1170 rue Peel, Montreal – 514-866-7816 – Website
Date of Visit: January 10, 2013
While traveling for work purposes recently, I had a full day layover in Montreal and took the opportunity to check out a couple of restaurants in the downtown ‘Golden Square Mile.’ I would have liked to have visited Chinatown for a Dim Sum brunch on this trip but it didn’t quite fit with my plans and so I scanned the web for a Chinese establishment closer to my hotel and discovered Le Piment Rouge to be the only one that remotely interested me. Of all those I found, it looked like the only establishment (with one possible exception) that didn’t wasn’t a highly highly westernized, ‘sweet and sour/chop suey’ type of place, and the online menu actually looked quite interesting. As it happened, however, although the establishment has earned something of a stellar reputation (and, indeed, prominently displays several prestigious awards), I left the place feeling somewhat less than favorably impressed…
Ambience and Service
Le Piment Rouge is certainly very luxuriously appointed, with plush furnishings and ornate chandeliers. It is a place which carries the promise of fine dining and commensurate high prices, and, at least far as the latter goes, this impression is rewarded. The prices are not outrageous by an means, but, at the same time, this is not a restaurant one would wish to visit for a cheap meal.
I arrived at a little after 11;30 on a Thursday morning and I was the first customer of the day. Within fifteen minutes, though, the place started to fill up quite quickly and it was nearly three quarters full by the middle of the noon-hour. The dining area is well laid out, though, and it is spacious enough that the proximity of other diners was neither intrusive nor cramped. All in all, I found the place to be quite comfortable and pleasant and I would rate the ambience at a well-deserved 4 out of 5.
The service, unfortunately, while generally efficient, was exceptionally slow. I counted 6 or 7 waiters on the floor during my visit and I was served, at one time or other, by four of them. The attendance of these four ranged from being warm and friendly to a rather distant formality that, while polite, was distinctly stand-offish.
I came to the restaurant with the notion of trying a series of appetizers over a long and relatively leisurely lunch but, this notwithstanding, I found the average wait for each of these to be an unnacceptable 25 minutes and I ended up drumming my fingers a little impatiently at a few points during my 2 hour stay. In one instance, I ordered two small appetizers together and when they arrived one, although due to an honest misunderstanding, was a dish I had not selected. It was immediately taken away but I then had to wait a further twenty minutes for the right dish to come in its place. Other tables too, had the same problem (although nobody actually complained, as far as I could see), but I did note that the party immediately next to me waited a good thirty minutes for their soup course, and another thirty minutes for their entrée’s after the first course had been cleared away. Obviously, this deficiency cannot be blamed on the wait staff (who were fairly attentive, actually) but, taken as a whole, the service can best be described as mediocre and rated, at best, a 3 out of 5.
On a general note, I have to say that the presentation of the various dishes I had, or saw being served, was not particularly impressive. The flatware and garnishes were, I thought, ill-chosen, and the food amateurishly and unattractively plated for a place with the reputation that this establishment commands. One of my appetizers, and some of the dishes I saw serves to other parties, were plated by the wait staff at the table and, while somewhat novel, I didn’t feel that this added much to the experience at all.
Grilled Whole Calamari with Soy and Rice Wine Sauce – The squid itself was fairly good, I have to say; it was nicely grilled, with a bit of tasty charring here and there. The body sections, while having a nice texture, were just a little dried out, but the ‘wings’ and tentacles were pleasantly succulent. The plating job, however, was very poor, in my opinion, and the sauce was an abysmal failure. It was simply an overly sweet caramelized sugar preparation as far as I could tell and reminded me of nothing as much as a cheap oyster sauce from which all traces of umami flavor had been removed. This dish needed something with a little sparkle (something spicy or tangy, perhaps), and this sauce just did not fit the bill. I gave this selection an overall rating of 3 out of 5.
Crispy Sticky Rice Dumplings Stuffed with Seafood – The English name for this dish was rendered in Chinese characters on the menu as咸水角, which is a fairly common offering in Dim Sum restaurants. The waiter misheard me when I used the English name and so I then used the Mandarin ‘xiánshuǐ jiǎo’, only to be corrected, a little snottily, I thought, with the Cantonese pronunciation ‘Ham shui gok’.
In any event, what I received was a pretty good rendering of this particular specialty, if not exactly conforming to the description in the English name. The wrapper was as good as any I have had before, being nicely chewy beneath the crisp exterior, but the filling was definitely not as advertised…
Here, you can see that the dumpling is hardly ‘stuffed with seafood’ as promised. The bulk of the filling was, as far as I could tell, tiny chunks of chicken, and each dumpling contained no more than a single tiny shrimp, neither of which added to the taste. The overall flavor was actually very tasty but, though I would have otherwise rated the dumplings at a 4 out of 5, I felt that the misrepresentation dropped them to a 3 out of 5 only.
Steamed dumplings with shrimp – These were what are commonly known as ‘Har Gow’ on dim sum menus. I generally use these as a benchmark for the quality of the dim sum at a given restaurant and I have to say that, despite being very prettily formed, these were the absolutely worst I have ever had…
First of all, the dumplings were brought to the table in a very nice little steamer but then unceremoniously spooned out on to my plate without any thought for careful plating. No sauce was provided or offered and, while I often don’t use any myself (other than a little soy or black vinegar, occasionally), these definitely needed some sort of help. The wrapper, though translucent, was overly thick and tough, while the chunks of shrimp inside were dry and tasteless and bound together with some sort of starch that was congealed and chewy. I have had far better at the meanest hole-in-the-wall type of establishment and can only describe these as being so laughably bad that a place charging these sorts of prices should be thoroughly ashamed of this atrocious effort. I can only rate these dumplings at a grudging 1 out of 5.
Eggplant with Yu Xiang Sauce – Despite my earlier comments about the general quality of plating at this establishment, I thought that the presentation of this selection was both novel and attractive. It was also very nicely cooked, with the eggplant pieces being creamily succulent but still firm to the bite. The sauce, however, while tasty, was not a very accurate rendering of the ‘Yu Xiang’ (fish-fragrant) flavor one would expect in a proper Sichuan or Hunan restaurant.
A ‘Yu Xiang’ dish begins with the classic scallion, ginger, garlic trio, and then is built upon with the spicy-umami body of chili-bean paste complimented by a sweet-sour background. This rendition was sweet, to be sure, but there were no sour notes at all and there was a hint of ginger but no garlic. The spicy heat came from just a few flecks of dried chili visible in the sauce, but the umami quality (absolutely essential for this type of dish) was glaringly absent. I liked it, to be fair, but the poor execution of a classic Chinese flavor combination only allowed for a generous rating of 3 out of 5.
When I have a poor experience in a restaurant I am sometimes willing to put it down to a case of the establishment in question having an ‘off-day’. In this case, however, I less inclined to be charitable given the slow service (which other critics have noted), and the fact that I paid a substantial bill for several dishes that were either mediocre or downright awful. I was genuinely left with the impression that Le Piment Rouge is a place that has rested on its laurels for too long and provides an experience that is not worth the price. I was disappointed, to say the least…