On the Irish sitcom “Father Ted,” the titular priest is shocked one day to discover a bustling Chinatown on his tiny rural home of Craggy Island. Cosmopolitan as Montréal may be, its tiny Chinatown has a similar startling, microcosmic feel. As one passes through the massive red-lacquered, Fu-guarded gates, memories of entering Epcot may be inescapable.
The nine square downtown blocks are dingier than Disneyworld — in winter, expect to walk through pools of brown slush, even indoors. Beyond the muck, however, is some of the greatest food the city has to offer. Best of all? Dim sum.
Touristy screeds like to report that the characters that spell “dim sum” can be translated as “to touch the heart,” but they don’t bother to mention that, when spoken, the term just conveys “small, sweet snacks.” That’s right, dim sum is a snack that you eat as a meal. Sort of like dessert, but with shrimp in it. Don’t do the meat thing? You won’t do the eat thing.
The majority of dim sum dishes fall into two categories: gow and bao, or dumplings and buns. You’re sure to find the staple siu mai — gingery pork stuffed into a thin, noodle-like dumpling — and, if you’re lucky, Shanghainese import Xiaolóngbao or soup dumplings may make a burstingly moist appearance. Cha siu bao are the most common buns, ethereally light balls of dough stuffed with sweet, red, five-spice pork.
An adventurous appetite is not a prerequisite for sampling the spread, but it helps. Chicken feet that Anglophone Chinese restaurateurs call “Phoenix Talons” are little more than bone, gelatinous connective tissue and fried skin. Offal dishes such as tripe and intestines are common, as is a heaping plate of still-jiggly steamed jellyfish.
Maybe it’s because the food originated on the other side of the earth, but doing dim sum turns conventional restaurant wisdom on its head. You like speaking the same language as your server? Too bad. Ease of communication practically guarantees your dumplings will lack flavor. The ideal eatery is crowded with folks speaking Mandarin or Cantonese. A small restaurant will have limited options; an empty one will offer cold noodles and ribs in congealed fat. You can trust a place that makes a half-assed stab at “décor” — say, a fish tank. But no chandeliers. The bigger the chandelier, the worse the food.
No Montréal dim sum-erie boasts more checks on the must-have list than La Maison Kam Fung. The just-elegant-enough dining room is always packed, and on weekends the restaurant’s upper floor fills up, too. Guests waiting to be seated get a number. When their table is ready, it is called in Mandarin, Cantonese, broken French and — if the manager remembers — English.
How do you know what you’re eating? While regular menus have English and French translations, dim sum cards don’t. When an old lady wheels a cart past your table, blindly pointing at appealing items might not be a wise choice. Food-allergy sufferers can ask an English-speaking manager to write a note of caution to servers and place it beside their plates. Of course, you can also memorize the names of popular dishes, or do what I do — when you eat something good, snap a picture and save it to show your server next time. Still, the language barrier nudges diners to try new things, and at Kam Fung, it’s all good.
On a recent visit, as soon as I am seated, an elderly lady in a red hat and apron arrives proffering a fried dumpling. There’s no question about its contents — the lewd smile of a crab claw protrudes from it. The breaded ball sits in a red pool, not so different from a mild Western hot sauce, but velvety smooth with a hint of vinegary sweetness.
The server ticks off the item on the card rubber-banded to the plastic standup drink menu. That is how a dim sum bill works: Waitresses mark it as you order the items, and at the end, you pay. No single plate runs much over $5 at Kam Fung, and most are half that. I can usually get away with a gluttonous meal for two for less than $40 Canadian.
Next comes a plate of chicken egg rolls. Forget any Americanized Cantonese egg rolls you’ve ever had — these are twice as delicious. Almost all meat, they get their flavor from hefty doses of garlic and ginger and thin strands of cabbage. Even meatier are dense beef balls spiked with crunchy water chestnuts. A subtle citrus flavor originates from tangerine peels, but the dish bears no resemblance to the “tangerine beef” at your local Wok-a Wok-a.
Speaking of balls, the cha siu bao arrive, fluffy and still slightly dewy from the steamer. The squares of pork are tender and surprisingly lean. Orange barbecue sauce sticks to the inside of the bun, sweetening even the meatless bites.
Craving ribs? Don’t expect long, skinny slabs painted red. Asian butchering can differ wildly from ours. At Kam Fung, pork ribs are bite-sized coins of bone and flesh, braised and perfumed with sesame, served atop a bucket of sticky rice. Veal ribs are also cut across the bone, not around it; Kam Fung’s resemble a Korean galbi, but with a lightly peppery bite.
In an effort to get something besides flour and fat into my system, I point to a mystery item in “tofu skin” (or yuba), a chewy wrapper that envelops savory mushrooms and ... other things. Whatever this one is, I’m fairly certain there’s no meat.
Next, taro dumplings arrive. (That’s sort of a vegetable, right?) I call these unnatural wonders the “Homestyle Bake of dim sum,” referring to Banquet’s dehydrated packaged meals featuring layers of starch on meat on starch. In this case, a crackly, Shredded Wheat-like cloud hides mashed taro, which in turn bundles a load of fatty and slightly sweet pork.
Another Maison Kam Fung favorite may look and smell less than appetizing, but reveals a delightful surprise. Dark lotus leaves share their odor with wet dogs, but use them to wrap some sticky rice and pork bits and you’ve got a chewy, vaguely tea-scented dream.
When I am coming to the autumn of my meal and the server hasn’t yet passed with one of my favorites, I whip out my camera, where I always keep pictures of cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) and what Kam Fung waitresses call “pork pie.” Filled with moist slices of cha siu pork and scallions, and bathed in sweetened soy sauce, the rolls suggest Chinese lasagna. The same delicious pork figures in the pork pies — suspiciously Western-looking yet authentically Chinese wands of puff pastry.
Before venturing downstairs to shop at Dobe and Andy (see sidebar), I may try a dessert confection, sizeable blocks of coconut jello or delicate tarts filled with egg custard. I stay on the lookout for jin deui — chewy balls filled with red-bean paste, deep-fried and covered in sesame seeds. Dessert or not, by the time the meal is over, I’ve had a ball. Or 10.