Growing up, Ritchie Nguyen could detect the comforting aromas emanating from the beef-broth pho simmering on his mother’s stovetop before even walking through the front door after school. “I was like, ‘Okay, I know what mom’s making for dinner,’” he recalls. “It’s still the one meal I’d choose to have before I die.”
Now that the alum from top Montreal spots like Plateau gastropub Maison Publique and Old Montreal brunch destination Dandy is on the precipice of opening his own restaurant, he say his mother’s rendition of the fragrant Vietnamese soup — hers completed with slivers of rare beef added at the last second — will once more take center stage in the kitchen.
Nguyen is opening Le Petit Boui Boui on Bélanger Street, just west of Papineau, where he will be replicating the three-day pho-perfecting process he’d watched his mother labour over throughout his childhood. It begins with roasting bones, then letting them camp out in the refrigerator over night, before submerging them along with aromatics into boiling water to simmer, and then skim, on rotation, for hours. It all then gets refrigerated overnight, giving the flavours yet another chance to meld, before being brought to a boil the next day, and then just before serving, crowned with thinly sliced strips of raw beef.
Unlike most other Vietnamese restaurants in Montreal, where menus are typically stacked with row upon row of options for the herby, noodle soup, Nguyen says his will only offer the one “because that’s the type my mother always cooked for me and I think it’s the best.”
But there is so much more to Vietnamese cuisine than its famed pho, Nguyen says — and his short menu will showcase some of it, with a focus on sharable dishes and street eats. Among them are bánh xèo (a crisp crepe made of rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric, stuffed with pork belly and shrimp, and meant to be eaten in lettuce-wrapped chunks dipped in fish sauce) and cá kho (braised salmon with pork belly, black bean sauce, ginger, and bamboo shoots).
“We are trying to focus on dishes that not a lot of other Vietnamese restaurants in Montreal are offering” Nguyen says. “Nothing’s going to be held back — it’ll be full-on flavour.”
For a cooling element, Nguyen says he’ll be serving beer (not wine) because its effervescence contrasts well with the punchy flavours given off from fish sauce, shrimp paste, and deep, bracing broths, without overpowering them. He’s opting for Quebec microbrews, with the Japanese-style creations of Ippon figuring prominently.
A beer and a bowl of pho won’t set you back more than $18 at Le Petit Boui Boui, Nguyen says, adding that he hopes the joint will appeal to lunchtime, dinnertime, and late-night weekend diners. Its opening hours will extend to 1:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays — the latter of which Nguyen says is meant to appeal to Montreal’s hospitality workers, most of which are heading into their de facto “day of rest” on Monday with few spots where to kick back in the city. “Hopefully this gives other cooks and chefs an opportunity to come in and enjoy a last meal before what is their weekend,” he says.
Nguyen is overseeing renovations of the space himself, with the help of family and friends, with hopes to open with roughly two dozen seats later this month. Like with the food, he’s aiming for something homey and fuss-free.
It’s all part of an approach that, like his mother’s cooking, required some marinating over time. Nguyen once believed a fine dining restaurant serving elaborate multi-course meals, like at the now-defunct, though renowned Michelin-starred Hedone in London, where he worked for a time, was his end goal.
“But after a while, I just knew, ‘No, this is not the type of food I want to be doing.’ At first, I thought it was going to be, but then I came to the realization that I wanted to cook more soulful food. And that, you know, brought me right back to my mom’s pho.”
Le Petit Boui Boui is expected to open later this month at 1498 Bélanger Street.