Always on the lookout for something different and experiential to try among Montreal’s thousands of restaurants, I recently happened upon a great find tucked in among the eclectic, unique spots in Montreal’s Mile End district of Plateau Mont-Royal. And of the many eateries I’ve experienced in our great city this was my first outing to an African restaurant (northwestern Africa to be more specific, and Mauritanian to be pinpoint accurate).
Atigh, is the creative genius behind La Khaima, a successful establishment that has been going strong for 15 years. Atigh arrived at that time from Mauritania, which shares its borders with four nations: Algeria, Mali, Western Sahara, and Senegal. He started cooking in university residence and enjoyed entertaining crowds of Montreal students since he missed such social occasions from his homeland. It wasn’t long before students were paying him to cook for them. That’s when he realized he was onto something that he hadn’t expected when he moved from Western Africa to Canada.
Atigh is the youngest child and as such he had the responsibility to cook for his nomadic family while the others tended to animals and collected food for their meals. His mother taught him all about preparing fruits and vegetables and how to cook up some amazing, tasty, traditional dishes.
The nomadic lifestyle meant that seven months each year the diet was vegetarian as the family traveled every few days to a new location, herding their animals in search of new fields and pastures. Out of necessity, culture and tradition, the local flavours and aroma of nomadic cuisine became first-hand to Atigh, who developed his expertise from a young age and transferred it to the new world.
As soon as you walk into La Khaima you enter a world of typical, brightly coloured fabrics, low benches and tables meant for groups and families.
We were greeted by Atigh’s staff – more like family – Tommy, Luis and Rodrigo. He has inculcated the Mauritanian spirit into his Quebecois server/manager, his Mexican waiters and chefs, and others from various points around the globe, like Hico, who was born in the Ivory Coast, moved to Benin and on to Montreal.
Bottled hibiscus juice branded in Atigh’s name lines the front window and was our first taste as we removed our shoes to sit at the table. These special flavoured drinks are common in the desert in Mauritania, with hibiscus leaves left to soak in water for twenty-four hours. Completely organic, there are four flavours to choose from: original, mint, ginger and unsweetened. The unique flavour was a good start to the La Khaima experience and fortunately can last even longer as bottles are sold in organic grocery stores across the city as well as in local depanneurs. What’s more, “It’s good for your health”, we were told by manager Tommy, containing iron and calcium, excellent properties for good circulation.
The menu is relatively simple. For a fixed price you are served appetizers, soup, a main course and dessert. “You’re going to eat as though you were in Mauritania,” said Tommy, setting out the well-spiced hummus along with a bowl of pita. “This is the best hummus I’ve ever tasted,” my daughter Nicole shouted out.
A few minutes later the lentil soup comes out in a soup tureen and Tommy ladles out a portion for each of us. It was very tasty, full of flavour, and there was enough for seconds. We talked with Tommy while we sipped our soup and learned more about the restaurant and the country.
The main course consists of a choice of protein served on a bed of couscous. There’s the vegetarian one loaded with carrots, beans and the vegetable choice of the day.
Atigh carefully selects what is in season at local markets, just as he chooses spices and other special ingredients back home. Other choices include the beef with date and cinnamon plate and there’s also chicken with lemon and olive. My family sampled the veggie while I tried the beef and chicken choices. All of us were excited about the presentation and smells that steamed up our tented area.
“Everything is made fresh and cooked slowly,” Atigh pointed out. While the dishes are typical of western and northern Africa, the spices are sourced personally from Morocco by Atigh who travels to the region several times a year, on his mission to ensure genuine nomadic flavours. “The lemon is from Yemen,” Atigh told us, used to marinade the chicken or lamb dishes.
The ever-versatile and always smiling Atigh is also a musician who plays the ardin, a traditional Mauritanian instrument. At other times he is in the kitchen cooking and frequently he personally serves up old style Ethiopian coffee in a traditional ceremony and smokes cigars with his regular customers.
Atigh is a storyteller and enjoyed sitting with my family and recounting tales of his childhood and native land. He speaks five languages and his family back home is still nomadic, surveying the stars, noting the shape of the grains of sand, and following their camels! In fact, his cousin served as president of Mauritania for 18 years.
Today, 3000 Mauritanian ex-pats call Montreal their home and many visit La Khaima regularly to stay connected. Travelling diplomats from the region also drop in for dinner and to support the local community.
La Khaima is a BYOB venue, and one of the few local establishments that remain open on Monday nights. African music is always filling the warm, festive and friendly environment which is suited to couples, groups and families.
Atigh even started the Festivale Nomade to help spread the word about Mauritania. He could not be more proud of his heritage and he is constantly looking for ways to give back to his adopted home here in Montreal. “He is very charitable,” Tommy says. “He has a very big heart.” La Khaima meals are are all-you-can enjoy, including fresh mint tea and home-baked date cake drizzled with warm molasses syrup. The price is fixed at $25 per person, $12 for children. And you can bring your own wine. It is located at 142 Fairmount Street West, a few blocks east of Park Avenue in the Plateau (and just down the block from Fairmount Bagel). They are open 6 days a week (closed on Tuesdays) from 5:00 PM-10:00 PM. For reservations call 514-948-9993. Find them on their website, Facebook and Instagram.