Metro: Place d’Armes
Bus: STM 55, 80, 129, 150, 410, 427, 430, 435, 747
Visit: January 1, 2012
2012 has begun and I really wasn’t expecting to make a post out of this. However, when I was going over it in my mind, I really didn’t see another better moment to show you all the other Chinese restaurant that I frequent. For those of you who follow, the other Chinese restaurant that I’m a regular at is called Fung Shing on Saint-Laurent below Rene-Levesque. Everyone has their own Chinese haunts. Despite quality, these two places are where I hang my hat at.
La Maison V.I.P. has been a restaurant in my family for at least the last 25 years. Whether it be for a birthday, a parental holiday, or just because, this is where they like to go. Even though they branch out somewhat rarely (Kwan Lam - recently opened, recently closed), they always seem to make their way back here. As for me, I’ve been coming here myself as part of the family for the last 20 years. I don’t think I’ve ever been here without them.
Before I get into my own perception of this restaurant, I’ll cover what’s been said about it elsewhere. For one, this is a late night hot spot for reasonably cheap eats. That’s probably true, but I don’t have my own visual proof of that. Secondly, the declining quality has been an issue. This is something that I noticed myself in recent years and will probably touch on this later on. Lastly, this restaurant was voted best Chinese in Montreal from 2008 to 2010 by the readers of the Montreal Mirror. For 3 years, readers felt it was the best in Montreal. It was only in 2011 that it dropped back to second place behind Beijing. I haven’t really been around to all the major Chinese restaurants enough to really make a declaration on the issue, but I’ll disagree with both restaurants. Like I asked myself with burgers in 2009, there has to be better out there.
From what I gathered from listening to my family talk about the history of this place, it used to be a grocery store. Back in the day, Chinatown wasn’t what it is today. It was mostly a neighborhood of small stores that sold anything from shoes to toilets. You were lucky to find a restaurant in Chinatown those days. La Maison V.I.P. was one of the first restaurants to open. Once Kam Fung moved into the neighborhood, things changed and more places opened as Chinatown grew.
As a matter of fact, rumours of the owner trying to sell the place were heard for the last couple of years. Those of you who have been to the restaurant at night will know the woman who acts as hostess. She’s the owner of the place. My family has known her for most of our time there, even before the restaurant’s opening from what I’ve been told. I start questioning myself sometimes when she’s not there and the head waiter is running the show. Has the place been finally sold? Apparently not, since she was there on New Year’s day, the first time I’ve seen her there in over a year.
Who wouldn’t want to buy the place? Every time I’m there, the place is packed. Each table is taken and occupied. Even the front entrance is jammed with people waiting for an eternity to get seated. You will probably even find people waiting right outside. The entrance way is rather small and hard to navigate when fully booked. The rather steep stairs also make it difficult to climb. On New Year’s Day, the wait was long again. The kicker is that it was raining hard and there were still people waiting. The best strategy with this place is to reserve. The one question I keep asking myself is why people keep coming back when they are most likely to be forced to wait for a long time.
One person might possibly answer that question with their legacy with the place. My own legacy is one that dates back to the early 90s. I’ve had some of the best meals I’ve ever had here, while I’ve had some of my most humiliating childhood moments here. Despite all that, I still come back. Birthdays are the most awkward times when it comes time to sing the birthday song. I’ve stopped singing it because I hate looking silly. I spend that time looking around when all the eyes are on that table. These days, when they look, they’ll see that I’m the only different looking person on the table. That’s the benefits of being half Asian for you.
Since I have a history with this place, I also seen things come and go. The first things that hit me were the recent changes in decor. The place isn’t the nicest in Montreal, but it serves its purpose. In the last year or two, the restaurant was brightened up, with a number of picture frames added to create a more comfortable atmosphere. I, however, didn’t notice much change in the atmosphere.
When the restaurant is at its peak, the place can be cramped like a sardine can. I can’t count the number of times where I came back to back with the table behind us. Our family are regulars and we bring in a very large group, larger than anything I’ve been a part of elsewhere. At our largest, we were 18 at a table. We usually get the biggest table in the place. So, whenever we were placed somewhere else, it was odd. That doesn’t happen too much. On this night, we were only 10 and for the first time in a while, it was roomy. I remember the days where we had trouble fitting all the chairs at our table, having to find ways to eat creatively without hurting anyone. But, for family, it’s the obligation we all take to be together.
I’ve also seen the wait staff change over the years. Most of the current crew has been there for the last 5 years. I even spotted a brand new face in tonight’s crew. I’ve been told that they are one of the better staffs in all of Chinatown. I have another way of looking at it. If you’re a regular who comes in often, you’re probably going to get treated quite well. You’ll like the way that they interact with you. If you’re new, you’ll feel different. You might see them as cold or distant, really impersonal as they ignore you while you wait. A few months back, when there was no one working the front desk, you saw customers waiting for clearly free tables, while ignored. That didn’t make me feel comfortable looking at that.
The bottom line is that the customer experience is different with each and every customer. My perception is one that has been built up over 20 years. Even though I’m critical of certain things, I can see why so many people have voted this restaurant best in Montreal for what it does. I rarely have ever seen this place empty or slow. I spend a lot of time observing other tables during my visits, like I do everywhere I go. I’ve never seen anyone unhappy with what they had. Once the diner gets to the table, they are treated extremely well by the staff, there’s no denying that. It’s a place that is a staple of affordable Chinese food in Montreal.
My part of the group walked in a little behind on this evening and the ordering was already done. This soup was already sitting at the table, ready to be consume. So, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what this was, nor would I like to know either. I have a don’t ask policy when it comes to family outings at Chinese restaurants. That way, I can stomach something not knowing what it can potentially be.
Soup is something of a ritual for our outings to Chinese restaurants. Each time we visit, the soups tend to be different. It’s a nice way to get your stomach ready for expansion at the start of the meal. I try to limit myself to one bowl, thought each time, I’m strongly encouraged to take a second. There was a time where we went to another restaurant and served soup at the end. The explanation was that it would make the rear exit of what we ate much more fluid. On that night, I declined the soup offer.
This soup was mostly tasteless and contained bits of shredded meat. I try to stir my spoon around a bit to cool it down. That usually works because the soup arrives at the table too hot for normal human consumption. It was actually at this point where I decided to go ahead with the full account of this meal.
Beef and Vegetables
This dish contains carrots, pea pods, bamboo shoots, and beef.
I’m pretty sure that this is the dish I had the most of during the night. It’s pretty much a combination of this dish and the next one that keeps showing up on my plate. This would probably be the right time to explain how eating at a Chinese restaurant operates. This is an example of communal eating. A table would order a number of dishes and share them. It’s probably cheaper that way and you’re not forced to pay for any mistakes you make when you order individually, as you can sample everything.
For what this dish’s role is, it is something that works as a side dish. There’s a lot of small meats that find their way on the table. This helps keep the flavours changing so that you’re no stuck on one thing. The beef is obviously my favorite part of the dish since it’s never that tough and easy to put down.
This is a plate of greens. Before you all judge me for not giving you the exact name of it, I’ll remind you of my don’t ask policy. I know the policy seems a little dumb here, but I find it much better on my sanity to not say anything, mostly to not get myself into trouble. The better part of the dish are obviously the leaves over the stems. I find myself getting more stem than leaf, which is why I’m at the point where I can’t stand this anymore. You’ve had something so many times that you’ll get numb to it and that’s where I am with this. This dish makes an appearance every time and will until the end of time.
These are pork chops coated with a similar sauce that’s used for the General Tao Chicken.
This is one of the better dishes that we get. The one drawback here is that the bones really do get in the way of the eating. I find that sometimes the proportion of bone to meat is much higher in some pieces. Also, trying to break it up without using a fork and knife is quite difficult. If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m using chop sticks here. I can’t recall ever being taught how to use them, so that propagates a myth I would guess. You can also say that it confirms my role in Asian society because I’m able-bodied chop stick user. The troubles with this dish make the arrival of the General Tao so much better.
This would be the appropriate moment to show you what a bowl of steamed rice looks like, if you’re living under a rock. This is also a good way to show you what it looked like before I endeavoured to modify its appearance a little later on. We usually get about 3 large bowls of steamed rice and we go through them like they’re nothing. I find that puzzling right now thinking about it. When I brought some colleagues to a Chinese restaurant, the same amount of people as this night, we had trouble going through 1 bowl. The mysteries of life.
This is your shrimp dish where you have to peel them yourselves.
This dish is one that I usually don’t touch that much, even though I worship shrimp. The fact that you have to peel them yourselves turns me off a bit. I’m also very awkward when having to do it myself. As a matter of fact, I only had two pieces the entire night. Though, I will say that they are much better when there dipped.
General Tao Chicken
This dish doesn’t need much of an explanation as it is probably the most popular dish in the entire restaurant, as most tables order it. The part that puzzles me is for a dish that’s not really authentically Chinese, why do Chinese people order it? But then again, when something tastes good, you order it and the family has taste.
In recent years, I’ve noticed the declining quality of this dish. There were times where the sauce was not enough to mask some of the questionable taste. This time, I was surprised that the whole thing was done a lot better. There was nothing weird about it whatsoever. I couldn’t get enough of this dish.
This is a lobster with lettuce, covered with a lobster sauce.
This is by far my favorite dish that this restaurant does. I think that for two main reasons. The first reason is that you can’t find very many people who despise lobster. The taste of lobster is so good even though the fun of taking it apart isn’t that good. The second reason is what you can do with the sauce, something you’ll see a little later on.
This reminds me of another aspect of this dish I enjoy a whole lot, the lettuce. I know a lot of people who would leave the lettuce just sitting there, not me. When it’s dipped in sauce, it tastes awesome. I’m usually the one who eats all the lettuce off the platter.
Rice w/Lobster Sauce
The modification I like to make to the steamed rice is to inject it with a generous helping of lobster sauce. Before I get to explaining why that is, I’ll say that eating plain white steamed rice for decades can get boring. I know that you’re probably thinking that is makes me less Asian for thinking that, but it’s the truth.
We’re probably not the first to think of it, but we placed some of the excess sauce from the lobster into a bowl of rice and the rest is history. It elevates the rice to a whole new level or even a dish of its own. If this dish was offered on the menu by itself, I’d go for it. This practice was so popular at our table that we started ordering an entire bowl of just sauce to make it easier to drown our rice in it. You should really give that practice a try yourselves.
Tofu and Fish Hot Pot
This is a pot that contains various vegetables, tofu, and fish.
I’ll have to admit that I didn’t like this “pot” much to start with. Over time, this has grown on me. Now, it’s one that I actually look forward to. It’s not so much the tofu I look forward to, but the fish.
The tofu is steaming hot when you pull it out of the pot. You have to be careful when eating it. Some will advise you to break it apart. Because I like doing things out of spite, I’ll put a whole thing in my mouth. It might be a touch too hot, but it’s alright to me. That just gives you another dealing with Mr. Lew lesson. Don’t try to give me advice or tips, I’ll just go the other way just to spite you. It sounds a little nasty, but I like trying things on my own and failing on my own.
The fish is the better part of the pot. It usually comes out at a nice temperature, where it is nice an easy to break apart. I could easily eat a lot of this and be happy about it.
I took this moment to take a picture of tea. This is the standard Chinese that is served with our meal. You can find versions with slight variations at different restaurants. This restaurant is now the only time where I drink this tea. I would honestly prefer sticking to water, as the tea doesn’t really provide the security I need when eating massive amounts of food.
The thing that this restaurant does when you are at the end of the meal is to send out a plate of oranges and fortune cookies. Not every restaurant sends out oranges or fortune cookies, but this one sends out both.
Fortune Cookie Wrapper
The only thing I noticed was that they changed where they get their fortune cookies from.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own approach to eating fortune cookies. I would eat tiny pieces of cookie. It’s not until the entire cookie is devoured that I look at the message inside.
“Keep true to the dreams of your youth.”
When does youth end? What are my dreams? I got more questions than answers right now and this is not a blog on my personal mindspace.
Message en français
“Restez fidèle à vos rêves de jeunesse.”
Vous montrer juste que je n’ai pas oublié mon autre moitié, voici le même message du biscuit de fortune en français.
The orange was something that I really enjoyed at one point when coming here. As you all notice, it is my favorite color. These days, I tend to avoid having the oranges because I’m simply not in the mood. I used to really like putting the peels in my mouth and pretending they were mouth guards. Now, come to think of it, that would not be such a good idea.
This restaurant has been in my family for 25 years. It’s a place that will always hold a special place in my heart. Whatever you want to say about quality or taste, it’s enough for me to say that it’s one that I’d choose over other so-called best restaurants in Chinatown. All you need to do is look at the crowds of people waiting at the front to see that this place is popular. It may not be your completely authentic menu, but it’s good enough to keep me returning over and over again.
This is the first post of 2012. If you missed what I’ve done in 2011, you can click this link for a year in review post.