374 Victoria Ave,
Phone: (514) 303-4123
Chef Hats :3.5
With every new year comes the hope of renewal and of new beginnings. Many of us usually make new year resolutions promising ourselves that the new year will be very different from the last. We start off on the right foot with hope and a willingness to implement change. For the perpetual foodie the new year brings a whole slew of new food experiences. The year started on notes of faraway lands of spice and exotic flavors. The bucket list of restaurants to sample this year was long. So, we booked brunch on the first Sunday of January and basically mapped out reservations well into mid-March. Frankly, I was worried about my budget more than anything else. But yet, we moved blindly forward making plans without really knowing what lay ahead. This year can be summed up in one word, “incertitude”. We were starting to hear news, that China was plagued with a virus called Coronavirus, and it was deadly. Little did we know that soon it would hit our shores and our dining adventures for 2020 would come to a sudden halt two months later. As the world plunged into a global pandemic it would cripple any type of social gatherings for months to come and change the way we perceive dining out perhaps forever.
But as we sat inside a warm restaurant called Kwai located on quiet Victoria Avenue in Westmount in early January, these thoughts were far from our minds. The new year held the promise of a good start. We were among familiar faces and friends just going about our routine of sampling new restaurants. The feeling was too familiar as I was transported back in time. Sensing a déjà vu, the spot that housed Kwai, used to be an Asian restaurant called Tao prior to Lavenderia, circa 2001-2005. I would frequent the resto often for lunch with my colleagues from the ski industry. Was it a sign of happier days, in my old neighborhood haunts? Call it what it is, it opened a floodgate of happy memories.
Kwai, is another brain child of the Chef Antonio Park. His name is synonymous with fine Japanese cuisine in Montreal. Chef Antonio Park not only owns his namesake restaurant a few doors away but his brand is associated with many other fine restaurants in Montreal like Kampai Gardens, Jatoba, Café Bazin and the now defunct Lavenderia; which never got back on its feet after a fire in 2016. It closed for almost two years, after the fire, reopened for a brief period in 2018 and then permanently closed in the summer 2019. With very little fanfare, the quiet Kwai rose up like a phoenix from the ashes at the end of November 2019. It was starting to gain momentum and doing very well on its own, not only because of the name associated with it but because it was different, quaint and authentic. It was just a matter of time before it was going to become like Park its sister restaurant who in nine years has been frequented by famous celebrities worldwide, from Katie Perry, Neil Patrick Harris and hockey player P.K. Subban.
For those who have not heard of Antonio Park, he was born to Korean parents in Latin America. Actually, born in Argentina, while his parents lived there. He moved to Montreal as a child. His passion for cooking led him to study the culinary arts in Toyko, where he mastered his skill, enriched his knowledge and perfected his techniques on fine Japanese food and the art of sushi. Once returning to Montreal, he worked in the kitchen at Kaizen, Club 357C and then he launched Park in Westmount.
Kwai is his first venture into Thai food. It is also the first restaurant in Montreal to merge Thai cuisine and brunch. The menu has options that are outside the usual Brunch standards of eggs, bacon, avocado toast and fruit cups. It offers classic Thai fare for brunch if you can handle spice in the morning. There is also plenty of classic Thai dishes like satay with peanut sauce, green papaya salad, red curry chicken, and Pad Thai. Kwai also serves dinner. The evening menu has more options like lemongrass infused steak, Khao Nah Moo -braised pork, Kai Nam Peung-crispy chicken, with honey spicy sauce and Thai basil, and sea bass. For desserts, they have a decadent coconut crème brûlée.
The kitchen at Kwai is manned by the lovely, super talented and every so humble and hospitable Chef Nongyao Truadmakkha. Born in Thailand, Nongyao passion comes from watching her mother cook for the village community where they worked. Her mother played a major role in her becoming a chef and her meals derive from family recipes. This is evident, not only in the love that is shown in the preparation of the meals served at Kwai. But the many pictures that adorn the walls of her family and the village. The restaurant is a true homage to her mother’s cooking. Since her arrival in Montreal in 2004, she started working mainly as a private chef, but also worked at some big-name restaurants in Montreal like Graziella, Auberge Saint-Gabriel and at Park.
One of my favorites sampled at Kwai is a dish called Mom’s Red Curry Chicken served with a side order of red jasmine rice. The dish was delicious with the perfect blend of red curry paste, coconut milk and hot fiery spice. It contained flavorful hints of Thai basil, bamboo shoots, and green onions. What made this dish original in concept was the serving of red jasmine rice (actually almost purple) that came served separately. It was the first time I tried red jasmine rice. In all the Thai restaurant in Montreal over the last 40 years, it has never been offered or seen on the menu. If you opted out for the rice, your dish of curry chicken came served with a medley of vegetables instead. I loved the flavors of this dish. It hit all the right notes and far exceeded my expectations. I found it to be more than comparable if not better that many other Thai restaurants in Montreal that serve this dish; aside from Pick Thai which remains my proverbial favorite.
Some other dishes sampled this morning for usual brunch fare were Pancakes, served with fruit and chocolate sauce, Eggs on Jasmine rice and from the lunch/ brunch menu Pad Thai- Stir-fried rice noodles with tofu, that came with slivers of papaya in sweet tamarind sauce and a side of toasted peanuts. Also sampled was the gluten free Crispy Chicken with spicy honey and garlic sauce.
Most of the members of our dining group were happy with their choices and neither ranted or complained. All was to their satisfaction, with the exception of one of our members who ordered the fried chicken and found it to be to overcooked and dry. I had to agree it did look burnt. Service was slow, even though we were the only patrons. But the hospitality surely made up for anything it lacked. The chef helped in serving us and talked to us about her new restaurant with enthusiasm.
On March 15, most restaurants in Quebec shut down due to Covid preventative safety measures. Kwai was one of them. Some restaurants re-opened to the public on June 22nd. Kwai was only doing take out via Uber eats during the shutdown. Its survival and demise are yet to be seen. But six months later, the restaurant website says it is permanently closed. The fate of many Montreal restaurants hangs by a string. With the second wave upon us, it is imminent that we will lose many more of our favorite restaurants. As the media says, we are really living in “unprecedented times” and this is even more true for those in the restaurant industry. The restaurant landscape in Montreal will forever change after this is all over. Many of our favorite places will disappear and it will take some time before others take their places. We can only hope and keep our fingers crossed that we remain safe and so do our favorite places that we so admire.