When I ask my Chinese friends in Montreal whether they’ve been to Délice Oriental: Authentic Chinese Cuisine, they stare at me blankly. Then when I show them the restaurant’s business card, there’s immediate recognition: “Oh yes, Huang He Lou, I eat there all the time.” It’s a little bit of a mystery why the Chinese name of the restaurant and its French and English translations don’t match up. Even more mysterious is the chef, who is responsible for this misnomer — the chef and the restaurant’s owners are particularly private individuals.
The restaurant is named after Huang He Lou (the Yellow Crane Tower, one of three notable pagodas in China’s Hubei province. Built in 223 A.D., it is a phoenix of sorts, having been rebuilt multiple times following war or fire. Legend has it that the tower was built in honor of an immortal that descended on the village seeking refreshment at a pothouse in the guise of a Taoist priest. As a show of gratitude to the pothouse for giving him free wine, the Taoist priest left a painting of a crane on the pothouse wall that, on request, came to life dancing merrily, drawing crowds and making the pothouse into a lucrative business.
Inconspicuously tucked amongst several Asian restaurants on Sainte-Catherine in Shaughnessy Village, Délice Oriental doesn’t offer much in terms of decor. It relies solely on its purpose: serving authentic Chinese cuisine in a humble abode. To call it “comfortable” is a bit of a stretch: the place is packed with regulars indulging in what appears to be an at least bi-weekly ritual. I happened upon the restaurant via a friend of a friend — the Chinese wife of the former Swiss Consul to Montreal. She mentioned that the restaurant catered to many diplomats and Chinese students from Concordia and McGill universities, who come in search of homestyle cooking from the Sichuan and Hunan regions of China, food famous for its medley of spicy, savory, hot, and sour flavours.
Not all the dishes are pungently hot; starters like cucumber slices in chili sauce combine spicy with a tangy punch emanating from the vinegar doused on the cucumbers. Garlic features prominently in Sichuan cuisine and there is an ample variety of dishes with garlic sauces on the menu. One in particular is the thinly sliced pork with garlic sauce, seasoned with Chinese herbal spices, which gives off a tingling, numbing sensation. For a reprieve from the spice, there’s beer braised duck in a charcoal pot with sweet oyster sauce; and, if that’s not enough, a swig of Tsingtao beer should do the trick.
If there were a painting of the golden crane on the walls of Délice Oriental, it likely wouldn’t dance on request to garner clientele. Instead, it would be lured off the wall by the mere whiff of the restaurant’s signature dishes: the Tilapia and catfish-like Basa superfish in a charcoal pot from Hunan, the “Land of Fish and Rice.” The golden crane would jitterbug its way to the customers’ tables and perform for scraps — for a sip of the broth where doily-like lotus root, stringy beans sprouts, spongy tofu and frilly Chinese cabbage float around a whole fish. Then, satisfied, it would waltz its way back up the wall.
Those who have eaten in mainland China and then at Délice Oriental vouch fervently for the restaurant: one friend, who recently dined with me there commented that it’s a true rarity in this part of the world. I’d like to imagine the mysterious chef behind the kitchen door eavesdropping happily on such a conversation, as if a figurative new Yellow Crane Tower had been erected in honour of his successful pothouse — not in China, but on the St. Lawrence, in Montreal.