DesBrisay Dines

DesBrisay Dines: MeNa

MeNa opened in 2014. Last year, the Preston Street restaurant shut down and papered-up for a six-month renovation. When it reopened in July, the L-shaped room held a longer bar and an exposed kitchen, prettied for viewing. The grey-brown of its rough plank walls had been whitewashed. If the tiles behind the bar weren’t white before, they’re white now. The balance is black — the floors, tables, chairs, and the open bar shelves. Lighting is soft with crystal bulbs in modern chandeliers splashing mottled patterns across the walls. The art favours one statement piece, and everything glows gently. With help from the team at One80 Design, there’s a spare elegance about MeNa now. It suits the new direction of the menu, which is squarely toward fine dining, delivered in multi-course tasting menus.

The duo behind MeNa remains Bryan Livingstone and chef James Bratsberg. On the pastry side is Cordon Bleu trained chef Tu Le. Managing the floor is Eryn Dawe (last seen at Bar Laurel) and MeNa’s sommelier is Rob Nellis, formerly with Hy’s.

Bratsberg’s menu is ambitious. And given it’s ‘blind’(meaning, chef’s choice, your surprise), there’s still lots to read. There are, in fact, three menus, of five, seven, or nine courses ($95/$120/$145). Each is paired with an optional (blind) wine pairing ($65-$85). Or you can opt to upgrade to the ‘select’ wine pairing ($85-$135). A few hints are provided the eater: the right side of the menu lists 36 ingredients the kitchen is working with – from Dungeness crab to lingonberries to Kielbasa – which presumably will show up in some way on your plates. Above this list is a box announcing that Japanese Wagyu beef can, for $100, replace the main meat dish on the surprise menu, and Northern Divine caviar can be tacked on to the menu for $50. My math tells me that if you elect to go for the seven-course menu with the select wines, and with the luxury add-ons, you could effectively spend $430 per person before taxes and tip. Without a la carte options, even if all you want is tap water and the shortest menu, it’s an expensive night out. It’s also a long night (our five-course menu took nearly three hours to complete, topped and tailed with amuses and mignardises, and with a palate cleansing ice in the middle). And you’ll need to be in the mood for a blind menu.

So it goes without saying that the MeNa model won’t be for everyone. It’s special occasion dining, to be sure. But hat’s off to the team for knowing what they want to do, who they want to be, in this second chapter, and for taking a risk. When everyone else is running toward comfort-casual cuisine – small plates/grazing/sharing – they’re headed back toward fine dining with a classic progression and an old-school formality in the tie-wearing service — minus any old-school swagger.

The quality of the raw materials met expectations, and mostly the flavour combinations on meticulously composed plates seemed inspired. It wasn’t a flawless progression: some dishes looked and ate too ascetically, veering more toward show-offy than delicious, but for the most part, MeNa was a pleasure.

At my first dinner in August, I went with the seven-course menu with wine pairings. In October, I reduced to the five and asked Rob Nellis to pick two glasses of wine to carry me through. I’ll spare you a report on all 12 plates sampled over two evenings – 18 when the amuse bouches (there are three of those), the ‘intermezzo’ (a granité) and mignardises (another three) are factored in – and pluck out a few highlights. I’ve had the gazpacho, poured tableside in a dramatic curl around a puck of crabmeat, crowned with petals and caviar, at both dinners. The repeat would have upset me were it not good enough to want it twice. It’s the sort of dish that’s very pretty and very poised, and tempting to eat daintily and separately, but in fact tastes so much better all muddled together. So do that.

MeNa's crab tian
MeNa’s crab tian

On the October menu, octopus was cooked sous vide, then charred and glossed on a charcoal grill. It was cut into soft, meaty chunks, set in a circle on rings of a green goddess dressing, studded with purple potato chips and drizzled with a little chili oil — a surprisingly successful combination. Prawns, bacon and fresh summer peas are natural mates, and to these pleasures Bratsberg added a corn mousse, some gently pickled onion, disks of candy cane radish, and, down the centre, a fan of torched avocado. This was a lovely plate. Good too, the finger of steelhead trout, perfectly cooked, served with a blob of curried cauliflower purée and florets of roasted romanesco. And then a gentle dish loaded with umami, chawanmushi, the warm and wobbly Japanese custard with smoked soy and fall chanterelles.

The aged ribeye was less successful — one of those plates that felt more precious than delicious. It needed a luscious sauce to unite the elements. Besides, the meat was too much of a chew and the tiny summer squash was adorable but nasty-bitter in the mouth.

MeNa's panna cotta
MeNa’s panna cotta

Two outstanding desserts, mignardises, and take away gifts, indicate pastry chef Tu Le is a keeper. (Full marks for his bread basket too.) My favourites were the stunning panna cotta painted with raspberry and set on an olive oil cookie base, the chocolate and blueberry tartelette, and the salted dolce macaron. His chocolate-hazelnut-passion fruit bombe with petals of chocolate bark, sprinkled with gold dust was mighty memorable too.

If I had a wish for MeNa it would be for the team to consider simplifying the menu options: there’s too many, particularly with the luxury add-ons that seem over the top. And possibly offering a la carte options. We’d come more often if it were less all-in.

Prix fixe tasting menus only, $95 to $145
6 pm till close, Tuesday to Saturday
276 Preston Street, 613-233-6462