New key?

A version of this article appeared in the Montreal Mirror on April 19th, 2012.

New Chinatown’s KanBai may well be the new Holy Grail of Sichuan cuisine


The restaurant at which I have dined more frequently than any other, by far, is Niu Kee, a Sichuan specialist on the periphery of what might now be called Old Chinatown. Unfortunately, the restaurant has been on a long, steady decline, going through hit-or-miss to mostly miss.

On my most recent visit, I could barely recognize what was once my favourite dish, “family style pork”—Niu Kee speak for twice-cooked, a Sichuan classic. Instead of the glistening heap of thin, fatty pork slices and brightly coloured, crisp peppers coated in an oily, fiery red sauce to which I was accustomed, I had to confront a meager smattering of coarsely sliced lean pork and limp vegetables drowning in a bland, grayish starchy sauce. Niu Kee has since been dead to me.

I tried twice-cooked pork and other favourites at other restaurants but none came close to the Niu Kee of days of yore. After hearing a few good things about Kanbai, a Sichuanese startup in a clean, modern locale in New Chinatown, I hoped to be reunited with the flavours for which I longed.

My longing dictated my strategy during my visit. I requested three very familiar dishes.

My order included stir-fried Sichuan style cabbage ($8), a delicious peasant staple. Hand torn pieces of Taiwanese cabbage, with thinner leaves than common green cabbage, are stir fried with Sichuan peppercorns and whole chilies and then finished with a black vinegar sauce. KanBai’s version was everything I hoped for. The cabbage was fried just to the point of softening but still retained some crunch. The spices were well balanced, with just enough numbing action from the Sichuan peppercorns and just enough heat from the chilies.

I also requested crispy chicken with chilies ($10), an old favourite of mine, which Niu Kee did extremely well. Small knuckles of chicken with bone are lightly dusted with flour and salt, deep-fried and then tossed with Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, and other flavourings. The chicken pieces in Kanbai’s version were a bit on the small side, making the extraction of the explosively flavoured nuggets of meat a little more laborious than usual. It could however be argued that this helped extend the narcotic pleasure of this dish.

Of course, I absolutely had to sample KanBai’s version of twice-cooked pork, listed on the menu as sautéed sliced pork with pepper and chili ($11). My prayers were answered: it was on par with the best I’ve eaten. Juicy, fatty, peppery, slightly tangy... I drool as write this.

On a subsequent visit, a week later, I investigated another three dishes and, of course, I redid the twice-cooked pork.

An item recommended by a friend was fish fillet in hot chili soup ($13), which Niu Kee fans will recognize as “willowy fish”. It’s a spectacular looking dish: a huge bowl of fire engine red liquid dotted with chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, bean sprouts, and large, glistening white chunks of fish. Calling it soup is a misnomer—the liquid isn’t really that tasty in and of itself. The only you really want to eat are the fantastically tender, aroma laden piece of fish; you pretty much leave the rest. It’s really worth it.

Another recommendation was the dry-fried pork ribs ($10). I was expecting something akin the above-described crispy chicken. What we got was quite different—small, gnarled, thickly breaded strips of meat. The breading was rather tasty—salty, with a sharp peppery finish and hint of cumin. The meat was laden with cartilage and had to be chewed carefully. Good overall, but not high on my redo list.

A dish called stir-fried celery with dry tofu ($10) was a shot in the dark. Given its name, we were expecting a lot of celery and little bit of tofu; we got the opposite. That said, it was nonetheless a pleasing dish comprised of thin slices of smoked tofu stir fried with thin, dark green stems and leaves of an intensely flavoured variety of celery.

The twice-cooked pork was as good as on the previous visit—an encouraging sign of consistency.

I am beyond thrilled to have found such fine of renditions of several of my favourite Sichuan dishes. Is KanBai is my new Niu Kee? It may well be.

KanBai

Address: 1813 Ste-Catherine O.
Phone: 514-933-6699
Hours: MON & WED–FRI 11:30 am - 3 pm (no lunch TUE), MON–FRI 5 pm – 11 pm, SAT-SUN noon –11 pm
Best features: sliced pork with peppers, fish filet in hot chili soup
Alcohol: Yes.
Wheelchair Access: No.
Vegetarian friendly: Limited.
Credit cards: Yes.
Price: $15-20 per person (drinks, tax, and tip not included)
Rating: ***1/2 and out of ****

3 comments:

  1. There is something distinct about Sichuan cuisine and it is nothing like other Chinese cuisine. The taste is so distinct. Sichuan is a popular segment of the asian cookbook.

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  2. I agree, Sichuan cuisine is completely distinct. I like food from other Chinese provinces, especially Hunan and Inner Mongolia, but Sichuan is my favourite.

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  3. My colleagues went to Niu Kee for lunch. I was in a meeting so couldn't go. Thank you for tempering my regret, and for including the words New Key in your article, so I could actually google the damn place.

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