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Dishcrawl Chinatown: History in Four Courses

Posted by Jer / November 6, 2011

Dishcrawl ChinatownAfter covering the digestive debauchery at the Défi Poutineville Challenge a few weeks ago, Russ Cooper set out on a different kind of culinary challenge: 4 restaurants in 1 night. Luckily for us, he had time between courses to document his dishes and snap a few pics.

Dishcrawl, Montreal's Chinatown, November 1, 2011. I probably should give you a proper rundown of all the dishes we ate and how they tasted like a bunch of adjectives. Yes of course, it was about the food. But scratch further down, I find it's about the virtues I attach to dining in general; community, comfort, warmth (figurative or otherwise), and of course, eating something that I've never eaten.

The Dishcrawl idea - one that sees a group of 30+ people visit numerous restaurants over the course of an evening and sample various dishes - has been growing in popularity since being developed in California in 2009. To date, Discrawl has held events in 17 U.S. cities, as well as Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. And sure, why not? Anybody who likes to eat will jump at the chance to eat at four different restaurants in one night, even if they've already been there. And restaurant owners? I'm not one, but if I was, I'd happily welcome a herd of passionate eaters into my establishment. Win win means great concept.

Win win eat eat, that's what I say. This edition of Dishcrawl (surprisingly, the 16th in Montreal since 2010), had us rolling ourselves around the small neighbourhood nestled in its Ville Marie borough. Our guide was an animated Jason Lee from Shut Up And Eat who had grown up in Chinatown who was clearly excited to show people his neighbourhood and his favourite restaurants. His interest pronounced from the moment he introduced the first morsel, a Dragon Beard candy from Bonbons à la Barbe a Dragon - a little dollop of sweet nuts and syrup coated in thousands of wispy corn starch threads that was like eating a fluffy little dissolving cotton ball. Lee explained what we were eating without missing a beat -- details of which I probably should've written down but I was honed on the lovely honeyed sensation going on in my mouth. Sue me.

Dishcrawl ChinatownAt Restaurant Tong Sing, we massacred a Peking duck. We had a simple duck broth with tofu and scallions to start, followed by a chef slicing one of those crispy bastards up in front of us. The juicy meat went into a prepare-your-own wrap with homemade hoisin sauce, green onions and pickled carrots and then went into my mouth. My favourite bite of the night, I must say.

Dishcrawl ChinatownOn to Kam Fung, a popular joint inside the complex at 1111 St. Urbain, is where the trip gets a bit deeper. Lee explained to us that the dish we were eating, Wor Siu Gai (a huge patty of chopped shrimp, crab, Chinese sausage all wrapped in an egg roll skin and fried, then sliced) originated in Montreal's Chinatown five generations ago. "You're eating history. And no it's not the spring rolls," he said.

It was hard to place. Not salty, not sweet, the texture was something elastic that gave a squishy snap between the teeth. "Tastes like fancy spam," said my dining neighbour Liz Ranger, sous chef at Renard artisan bistro. "Chinese surf and turf," said Dustin Gilman, from FoodGuyMtl. When I asked what the brown sauce was covering the pinkish flesh, I was told it a miscellaneous Chinatown sauce. Hmm... but mmm?

On to Callia, a relatively new Hong Kong-style bakery/restaurant, for the mystery portion of the night. We were given a fresh Chinese bun and instructed not to take a bite until we could all do it all simultaneously. The reason: they were testing a new type of filling.
Intrigued. Me, I was expecting something sweet. Bite. Puzzlement. Bite. Someone yells, "Poutine!" He's right. There's poutine inside a bun and I'm eating it.

In my humble opinion, it didn't work. Regardless, is it so farfetched to say that this was the moment the Chinese poutine bun was invented? Did we just witness the birth of an all-new Montreal dish? Can we call it the Chipou bun?

Dishcrawl ChinatownEn fin, there wasn't much delicacy in the dishes. This isn't to say the food was big and bold and made head swim, but the flavours tended to blend together. A night of such variety craves contrast. Punch me in the mouth every dish. But that wasn't the point for me. This was about people who love to chat about chow, about eating something new, about awareness about my city. It was a history lesson.

Chinese culture isn't necessarily what comes to mind when one conjures the image of Montreal, truth be told. Walking between restaurants somewhere that evening, Lee explained to me that his was one of the original families who founded Chinatown in the 1870s. His enthusiasm made sense: he was, in essence, welcoming us into his home.

All photos by Russ Cooper, to whom we owe many thanks for his generous writing contributions and his bottomless stomach.



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