Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
"Would you like to reserve a table or seats at the bar?" asked a staffer over the phone. "A table?" I guessed, which was the wrong answer. The joie de vivre at Hôtel Herman centers around its U-shaped, laboratory-white bar, which seats 18 and dominates the space. This isn't any sort of guesthouse but one of Montreal's most progressive neighborhood restaurants. It would be worth a swing-by just to sit among the diverse, effervescent clientele and glean some quick cultural insights. The French Canadians in the mix, for example, often scrutinized the menu and held serious deliberations before ordering. The English speakers tended to wave a nonchalant hand over the list and request the first dishes that popped out at them.
Either approach leads to the same rewards. Chef/co-owner (and Eater Young Gun) Marc-Alexandre Mercier composes light, New Nordic-influenced small plates scattered with artful lettuces and flowers, but the flavors mine unexpected depths. Razor clams hide under a lush garden of diced cucumber, milkweed flowers, black bread crumbled and dyed with squid ink (aka the soil effect, used winningly here) and dots of aioli that help bind the flavors. Creamy celery root puree anchors pale, sweet shrimp; celery root shavings on top are sprinkled with powdered dulce, which resembles black pepper. A sauce made from unfiltered honey tames the peppery bite of radishes cut in several fetching shapes. Bits of lamb belly, cured like bacon, season both hunks of lamb shoulders and the English peas rolling around the plate.