Friday, January 10, 2014

May your dumplings be ever yummy - Restaurant Mei

Egads, I fell off the blogging bandwagon again. School's been rough, the holidays were rough (but in a totally different way), and the weather's been rougher, so I haven't had much time to go restauranting. But enough with petty excuses, you all came here for food, right? Onward, comrades!

I've actually visited Mei quite a few times now, but for some reason, decided only now to write about it. Mei is a small tapas-style Chinese restaurant situated on Mackay street, near the Concordia library building. They serve a variety of items, from fresh, hand-made dumplings to rou jia mo, or what my Western friends affectionately call the Chinese hamburger. But Kaz, you say, there are already so many dumpling places in Montreal. What makes this one so different? And I only have three words for you, my friend: xiao long bao.

Accessibility - Grade: A
The restaurant is right at the heart of the Golden Square Mile (did any of you know that that was a thing? I didn't), and right next to Concordia University, so I'd say its fairly accessible. From Guy-Concordia metro (Guy exit), it's about a five minute walk.

Service - Grade: B+
Service actually varies, but I'm going to go with my latest experience. The restaurant is family-run, so I think the waitstaff is related to the owners. The first few times I went, I always had this one guy waiter who was running around and trying to take care of all the tables himself. He was pretty nice, if a bit frazzled, but kept forgetting about my table. The last time I went, I had this girl waitress who was very sweet, polite and attentive to details. Considering how my standard for service at Chinese restaurants is so low that I'll just be happy if the waiter/waitress even talks to me, I'd have to say that the service here is pretty stellar.

Food - Grade: B+

Ack, I ordered this dish so long ago that I don't even remember what it was. It was a cold dish with sliced cucumbers and some type of offal (or pork tongue?), all tossed with vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and chill oil. A simple but enjoyable dish with bold flavours. I do remember it disappearing pretty quickly...
Pork ears
Another traditional cold dish, pork ears may seem odd to people who are used to tamer, Americanized Chinese food, but it's actually really good! The meat itself is chewy while the small line of cartilage in the ears adds a crunch to every bite. The dish is again tossed in the same vinegar-soy-garlic-chili mix as the previous dish. 

Chinese Chive 'Calzones'
We ordered another traditional northern dish called 'jiu cai he zi', which translates roughly to what I wrote above. There isn't really a translation for he zi in this context, and the closest thing it resembles is a calzone. Or a pizza pocket. A chive pocket? In essence, it's like a really large dumpling with a chive, scrambled egg, and glass noodle filling. They come out piping hot, with a crisp exterior, doughy layer, and a juicy, savoury filling. And it tastes just like the ones my mom makes.

The 'Chinese Hamburger'
Fun fact: The Rou Jia Mo is possibly the world's oldest sandwich, dating back to centuries BC. Take that, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

The Rou Jia Mo is a dish originating from the Shaanxi province, but is widely consumed all over China now. It consists traditionally of braised pork mixed with chilli oil, chopped onions and a variety of spices, all sandwiched between two pieces of flat bread. It's usually garnished with a little cilantro. Kind of like a Chinese pulled-pork sandwich, I guess. I thought Mei did a pretty good job with this dish. Their pork is very tender and flavourful, and I could taste the zing of onion in every bite, but it never overpowered. The bread was crisp on the outside, but pillowy on the inside. 

Hand-made noodles with lamb
We also tried their hand-made noodles with lamb. I think this dish is supposed to be a version of the traditional 'dao xue mian', which translates to 'knife-peeled noodles', where you take a lump of dough and quickly slice off pieces into a pot of broth using a special knife. The noodles are thicker and more uneven than traditional noodles, but are more chewy and elastic. I really enjoyed their broth, which was simple but fragrant, and perfect on a cold winter's day.

Like Qing Hua and Mai Xiang Yuan, Mei also serves up some of the standard soup-filled dumplings. They have a fairly large selection of flavours, similar to what Qing Hua has to offer, and they do a pretty good job on the flavours front. I do think that their dumplings have less soup in them than Qing Hua's, since they taste a little drier. They also always seem to come out warm, but not piping hot. Still, they do a decent job of it, and the dumplings as definitely hand-made, as you will probably see the ladies working hard at making them in the kitchen area.

Xiao Long Bao/Guan Tang Bao
Aaaand here we have it! The only place in Montreal that offers Xiao Long Bao in a non-dim sum setting. Actually, if you really want to get technical, they're really Guan Tang Bao (Soup-filled buns), since I think Xiao Long Bao (Little Basket buns) refers to a specific type of Guan Tang Bao from Shanghai. A lot of you might say 'But isn't that the same as the dumplings, but with a different shape?'. Yes, and no. While they do taste a little similar, Chinese people usually classify Xiao Long Baos as buns (bao), since their production method is similar to those of buns, instead of a dumpling.  They also have thinner, more translucent skins, and always have soup in them, while dumplings traditionally don't have soup in them. Yeah, I don't know why that became a thing in Montreal. And ohhh yes. There are far more to dumplings than you can possibly imagine.

Mei offers a variety of flavours for their Guan Tang Bao as well. The ones shown above are pork and caviar, which I thought were pretty good. The pork was savoury and the caviar added a slightly crunchy texture to the filling. I do have two complaints though, one being that the dish was again only warm and not hot, and the other being that there wasn't enough soup in the dumplings. There should be a spoonful of soup in every dumpling, but they felt a little on the dry side to me. The flavours, however, were pretty spot on.

Price - $$ (Cash and Debit only)
Individually, the dishes aren't actually very expensive, but it's very easy to over-order, and when you order a lot, the prices start adding up. Depending on what and how much you eat, you could pay anywhere from $10 to $20 per person, which still isn't so bad. So it's definitely very affordable. I've also seen coupons for Mei come up pretty often on those deal websites, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

Final Grade: B+
I think the fact that I keep going back to Mei is pretty indicative of my fondness for it, though I might start taking it easy from not now on. Too much of a good thing, and all. But if you want a taste of authentic Chinese 'tapas', or street food, or are just looking for something that isn't deep fried and slathered in sweet-and-sour sauce, then definitely give Mei a try.

Restaurant Mei
1425 Mackay Street 
MontrealQC H3G1R4

(514) 288-1314
Mei Restaurant on Urbanspoon


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