While many Montreal restaurants remained closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, the Sud-Ouest is about to welcome one fresh dining option.
New restaurant Ayla opens on Thursday (May 21) in Griffintown, taking up residence in a new space at the base of the Se7t residential development on Richmond Street, and offering takeout and delivery to start.
It comes from the owners of sushi restaurants Ryú (with locations in Westmount and downtown), but don’t expect any sashimi or maki here: owner David Dayan is pivoting far away from Japanese cuisine to focus on the Mediterranean.
With the restaurant named after the Turkish word for “moonlight”, Dayan tells Eater that it will focus more on the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean Sea — countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Syria — although there will be influences from parts of the Mediterranean further west, such as Spain, Italy, and Morocco.
Much of the menu will centre around family-style options, to be shared in a convivial manner. “The concept is a bit like a Friday night dinner in a Jewish family, or Sunday night in an Italian family,” says Dayan.
And Dayan says that Ayla’s chef, Yohai Rubin, is a great fit — he’s new to Montreal’s food scene but brings ample experience from restaurants in Tel Aviv.
“I couldn’t have found a better person for the job,” says Dayan.
His experience includes working with top Israeli chef Haim Cohen at Yaffo in Tel Aviv, as well as founding reputed casual restaurant Santa Katarina in the same city; Rubin’s CV also includes Michelin-starred New York restaurants Marea and Atera.
At Ayla, Rubin will be working with a taboon, a clay oven common in the Middle East — while it’s typically used for baking breads (pita and Turkish pides appear on the menu), Ayla’s taboon will do double service, roasting vegetables and a juicy whole chicken for four, one of the centrepieces of the menu.
Given the current circumstances, Rubin’s menu has been recalibrated to focus on dishes that will travel well: dips like hummus (with the option of lamb on top) and labneh with zaatar feature as appetizers, alongside some classic salads like tabouleh and fattoush.
Then for larger dishes, expect options like a juicy lamb kebab, house-made vegetarian couscous, and grilled shrimp. Most of the menu comes in under $20, except for a few larger dishes like short ribs, or the roasted chicken.
When Ayla does eventually open for sit-down service, seafood will make more of an appearance: dishes like grilled octopus and a Middle Eastern take on paella were planned, but Dayan and team decided these weren’t well-suited to takeout.
Also in the works for when dining rooms can open is a wine list and craft cocktails — for wines, Dayan says to expect more classic options from France and Italy, plus some from places such as Israel and Lebanon, leaning slightly towards more red options. The list will feature a few macerations (a fermentation style that tends to produce bright, less tannic red wines) and “funky” options, but natural wines won’t be the main focal point. (While to-go wine may be a possibility in the future, Ayla isn’t offering it at the moment.)
Ayla wasn’t the only restaurant to have plans for a spring opening thwarted by COVID-19 — however, most others in the same boat opted to wait until dining rooms can open. So, why open now?
“That’s the million dollar question,” says Dayan. “This restaurant was ready to go, we were just waiting on our liquor license, and were ready...then our lives were turned upside down. I had just hired 80 percent of the staff and I had to lay them off before they even started —how sad is that?”
Dayan says that having a customer base from Ryú will likely help business — but he also says that people may actually welcome a new restaurant in the current chaotic situation.
“People are looking for a sense of normalcy right now, and if people see a new restaurant open under these conditions and I think they might be attracted to that,” he says.
And when restaurants can open their dining rooms, customers at Ayla can look forward to a bold space from the Gauley Brothers (who also designed Foiegwa and the Café St-Henri HQ in Villeray). Expect punchy colours and textures, with terra cotta finishes that evoke a country villa, with velvety banquettes, and bar seating at an open kitchen.
“I wish I could’ve put vines all over the wall,” says Dayan.
STATUS — Ayla opens May 21 (Thursday) at 386 Richmond. Hours will be Wednesday to Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Call for takeout orders, or use Uber Eats or Doordash for deliveries.