Dhirar Mouhli, the co-owner of new Mile End restaurant Manoubia, has wanted to pay homage to his half-Tunisian, half-Spanish grandmother for years. However, the fragrant Djerbian rice and saffron-laced paella that figured prominently in his childhood wasn’t an easy fit with the pared-down grilled cheese and soup-of-the-day menu he had going with his partner Tania Raymond at their breakfast, lunch, and musician residency spot Le Dépanneur Café.
But during the first wave of COVID-19 and its ensuing lockdown, Mouhli and Raymond — both self-taught in the inner workings of the restaurant industry — began offering an international takeout menu at Le Dépanneur Café in hopes of generating some additional income. They quickly noticed that the residents of the Mile End gravitated to Tunisian flavours, something that, while readily available in Montreal’s Petit Maghreb further north, is absent on this particular stretch of Bernard. Unfettered by the demands of full-fledged operations at Le Dépanneur Café, the pair began assembling a business plan in the spring. When the spot next door to Le Dépanneur Café on Bernard went vacant, they knew they had to scoop it up.
“We saw the space and it had good bones, so we said, ‘Why not?’ It’s probably the worst time to open a restaurant, but I also think great things can come from times like these,” Raymond says. “We have a lot of pride in this project, and we did everything ourselves. All the painting, the decorating, choosing the chairs and tables, we did it all ourselves.” Visuals of the space show worn-in hardwood floors, patio lights strung from the ceiling, and a midnight blue wall lined with what appear to be family photos; it’s meant to conjure the terrasses dotting the Mediterranean Sea as well as the comforts of a family home.
For now, Manoubia (named after Mouhli’s grandmother) is only offering Tunisian fare — paella has proven to be more onerous to render in takeout form. “We are doing tests and hope to be able to add it soon to the menu, though,” Raymond assures. At the moment, the menu features classic Tunisian salads and soup appetizers; hand-rolled couscous with lamb, merguez, chicken, vegetables, or a “Bernard” option that combines them all; shakshouka with a side of bread to sop up that perfect blend of simmered tomatoes and silky egg yolk; and Djerbian rice, a dish that originates on an island off the Tunisian coast. Once indoor service is permitted to resume, diners can expect a list of exclusively natural wines, as well as some Flamenco and Tunisian dancing for entertainment.
“The current situation has allowed us to do a kind of natural soft opening, so we are getting to know the kitchen, what works, what doesn’t work. We can improve stuff while we don’t have much business, and when we open, we will be ready for anything,” Raymond says.
In addition to devising a business plan for Manoubia, Raymond dedicated part of the spring lockdown to pressing the city to reconsider restrictions on terrasses in the Mile End. “We didn’t have the right to have street terrasse on Bernard, St-Viateur or Fairmount, so we [Dépanneur Café, as well as Helm Microbrasserie a couple of doors away] started talking with the city. After numerous calls and letters, we got the approval for July.”
The terrasse helped keep business afloat for Dépanneur Café, as did the government aid. But new restaurants that don’t have expense figures dating back to 2019 aren’t eligible, Raymond explains. “So we didn’t get any help with Manoubia, but that’s okay,” she says. “You don’t get into the hospitality business to get subventions to survive. You get into it because you have a passion.”