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om nom nom restaurant review :: donair cité

it happened quite unexpectedly. a friend posted a picture on facebook with a caption that just read "i found you a halifax donair place".

my impression of the photo
finally it had happened: someone in montreal had finally taken the plunge and introduced the donair to locals.

actually, i don't know how much of an introduction it really was. a lot of people in quebec have nipped out east for a vacation and have been exposed to the contentiously mouth-watering and possibly toxic allure of the donair, which means that opening up smack in the middle of a strip frequented by uqam students and lined with bars is likely a shrewd business move.

for my part, once i saw that photo, it was game on.

i immediately texted my good friend and fellow haligonian paul ash with the news: some place on st. denis is claiming to sell genuine halifax-style donairs.

i didn't wait long for the response: when are we doing this?

i think we managed to hold out for about thirty-six hours before we descended on the place on friday afternoon, visions of slightly mysterious meat and that glorious, inexplicable sauce dancing in our heads. as it happens, we showed up before the place actually opened and were forced to do a few laps around the block [additional exercise is not a bad idea if you're planning on eating a donair] to kill time.

since many of you might be confused at the moment, i'll give you the history of the donair and a primer on what it is exactly.

words cannot and should not describe it
i'll start off by saying this: there's probably no way to describe a proper donair in a way that could make it seem in any way appetizing. in fact, i lived in the homeland of the donair from birth and i was into the latter stages of high school before i ever tried one. this from the kid who happily ate several squid our class dissected in grade seven biology. i was not exactly prone to playing it safe, but the fact is that the very idea of a donair scared me.

now, i'll start out by telling you what a donair isn't. it isn't the thing you see on middle eastern menus called doner. and it isn't gyros, although you might think it is to look at it. it's related, but liking one in no way guarantees liking the other. it is, however, a relative, a sort of strange grandchild of the gyros who grew up in the new world.

our story starts in halifax in the early 1970s. the city had significant communities from greece and lebanon, which meant that there were a lot of people interested in having access to food from the region. and so an upstart restaurateur had the idea of opening a pizza shop that also featured the pita wrapped meat sandwiches so loved in that area of the world. remember- this is the early seventies. there were not eastern mediterranean joints on every other corner, especially in halifax.

said restaurateur was a little concerned that the business from the greek and lebanese communities wouldn't be enough to sustain a business- he hadn't found a broad enough audience when he'd earlier tried to market gyros- and so he decided to make some basic changes that would help the pita wraps appeal more to a north american audience. instead of lamb, he decided to use beef, although he maintained the gyros format of a loaf made of fine ground meat, breadcrumbs and spices that rested on a vertical spit. more importantly, he changed the traditional yogurt and garlic based sauce in favour of a sweet white sauce based on evaporated milk. he began serving these new variations at the aptly named king of donair on quinpool road in halifax in 1973 and now they're considered their own subset of the doner kebab on wikipedia.

so the donair is like a gyros, but with a runny, sweet sauce poured over it. like i said, there is no appealing way to describe it.

however, despite what it might sound like, the donair has a fanatical following among haligonians, particularly those who have moved on to greener, but donair-less pastures. the friend who posted the original photo didn't do so with me or paul in mind. he did so because the halifax donair is a thing of myth, something people will go out of their way to acquire.

the myth is powerful enough that donair cité, the newly minted home of donair in montreal, has a snazzy permanent sign that calls out its heritage. the only things on the menu for the time being are donairs of different sizes and soft drinks. because if you want a goddamned poutine, you can go anywhere else.

after paul and i had completed the requisite time-killing, we returned to the shop, ready for our sweetened meats and pita. both of us were, admittedly, a little skeptical that this was run by someone just trying to capitalize on a hyped thing, but nothing could be further from the truth. the owner is a genuine haligonian, whose father ran paul's pizzeria in halifax for years. [most pizzerias in halifax are just fronts for the real deal: donairs.] and to give you an idea of how seriously these "greasy spoon" type places take their business, he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with his own father in order to get his recipe for the sauce and spice mixture for the meat.

so... what do two genuine haligonian palettes make of the one place purporting to sell genuine haligonian donairs?

awesome

yes, folks, if you've ever wanted to try a donair, but haven't been able to make it to halifax, this is the place. it is 100% authentic and more importantly, it's delicious. the meat is on the spicy side- spicier than you'll get from most middle eastern places around montreal- which means that with every bite, you're getting a nice combination of heat, sweet, tart and rich. i also give kudos for the fact that the ingredients- meat, tomatoes, onions, pita, sauce- are all fresh, which is not necessarily the case with some donair places in halifax. [the reason i was hesitant to try one for so long was because of a slightly older friend who got a nasty case of food poisoning from one.]

our lovely hosts, bearing the top secret spice mix
it's a friendly place with a straightforward offering. don't worry if you're used to ordering your gyros with fries- you won't miss them. the tomatoes and onion are optional, but really, not including them robs you of tangy elements you need to complete the entire flavour profile. i am judging you, people who don't want the tomatoes and onions. there are lots of places to get post-bar greasy food in montreal, many of them located along the same stretch- but what you come here for is the one thing you can't get anywhere else. and damn, do they have a great fix. according to their facebook page, they will soon be adding pizza to their menu as well- just waiting for the oven to be installed. there are also other donair-themed takes on some local favourites promised, which can only serve to integrate the donair further into local culture and facilitate its inevitable world takeover.

one other thing that bears mentioning- i know it's new and we were there at the beginning of the business day- but the place was cleaner than any fast food joint i've ever seen. seriously, i've been in formal restaurants that were considerably less hygienic. nothing like the feeling of being able to use a public lavatory without scrubbing it down first, folks.

in the end, both ex-pat haligonians agreed that this place was everything it promised and more. [paul, who had a comedy show that night, was giving serious thought to coming back for a second helping later on.] allow yourself to be seduced by the meretricious allure of a sweet and sticky kabob wrapping in a warm pita. surrender to the maritime siren song of the donair.

donair cité is located at 2051-b [downstairs] st-denis, north of ontario but south of sherbrooke. closest metro is berri-uqam. they're open from 4pm to midnight most days and from 4pm to 3am on weekends. extremely affordable, especially for the quality of the ingredients. i seriously cannot think of a bad thing to say about the place and i am not normally at a loss for bad things to say. montreal just got that little bit more awesome.

Comments

Paul Langseth said…
Well done kid.
Kate MacDonald said…
Everyone needs to try this.

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