Former chef-owner of dumpling restaurant Trilogie Anita Yue Ming Feng founded Sichuan pop-up J’ai Feng a year ago as a pandemic side project, making chili oil and pao cai (Sichuan pickles) in her home kitchen. Now, she is set to open a cozy grocery shop in the former Martin Juneau-owned location of Monsieur Crémeux, just east of Boulevard Saint Laurent on Beaubien East. “This kind of operation fits me — and the pandemic era —perfectly,” Feng says.
In March 2020, Feng had every intention to be in Sichuan, China, for a residency. When that couldn’t happen, her characteristic optimism and energy kicked in: Over the past year and a half she’s done pop-ups at Juneau’s Cul-Sec, wine bar vinvinvin, and Little Burgundy farm-to-table restaurant Candide, been featured (along with her products) on local TV shows like Curieux Bégin and Cinq chefs dans ma cuisine, and is the featured chef in November for local food prep company Cook It.
Still, she wanted to have a place of her own again. And while dine-in is limited to four counter seats in J’ai Feng’s snug space, it’s a place for the chef to call home for the next little while.
The compact grocery store’s deep grey and natural wood interior has ample shelving for in-house and out-sourced products, including J’ai Feng’s spicy oil and pickles, soy sauces, and bean pastes, as well as fruit sodas and noodles from China. (The grocery concept is a natural segue for Feng: her family had a store in Chinatown, and she’s always got her eyes open for new products.)
The tiny kitchen doesn’t lend itself to à la minute preparation due to limited space and fire regulations, so weekday offerings will showcase grab-and-go options, including canteen-inspired boxed lunches with noodles or rice, warming broths served from the sliding front window in cooler months, and shaved ice with Chinese flavours in the summer. Once J’ai Feng kicks off in late October (city permits permitting), a changing selection of hot food specials will be offered on weekends, Feng says. The menus are still in the works, which is part of the fun for Feng and her loyal fans.
Feng’s other goal in the space is to experiment with Chinese-inspired fermentation, something that has fascinated her for years. “There’s more than just Sichuan’s spicy, numbing food,” Feng says. “Guizhou food is full of traditional fermented dishes with sour, spicy, flavours, and I want to share that, too.”
Working alongside her photographer sister Amy in front-of-house and designer Rock Anctil on branding and design, Feng sees the space as a laboratory. “I’m excited to cook with local produce, and to develop some interesting takeout,” she says. “The walk-in fridge will be great for pickles and marinades, so there are a lot of options.” She’s continuing to collaborate with the fellows from Jean Talon’s Boucherie dans la Côte for all things meat-related. “I’m leaving that to the professionals,” she says.
With her extensive knowledge of Chinese cuisine and flavours, Feng also plans to run workshops in the space, to impart her love of regional foods and ingredients, from Guangzhou to Sichuan, Guizhou, and beyond. “Depending on my mood, I’ll do different things,” Feng says. “This is my place to experiment.”
J’ai Feng is slated to open soon at 43 Beaubien East.