over Montreal (I guess I could roughly put Damas, Daou, Su and Garage Beirut in that category. Maybe. Feel free to comment.)

Alep is the older, more formal sister. It is recommended you reserve in advance and the atmosphere is relatively subdued. Everything is orderly and proper and white. Le Petit Alep has more of a bistro atmosphere and don’t take reservations. She is the more bohemian “first come first served” sister. It is colourful, energetic and lively without being too loud (ie: there is a definite din of conversation and its far from hushed but there is no loud dance music blaring from speakers that some annoying bistros who want to infuse “energy” tend to opt for ).

We were saturday and made no reservations so, of course, the Alep was full. The host suggested we try Le Petit Alep as they don’t take reservations. It was also full. Interestingly, to cover for the fact that they don’t take reservations I guess, Le Petit Alep has standing tables where people waiting for a seat can enjoy a glass of wine or beer. The problem was that there was a waiting line for the standing tables. We were more patient than the other groups so we graduated to the front of the waiting line pretty quickly (the “we’ll never get in” vibe was definitively present). Once we had access to the standing table (after 10-15 minutes of wait) we told ourselves that we should slowly enjoy one or two drinks (I had white wine, my friend had Arak) after which, if we were still waiting we would go try “EL Rey del Taco” in front. I remember saying, as a joke, that at least “Alcohol had the advantage of being nourishing while food can’t make you drunk”. When you are in a middle of an ocean of people, everybody wants a table, everybody is hungry and your only island is a glass of wine, humour is a must. We had no idea of the reputation of “El Rey del Taco” but the place looked kitch enough for us and you can’t lose by having the king (!) of tacos as a backup option… I guess if we could not get any of the sophisticated syrian sisters to come eat with us we’d take our revenge with the trashy mexican broad.

The menu we were given was intriguing. Everything looked interesting and we had no idea what to order so we asked our server if she could help: is it possible for you to order a bunch of stuff for us (preferably what you do best or is more typical of the restaurant), we’ll eat it and we’ll pay you at the end? The open minded, dynamic and opinionated server took no time in suggesting a bevy of delicious options for us to try. It was a great call.

We started with a few “mini” mazzas.

Our server insisted that we try the Hommos and Mouhamara combination. Everybody knows Hummus, the chickpea spread loved by our vegetarian friends that is becoming more and more mainstream every year. Mouhamara is apparently a regional speciality made of bread crumbs, pomegranate molasses and walnuts. Basically you get a truckload of mini pitas (each roughly the size of a loonie… an all you can eat serving of miniature baby pitas), you spread Hommos on it, you spread Mouhamara on top of the Hommos like a Syrian Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich and you enjoy it in one bite. I remember Hommos as creamy and tangy, the Mouhamara as fragrant and assertive and both complimented each other perfectly. Neither of us are typical fans of Hummus (we don’t dislike it but we don’t have a perennial tub of hummus in our fridge like some of our friends do) but we could not stop raving about the combination for weeks following our visit. Its even in my project binder for snacks to try to make at home: “Hommos and Mouhamara” beside the attractive and popular “Maply syrup candied bacon strips”

The Tarator chicken was also very good. The rest of our spread was so good however that it paled a bit in comparison of the other choices. It was akin to try to give an evaluation of a very good Toyota model when you had a garage full of Ferraris, Lamborginis and Porshes.

Loved the Falafel. Soft, flavourful, delicate… exactly the kind I like to eat.

We like Tartar so we really enjoyed the Kebbé Nayé. It was very different than the french tartares we are used to. It was much more finely cut and granular. It was also a bit less fragrant and more mineral and spicy. Neither are better than the other, they are just different. The french tartare is a wetter chunky mass while the levantine version was a more granular spicy paste.

We had a plate of Taboulé. I did not enjoy it because the parsley action was just too intense but that speaks more to my inability to enjoy good Taboulé than their ability to make it. I could tell it was well done and my friend enjoyed it but I did not because apparently I enjoy parsley less than I thought I did. One of our friends who enjoy Taboulé (yep, one of those perennial Hummus carrying card members) told us that the mark of good Taboulé was a good ratio of Parsley and the cheap ones spared it in a mushy inedible bulghur heavy mess so I guess the Petit Alep version was very, very good.

The Kebab Khach-Khach was “throw yourself out of a window” good. It was a tender, aromatic beef kebab with lots of sauce and a hint of spice. A real star that correspond to my platonic ideal of a kebab. Seriously, I think it will be my baseline for future kebabs. Its the kind of dish that leads you to try nothing else on the menu because you fear you won’t like the other options as much.

We almost ordered Baklawa for desert but our server told us we should not if we wanted to try stuff that was house made. The Baklawa is apparently very good but they buy it from somewhere else (a pastry shop called Marroussé if you want to source Le Petit Alep approved Baklawa). Instead she suggested we try Mamounié with aleppo cheese and Atayep. We happily agreed (at that point we were ready to try anything she suggested since her choices were so much on point.)

Mamounié is described as a semolina of wheat, ricotta cheese and cinnamon. We were told it was a bit like porridge. I understand the reference and its not false but its much better than that. Its a bit akin to calling an apple crumble a “hot apple salad”. Its a very sweet, spiced (the Christmas spices) hot wheat semolina mass topped with salty shredded aleppo cheese. It was very homey, recomforting autumn appropriate dessert. Made me feel like I was eating apple crumble. The cheese provides a strange but interesting salty counterpoint (think of it as putting shredded cheddar on top of the apple crumble). Its not a dessert everybody will “get” (I had a moment of cognitive dissonance where I had to get used to eating what I had programmed as a breakfast item as a dessert) and it might not be a right fit for those “frosted white cakes as a dessert” enthusiasts but if you are ready to experiment a bit its an interesting experience.

The Atayep, on the contrary, is a dessert everybody and their mother will “get”. Its a fried closed up golden pancake stuffed with ricotta and covered with orange blossom syrup. It is delicate, crunchy on the exterior, very sweet and rich on the inside. Its right up my alley, not as novel an experience as Mamounié (it was the first time I tasted Atayep but I “knew” it instinctively, Mamounié was a novel sensory experience that threw me a bit in a loop). It was a sweet bite that was interesting and welcome.

Overall the cost of the meal was very reasonable (I think 25-30 ish per person before drinks, tip and taxes) and we had an incredible time.

I must credit our server for the great support she gave us. (I kinda wanted to ask her to write down her name but I didn’t know if it was appropriate so I chose to try to remember her name from the bill instead. I failed), She was energetic (you say “full of piss and vinegar in english?”), motivated, opinionated, did not hesitate to guide us through our first experience, gave us not only fast and efficient service but had a great personality to boot. The kind of server that you ask for by name to make sure you can come back during her shift. She was a great ambassador for her restaurant and opened a window to a great experience.

We will, of course, be back. With all our hummous and taboulé club card carrying friends and regular foodie enthusiasts. Maybe during the week to make sure we get in. Or we’ll make a reservation at Alep. I think I prefer the bohemian atmosphere of Le Petit Alep over the more formal Alep ambiance however. Recommended for everybody if they take the necessary precautions of not going in randomly on a whim during the busiest moment on the busiest day without reservations.

Yes, I live near the Alep restaurants and have been going to Le Petit Alep since it opened. I only dined at Restaurant Alep once, at a supper for a Levantine charity a friend from that part of the world was involved in (nowadays there have - alas - been several such events at Alep, Damas and other places for Syrian refugees - Alep is one of the oldest cities in the world). Rima Elkouri wrote an account on one at Damas in La Presse.

I tend to avoid going there on weekends!

If I can step outside food a second I must say its a real shame to see what’s happening in Syria.

Remembering that they initially revolted on the tail of the incredibly positive momentum that was the arab spring makes it even more tragic. If the USA didn’t spend most of their political capital trying to brute force western style democracy in Iraq 10 years before and if Russia didn’t insist on supporting the Assad regime to keep their middle eastern influence we might be looking at a whole different picture. The most ironic is that by trying to brute force democracy in Iraq we missed a real window to support emergent democracy in the middle east. I believe only a home grown middle eastern style democracy will stick in the middle east but, like so many unstable region, it either needs time or help from democratic power to stick.

On our part I’m happy to see we will be welcoming so many syrian refugees. Its a drop in a bucket and there are many opponents (like there have always been to each wave of immigration) but given that our culture has been built on the sediment of numerous waves of immigration we can only be glad to add new cement to a very strong base. The latest good news about that front is the #25 000 tuques initiative that originated in Quebec and spreading all over Canada (see http://jdussot.wix.com/25000tuques ). I’m so happy it exist! Its so Canadian too!

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Making noodles. Phongdien Town, Cantho City, Southern Vietnam.
Credit: CiaoHo