Pumpui presents Pichai, a Thai restaurant for better days

We spoke to the owners of popular Petite-Patrie curry shop Pumpui about their new project.

More than a year ago, when Pumpui owners Jesse Mulder, Jesse Massumi and Xavier Cloutier started the long and arduous task of opening a second restaurant, they could have never prepared themselves for the obstacles they would encounter in 2020. Over the last nine months, any time plans for a new restaurant are announced or one actually opens, I ask myself, why? Why even bother? Even in the best of times, when opening a restaurant the odds of succeeding are stacked against you, so to open something new in a time when even the most established restaurants are barely scraping by seems like an exercise in masochism. Under normal circumstances, I’d be writing to excitedly announce the opening of Pumpui’s sister restaurant because, under normal circumstances, Pichai would be opening this week. But of course, as is the belaboured reality of 2020, circumstances are far from normal. 

And yet the plan to open Pichai carries on, its future made buoyant on a current of cautious optimism. To be clear, Pichai’s opening will be delayed until spring and possibly further than that, because Massumi and co. felt that sacrificing any part of their concept would miss the point completely. “One thing we all agreed on early on was that we didn’t want to open Pichai as a take-out spot,” Massumi says.

To borrow another belaboured quote, all we know is that we don’t know anything — when is it more foolish to keep pushing forward rather than cut losses? When do you admit defeat? For Massumi, optimism is the only way forward. “We would probably regret not trying more than if we tried and it failed because of something completely out of our control. If we didn’t try and in eight months later patios are open and everything is bumping we’d be really disappointed.”

After speaking with Massumi I admit I was surprisingly refreshed by that notion of cautious optimism. Maybe optimism is exactly what we need as the rosy tint of November’s heatwave has faded away and the reality of what stands to be a historically bleak winter looms omnipresent. There’s no way to know what the spring will hold — will Pfizer’s promised vaccine usher in a gradual return to normalcy? Will we awake from the cruel nightmare of 2020 bathed in the healing glow of 2021? Who knows? I sure as shit don’t — but I started thinking, “What’s the harm in imagining a future where things are getting better?” So that’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you about Pichai, a Thai restaurant for better days. 

Pichai means older brother and, despite being the chronological younger sibling to Pumpui, the concept fits the name. “It’s kind of like Pumpui’s growing up a little bit,” says Massumi, explaining the concept for Pichai. “The way you eat at Pumpui is very focused on ‘one plate per person’ and that’s something we wanted to move away from for Pichai.”

The intention is to introduce Montrealers to a different style of Thai restaurant, one that builds on the food of Pumpui but in a style and format tailored to a more formal dine-in setting. That being said, Massumi hesitates to describe the project as traditional. “It’s not about building a traditional restaurant. [Pichai] is still going to be very different and surprising — it’s about adjusting things to make it easier for people to have a fuller experience.” Whereas Pumpui was designed to be a faithful rendition of a casual Thai curry shop; Massumi describes Pichai’s concept as follows: “The idea is to share [a meal] the way you would actually eat in a street food setting in Thailand.”

If the idea of sharing a communal meal seems like an insane premise to you, you could hardly be faulted. But not so long ago a shift to family-style dining had firmly planted its roots in the world of casual fine-dining. During that time, it struck Jesse Mulder, who spent years living in Thailand, that the increasingly popular small-plates style of dining was essentially just a gussied-up version of the way most of his meals were eaten in Thailand. The question was how to transport the feeling of eating street food in Thailand and dress it up for Montreal’s restaurant scene without sacrificing authenticity. As a chef, Jesse Mulder does one thing and one thing only: Thai food — and he’s damn good at it. But he’s not a fine-dining-trained chef. Knowing their limitations, they decided to bring in a co-chef who, for continuity’s sake, is also named Jesse: Jesse Grasso, the former chef de cuisine of Vin Papillon, who spent time cooking in South-East Asia eventually opening a few restaurants in Vietnam. Grasso brings a fine-dining pedigree to the team, and combined with his South-East Asian cooking background, he’s a natural fit for the team. 

Grasso isn’t the only new recruit joining the Pumpui principles. Chef Chitakone Phonmavongxay of Thammada and Thai-Lao grocer Kong Han of Hong Hour are both coming on as new partners. Kong has been an integral part of Pumpui’s story — it was Kong who first started supplying Mulder with Thai ingredients for his pre-Pumpui pop-up Chakwow. He’s been a key figure in developing Pumpui over the years, says Massumi: “In the summer, morning glory — which is a super important ingredient for the food we’re cooking — is available locally, but come November that stops and we have to rotate something else in. Kong has always been there to help point us in the direction of not just local but also imported ingredients that make sense — he has that knowledge.”

“As I mentally prepare myself for winter, I will in part be kept warm and more importantly optimistic by imagining myself sitting down next to my wife, opposite two friends as we raise our freshly filled wine glasses to toast the end of the pandemic’s darkest days before digging into a meal of some of our city’s finest Thai food.”

Utilizing the specific skills and competences of individuals is built into the DNA of Pumpui so a translation of that mentality to Pichai is only natural. Integration of the Thai community and larger Thai (both local and international) economy is something deliberate for the owners. Bringing in Thai partners and partners like Kong, whose business supports farmers and producers in Thailand was a mandate. The goal has always been to promote Thai culture through Thai food.

“We need to never pretend to be something that we’re not. If we need something, we need to get it from someone who has that specific talent or expertise. We promote collaboration over putting ourselves in the spotlight,” says Massumi.

So let’s get to the chase — if and when this restaurant opens, what can we expect? The simplest answer to this is that it’ll be like a Thai wine bar. Sommlière Elisabeth Racine (of Nora Gray) is in charge of the wine program and while the list is far from finalized, we can expect some energetic natural wines that match the tone and vibrancy of Pichai’s menu. On the subject of the menu, Massumi describes the approach like this: “We’re planning on doing the style of food we’ve done in pop-ups at more traditional restaurants. We’re going to concentrate on locally sourced ingredients and seasonal dishes but the idea is to [develop] the ideas that don’t translate to the casual setting at Pumpui. We’re going to work with more laabs, salads and dips which are a big food group in Thailand — like relishes and dips that you can eat with crudité.” We can expect dishes like a dry-aged duck laab, with grilled duck hearts and crispy skin or a grilled pork and sticky rice sausage served with crudité and young ginger. But it goes without saying that the menu is subject to change depending on when the restaurant opens. 

For now, the restaurant is expected to open in late March or early April — but nothing is for certain. Personally, as I mentally prepare myself for winter, I will in part be kept warm and more importantly optimistic by imagining myself sitting down next to my wife, opposite two friends as we raise our freshly filled wine glasses to toast the end of the pandemic’s darkest days before digging into a meal of some of our city’s finest Thai food. I encourage you, reader, to do the same ’cause we ain’t got much except for hope. So here’s hoping. ■

For information about Pumpui, please visit the curry shop’s website.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.