3618 Notre Dame St. W. (near Bourget St.)
Credit cards: MC, Visa
Wheelchair accessible: Small step up
Vegetarian friendly: Definitely
Open: Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 3 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Sun. and Mon.
Price range: Salad and dips $4-$11; sandwiches, plates and platters $7-$14; dessert $8
The last few times I’ve passed through St-Henri’s main strip, I was practically out the other side before realizing it’s gone. There are upsides and downsides to the neighbourhood’s gentrification — and who talks about St-Henri without talking about what has happened in the last five years? — and restaurants are one way to measure them. Some places are all about replacing the old with a shiny new lifestyle, others may be new, but they have some kind of old soul about them. I’d give that to Sumac, which takes a Middle Eastern spice for its name and logo.
It helps that both owners live in the area. Chef Raquel Zagury previously cooked at Prohibition in N.D.G., where I adored her Jewish diaspora redux brunches, from shakshouka to bagels with gravlax. (Here, she’s more on the Sephardic spectrum.) Business partner David Bloom, with ties to Rustique bakery and Tuck Shop, is one of the engines of the localized boom. It took six months to clean up a former reptile store (nothing too gross, though they did find a couple of desiccated lizards on light fixtures, he confided) and to create an airy new interior. There’s now white wall on white tile, the smell of spice in the air, Bruce Springsteen on the sound system, a communal bar in the centre, and a back kitchen half-screened with floor-to-ceiling shelving. Launched at the start of October, it’s already banging; from our counter-height table, we felt the cold emanating off the jackets of the many people in line.
The menu is tacked up on pieces of paper in an archway next to the cash. It operates halfway-to-cafeteria style: Put in your order, get a number, place it at the edge of the table as instructed, and things will be brought to you. If you need more during the meal — say, a glass of Occhipinti SP 68 to follow your fragrant gin and orange pekoe cocktail — the friendly waiter just adds it to your bill.
Sumac does Middle Eastern touchstones a little differently. The puffy pita bread, delivered each morning a little undercooked, gets charred with a flick of house zata’ar and olive oil, and cut into warm, thick wedges before going out to customers. Details like this, at this price point, really impress. Dips seem to stand to attention, from a stiff swath of musky hummus to a rugged clump of mouhamara. This last came in a more natural state than commercial preparations, muted burgundy colour from pomegranate molasses, red peppers and Aleppo chili flakes, with a chunky texture like a hand-pounded nut butter emphasizing rich bites of walnuts. Tasty yet heavy, I had my fill for a few months there. Next time I’ll do the garlic labneh with dukkah or the baba ganouj with smoked paprika.
From a sea of salads, salade cuite is always a personal favourite, and I loved the clean sweetness and concentration of the tomato and red peppers. Chopped salad, built from little blocks of cucumber, tomato, onion and shreds of mint, was a zippy contrast to the cooked-down items. In the spiced carrot salad, sliced into discs and dotted with currants, the cumin came on a too strong for me. The real hit, and I’m a sucker for anything with preserved lemon and harissa in it (in fact, I add preserved lemon to my harissa recipe), was an absolutely delicious chilled dip called fried eggplant with refreshing, layered flavours.
The falafel at Sumac does this city proud. So often these browned balls flatline when you bite into them; here they had the right depth of crust to crunch through to get to the relief of the moistness in a soft, herbed chickpea interior, pale green with coriander and parsley. They were sandwiched in a jumble of tahini, hummus, pickled turnip and crunchy chopped salad, with caraway-scented white cabbage and creamy purple cabbage nestled at the bottom. The sandwich presentation is irresistible: they come in a bowl, all chubby and round, busting out of the pita casing like cherubs in waxed paper pants.
As much as I liked the separate elements on the chicken shawarma plate, which included two salads and hummus, I kept thinking the soft, dark-edged slices of cinnamon-spiced meat would have been better in a sandwich. It just wasn’t wowing me. Also available in pita or plate format, sabich consisted of chunks of roasted eggplant, boiled egg, pickles in a loose relish, and drizzles of tahini and amba. What’s amba? It’s an exquisite fermented mango condiment that you are going to order no matter what: it almost fizzes on the tongue, with fruit and honey sweetness, vinegar tang, fenugreek and mustard seeds.
After all those big tastes, I could have eaten no more than a one-cubic-millimetre piece of dessert in part because said dessert was a Nutella brownie with halvah and cinnamon cream.
There isn’t really a place in town doing Middle Eastern quite this way. I’ll hit up Chez Benny and Panthère Verte for falafel and I’m a fan of Le Petit Alep, Daou and Damas. But Sumac feels fresh and modern, vegetarian egalitarian, and the many mix-and-match options make for a new old way of dining. Order family-style for the table from the many salads and dips, and get your own sandwich for a more intimate relationship. There’s a challenge in the numerous items and flavours: they sometimes compete, they sometimes get cacophonous, but like a big Jewish dinner party, once you get them together you find they may interrupt each other sometimes, but the most important thing is that they do it out of love.