Sichuan pop-up J’ai Feng marks the return of a great Montreal chef

Triologie/Café Denise head chef Anita Feng is back with a Sichuan pop-up out of Beaubien’s Cul Sec.

Anita Feng is back! As a chef, Feng originally made a name for herself at Trilogie, the beloved, if a little under-the-radar dumpling house near the garment district. Feng closed Trilogie in 2017 and moved to Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, to study Sichuan cooking.

After returning to Montreal, she spilt her time between designing (Feng is a graphic designer by trade) and cooking — mostly doing one-off pop-ups in collaboration with restaurants like Mile End stalwart Lawrence. In May 2019, Feng took her first full-time cooking job since closing Trilogie, as chef of Café Denise. That stint, unfortunately, would be relatively short-lived. In January of this year, Feng left Denise with the plan to return to China to further expand her knowledge of regional Chinese cooking. Of course, with COVID-19 case numbers beginning to surge in China around this time, her trip was postponed indefinitely.

“Back in February, there were still no cases here. I actually didn’t think [COVID-19] would hit here. Three weeks before I was supposed to leave for China, it started to get worse,” reflects Feng. She had left her first head-chef position in two years and then, both in China and in Montreal, opportunities were drying up. “I couldn’t go back to Denise. [They] were already announcing that they were closing and were changing their concept. It was like a force-quit for cooking.” 

J'ai Feng
Ying Tao Rou aka “Cherry Pork” (J’ai Feng by Anita Feng)

Since January, Feng, like most Montrealers, has been at home steeping in a slowly accrued sense of total boredom. Another, lamb-based, pop-up with Lawrence was scheduled for early spring but lockdown measures quickly made the event an impossibility. Fortunately, Feng was able to find a small outlet for cooking by working once a week at Noren, the wonderful Japanese counter in the plateau run by Hidenori Tsuda and Élyse Garand. Percolating under the surface, however, was an idea for her own pop-up. After speaking with David Ferguson of restaurant Gus about renting his space for the future project, he suggested she get in contact with Louis-Phillipe Breton about renting the currently vacant Cul Sec space just opposite Gus on Beaubien. An agreement was made and Feng’s newest project, J’ai Feng, was launched this week. 

The name is a play of Feng’s name and j’ai faim (“I’m hungry”). It’s a common utterance expressed by people close to Feng when they know she’s behind the stove. The name speaks to Feng’s amicable and playful nature. The words “j’ai faim” for Feng, are a call to action — the way she cooks and the way she engages with food embodies the purest form of hospitality, it comes from a desire to give joy and to feed others.

J'ai Feng
Mouthwatering eggplant (J’ai Feng)

Currently, the pop-up is set to last four weeks, or until December 19th after which both parties can adjust the arrangement based on what the current restrictions are (or aren’t). J’ai Feng proposes a weekly menu featuring two set dinners, one vegetarian and one with meat. For the time being, her menus are only available for pick-up on Friday and Saturday. Feng is running the operation by herself, so to keep food waste low she’s using a pre-order system for pick-ups, which opens on Monday and closes for the week on Wednesday at midnight.

The menu focuses on home-style Chinese cooking. “I really like to work on traditional dishes that are very known in China but that [western] people might be hesitant to order,” explains Feng. Her menu includes dishes that are adored in Chinese households but end up being hidden on Chinese menus, either indirectly through poor translations or simply withheld from westernized menus for fear that it would be rejected by a non-Chinese clientele. 

Her inaugural menu features comfort classics like a vegan version of “Mouth-Watering Chicken,” one of Sichuan’s most revered dishes named for the saliva-inducing quality of Sichuan peppercorns. Feng’s version subs in eggplant in place of poultry. The menu also features a sweet and sticky braised pork belly called Ying Tao Rou, which translates to cherry pork — due, in part, to its iconic cherry-red glaze. In terms of menu development, Feng puts it this way, “What I’m doing for this project is cooking what [Chinese people] are eating at home.”

Both dishes are classic examples of Sichuan cuisine and a perfect canvas for Feng’s style of cooking that aims to bridge the often expansive gap between regional Chinese cooking and the larger western audience. Plans for future menus include dishes like a humble winter melon soup, a dish from Feng’s childhood, “It’s something my grandma always made but it’s not really found in restaurants.” Each menu includes a soup, a small entrée, a main course and a side of steamed rice — portions are designed for one person but could feed two provided they aren’t big eaters. 

In addition to Feng’s menu, Cul Sec’s wine list (among the best in the city) is available for take-out and Feng is stocking a small selection of homemade sundries like her famously good chili oil, infused Chenpi soya and Sichuan-spiced sausages made in collaboration with Boucherie Dans la Côte. 

While the window to order this week’s menu is closed, I urge to you plan ahead for next week. I don’t know what the menu will be but I can assure you it will be good and it will likely introduce you to some of the best Chinese dishes that you’ve likely never eaten. ■ 

Orders can be placed from Monday to Wednesday for a Friday or Saturday pick-up on the J’ai Feng website.

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