Satay Brothers has truly blossomed ever since its humble beginnings as an outdoor food stand at the Atwater Market six years ago. What began with Alex and Mat Winnicki introducing Singaporean street food to the city has rapidly evolved into a successful and beloved Montreal establishment, now with a permanent restaurant in St-Henri. Montrealers can’t seem to get enough of Satay’s Southeast Asian flavours.
Their new outpost Kim Jen Ming opened in late 2016, a food stand in the Glen, the new McGill University Health Centre. It’s named in part after their mother Kim Winnicki, who dedicated 34 years of her life has a nurse helping cancer patients and their family at the Royal Victoria hospital. The project — not a replica of Satay Brothers, but something new — came with its unique set of hurdles, explains KJM’s manager Fred Vaillancourt.
“The reality is very different at the MUHC. Most of our clients are hospital staff who do not have much time to eat, so everything has to be quick with flavorful dishes of the highest quality. That is one of the reasons why our menu is a bit different from the ones at the market and at the restaurant. We have a lot of patients with food restrictions and certain items were created specifically for them. One of our strengths is that we make everything from scratch and we know how the food has been processed, so we are able to adapt our food to our clientele’s restrictions.”
A key factor in Kim Jen Ming’s success has been their ability to adapt. “We learned quickly that the needs were different as the seasons changed,” says Vaillancourt. “Our first menu was composed of very hearty dishes and salads, but people are more concerned with their carb intake during summertime, so we changed the potato salad to a fresh green papaya salad. At KJM, we have more of a global Southeast Asian twist and that’s why we are introducing flavours from Vietnam this season.”
When I arrived at Kim Jen Ming for dinner on a Friday evening, the food court was empty to my surprise as Satay Brothers’ market and brick-and-mortar locations are known for line-ups. The stand itself looked convivial draped in a vibrant red façade, and the staff was friendly albeit laid-back. I opted for the pork curry steamed bun ($5.50), the laksa soup ($9.99), the rice vermicelli ($6.99) and the poké bowl ($11.99).
The steamed bun was everything I had hoped for. The warm and pillowy bao delivered a rich curry of slow braised pork with aromas of peanut and just the right amount of spice. The laksa, a traditionally spicy noodle soup popular in the Peranakan cuisine of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, featured an intoxicating seafood broth full of earthy notes elevated by the addition of floral coconut milk. Garnished with shrimp, fresh cilantro, fried tofu, a few slices of fish cakes, and a hard-boiled quail egg, the laksa exuded warmth and comfort. As for the rice vermicelli, they were delicious providing an intense, inebriating, and ever so satisfying flavour of caramelized onions and roasted peanuts. The poké was minimalistic albeit well-executed. A balanced and refreshing summer dish, elegant in its simplicity yet perhaps a little too simple to make it a truly memorable experience. Overall, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal.
Luckily for KJM, others have seemed to notice the new operation. “To be honest, I am a bit surprised that people are actually coming to the hospital just for our food. We have people that work on Sherbrooke who come to enjoy our buns during lunchtime. There’s an access from the Vendôme metro, so it makes it easy for them,” says Vaillancourt. “The hospital parking is also free for the first thirty minutes and everything on the menu is take-out, so that also attracts people (as well). We are right beside the highway and the restaurant is open seven days a week. Our clients like the fact that it is simple for them to grab food.”
But what’s more important is that KJM is making a difference within the MUHC community. “It’s great! We have the feeling that we are making a change in the hospital food environment and that people really appreciate our mission,” adds Vaillancourt. “We have a lot of staff who come regularly, sometimes twice a day, so I feel like our relationship with our clientele is much closer than in a restaurant. The doctors call our stand ‘The Oasis’ because for them it’s a place where they can feel like they aren’t in the hospital. We also do catering and charity events at the MUHC and we promote our foundation, the Kim Winnicki Legacy Foundation.”
When Alex and Mat opened their food stand at the Atwater market, I doubt they could have envisioned the journey it would take them on. What’s for sure, however, is that the brothers have big hearts and that they care about our city. Kim Jen Ming is one of many examples of that. ■
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