Eyeing an oversized "Big Kahuna" burger in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson voiced the dilemma of an omnivore in love with someone who shuns meat. "Me . . . I can't usually get 'em, 'cause my girlfriend's a vegetarian, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian," he lamented. "But I do love the taste of a good burger."
Even in a cosmopolitan city like Montréal, it's not easy to find a restaurant that will satisfy vegetarians and folks who feel the pain of Jackson's hungry hit-man character. In the trendy Plateau, from Avenue Rosemont to Sherbrooke, restaurants dot the landscape, but few have anything that approaches a variety of vegetarian choices. Conversely, the Commensal, with several branches around the city, offers plenty of excellent flesh-free fare but not much for carnivores. And its cafeteria-style setup lacks the evening-out allure of a traditional restaurant.
Enter the Plateau's ChuChai, a formal, dinner-service-only Thai restaurant that's vegetarian with a twist: It appeals to folks who "love the taste of a good burger" — or duck or chicken. The key word here is taste.
"I like to think that we are Thai first and vegetarian second," says ChuChai co-owner Lily Sirikittikul, from a corner table in the black-walled, minimalist/modern dining room. "But we do have our specialty, and that's the textured meat."
Patrick Michaud, Sirikittikul's business and life partner, has a more disarming term for the soya or gluten that Sirikittikul fashions into vegetarian duck, beef, chicken, shrimp and fish.
"It's . . . fake," he says, smiling. "There's no point in trying to disguise that fact. And you don't need to, because we have customers from all over the world who can't believe that what they are eating isn't duck or shrimp."
Michaud and Sirikittikul met while he — a born-and- bred Montréaler — was an exchange student in Thailand. They opened the doors of their restaurant in 1997. Sirikittikul brought a lifetime of Asian-flavored culinary experience to her Thai menu, including the lessons of her mother, who cooked for the royal family of Laos. Michaud worked the dining room, fought for building permits, and worried about how to coax foot traffic inside the unremarkable building on bustling rue Saint-Denis.
While still developing the concept for ChuChai, the couple decided to test their "fake meat" concept by throwing a dinner party for 25 friends, many of them restaurant owners and chefs. Sirikittikul served her signature "duck" and "chicken" — along with more traditional vegetarian fare — to a chorus of compliments.
"I then told them, 'Hey, I have some news for you,'" Michaud recalls. "We really knew we had something after that."
Even wayward vegetarians are probably familiar with the texturized vegetable protein and wheat gluten Sirikittikul uses to reproduce that meaty taste and mouth-feel. The former is basically cooked soy flour and water, while the latter is wheat-flour dough washed until the starch disappears. Both substances are high in protein and low in fat, and in their raw forms they taste like . . . well, not much of anything.
"And that's where the Thai comes in," Michaud explains. "When I think of great Thai food, I just think of freshness . . . the smell of the curries and chilies and the combination of spicy, sweet and sour that great Thai dishes often have . . . along with the texture of really fine rice and noodles. You've gotta be able to feel your meal as well as taste it."
Three appetizers sampled on a recent visit to ChuChai bore witness to Sirikittikul's insistence on texture as well as taste. The miang kram, described as a bouchée, or finger food, consisted of two small, delicately leaf-wrapped treats. The larger one was an assemblage of hard-baked bits of almost bacony-tasting soy, with a top-note of cilantro and a whiff of pepper. The smaller appetizer was a nest of shaved bamboo shoots and nuts, topped with a sauce that combined citrus and a pretty serious curry bite. Both were full of crunch, almost too pretty to eat, and essentially a quick introduction to Sirikittikul's palette of spices.
The mango salad (yam mamuang) also had an unexpectedly serious chile presence, which wound up being a fitting counterpoint to the diced mango and cashews. Iceberg lettuce may not have been the most inspired choice for the salad's underpinning, but the show was all about what was on top, anyway.
Pre-entrée action continued with the fish cakes (tod mun pla) and fried vegetable dumplings (kiao sa). The former consisted of three half-dollar-sized cakes served with diced vegetables, each in its own little ceramic spoon. All had a gentle seafood flavor — cod-like, when you could get cod — and were decent, if unremarkable. The dumplings were a real treat, however. Sirikittikul managed to make this obligatory offering unique, in part by her choice of fresh corn and tomatoes for the filling. Here, too, cilantro was very apparent, adding both taste and visual appeal once the golden, deep-fried exterior was cracked open.
When asked how she makes a vegan-friendly fish cake without having any fish stock (or chicken or beef) on the premises, Sirikittikul gave a knowing smile and said, "Work and study. My mother taught me her secrets, and I traveled around Thailand to get to know what spices are needed to convey a feeling. I loved the experience, but it did take a long time."
Many of those spices are actually delivered fresh from Thailand, a process that involves a costly, 28-hour trip. That expense is occasionally reflected in the menu, where entrée prices top out at $17, but both owners consider it essential. They also insist their soya and gluten be made in a way that produces a variety of textures, not just the Play-Doh-like substance many people associate with meat substitutes. In the early days, Sirikittikul used to form the beef patties, cuts of duck and tender shrimp for the 95 menu items herself, but as business grew, she got help from a machine. She still pores over the results, though; Michaud describes her devotion to getting things right in religious terms.
When the duck with spinach (ped palo) arrived, all that fussing made perfect sense. Served on a bed of forest-green spinach (cooked nicely to the tooth), the duck had deep-brown "skin" that was almost tough. Fans of web-footed fowl may find the experience familiar, and be pleasantly surprised by Sirikittikul's fidelity to that outer particular. The results were crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with a taste of molasses and a barbecue-like smokiness.
The beef in yellow curry with coconut milk (kari neua) was the entrée highlight, however. Served with large chunks of potatoes and carrots, the dish resembled a good old-fashioned beef stew, with a very similar richness. How it managed to taste so buttery without butter remains a mystery, but the coconut milk most likely helped. The "meat" might not satisfy a hit man's craving for "a good burger" but it was an almost spookily dead-on imitation of pot-roast chunks. Sweet, less spicy than the other dishes, and perhaps a hint too salty, the stew was still wonderful.
Regardless of which meat, fish or traditional veggie dish one chooses at ChuChai, one side order should be mandatory: the pouai-lang tod, or fried spinach. Sweet and crisp, it's just remarkable.
"I think the more simple a dish is, the better," says Michaud, over a dessert of spiced mango, grapes and sweet rice mixed with caramelized rice kernels. "People don't want to come to a vegetarian restaurant and feel like they are in some sort of elaborate culinary other. We wanted to establish a place where no one misses out on the experience they want, and it has been amazing to see the response."
That inclusive attitude has spelled success not just for ChuChai but also for Chuch, its more casual sister restaurant just next door. There, lunch is served from 11 a.m., and diners can bring their own bottles. Michaud and Sirikittikul have also taken their business plan on the road . . . literally, by catering a number of bike races in the city. The couple recently started selling dishes wholesale to schools, hospitals and airlines.
Is the world ready to embrace fake meat with an authentic Thai taste? "Ultimately, I'd like to branch out and open more places like this," says Michaud. "In time, it's possible to make vegetarianism actually mainstream. With any luck, the world is actually ready for that."