Ăn Chơi Plaza Montreal Vietnamese restaurant

Ăn Chơi Plaza pairs homestyle Vietnamese with natural wine and casual fine-dining flair

Spearheaded by Michelle Vo, who’s been making some of the best Vietnamese food in Montreal with Pasthyme, this St-Hubert Street establishment has the potential to be exceptional.

Michelle Vo, the newly minted restaurateur better known by her Instagram handle and pop-up moniker Pasthyme, is among my favourite stories to come out of the pandemic.

A former administrator for a dental clinic, her weekly subscription noodle soup was one of the most celebrated take-out operations I have ever seen. Bold, powerfully spicy and unapologetically true to family recipes, Vo’s cooking was a breath of fresh air. So in 2021, when Vo announced plans to open a proper sit-down restaurant, I was overjoyed. If she could do for Vietnamese food what Pumpui and Pichai had done for Thai, the city would be better for it.

Long delays meant that Ăn Chơi Plaza, as it’s come to be known, only ended up finally opening up at 6553 St-Hubert in June. Joining Vo in the venture are Vien Man Cao-Tran (of Bar Otto and Otto Ramen) and Douglas Tan (of la Bêtise), and the trio is supported by chef Galaxy Duong and sommelière Daphné Blondin. Taking cues from Vo’s favourite haunts, the concept is meant to bring a mix of homestyle Vietnamese cooking into casual fine dining space or, more accurately, into the world of natural wine bars. 

The bay window lined with empty wine bottles gives the long and narrow dining room a buvette feel. It’s a simple but good-looking space. Choosing wines to go with Southeast Asian food is tough. The flavours are just so aromatic and often spicy that the food tends to overpower or be in conflict with the wine. It is always such a shame to spend $70 to $80 on a bottle of wine only for it to be completely overshadowed. Blondin, however, managed to put together a solid list that leans light, fresh and vibrant with plenty of high-acidity wines that stand up to lime juice and chilli. I also appreciate that she keeps things affordable with lots of wine under $60.

I ordered a bottle of Tatto from California-by-way-of-Utah-based winemaker Evan Lewandowski — a blend of riesling, muscat and friulano from California that overflows with notes of yellow stone fruit (peach, nectarine, yellow plum) and white flowers. It’s pretty puckering when it comes to acidity but when matched up against the menu, it held its own quite well. There are also a few cocktails that look quite good, and a line-up of craft beers. I also want to mention that there is a robust selection of non-alcoholic options that don’t feel like a cop-out.

On to the food. What I loved about Pasthyme was that she introduced me to regional specialties and unapologetic flavours that bring together blistering hot chilis, fermented shrimp and crab pastes, tripes and marrows. I wanted to see more of exactly that from Ăn Chơi . To the team’s credit, they do (more or less) exactly that. Take the roast bone marrow with whelks for example — you’d be hard-pressed to find that dish on a menu anywhere else in the city. The bún riêu, a crab noodle soup with homemade crab and pork sausage, fried tofu and tomatoes, is a Pasthyme classic  (and every bit as good at Ăn Chơi).

Duong’s menu is compact — 10 dishes in all — and is organized from smallest to biggest respective to portion size. We made our way through a handful. The bò tái chanh, the classic rare beef and herb salad, was delicious (although I could have used a bit more acid and a bit more chilli) but I found the gỏi xoài (a mango and grilled squid salad) to be lacking in the unapologetic boldness I was hoping for. It’s tasty, don’t get me wrong, but it just fell a bit flat.

The best dish of the night by far was the cơm cua — fried rice with soft shell crab, corn and salted egg yolk. Fragrant and decadent, it’s a dish that makes fried rice entirely luxurious. The sweetness of the crab interplays with the kernels of sweet corn and the smokey, crispy rice is rendered profoundly rich thanks to the deep, salty grating of cured egg yolk. That’s the kind of cooking I like to see. This along with the bún riêu and the thịt nướng (little grilled pork skewers reminiscent of arrosticini) was the evidence that this team can pull off some truly excellent food. I would come back and eat those dishes on repeat happily.

The one slight disappointment of the night was the chả cá lã vọng. A specialty of Hanoi, this is typically (or so I’ve read) a dish of fried catfish with dill, vermicelli and shrimp paste. Ăn Chơi’s version swaps out the catfish in favour of the more luxurious monkfish, which is grilled rather than fried. I love this dish. It’s brilliant. However, the monkfish, which is prized for firm, almost lobster-like flesh, was simply overcooked. I appreciated the char that it got from grilling, which worked beautifully with the funk of the shrimp condiment, but everything that’s great about monkfish was lost. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say this was just a one-off occurrence but it put a damper on what I’m sure is otherwise a fantastic dish.

Ultimately, Ăn Chơi succeeds in doing what it set out to do: create a welcoming and convivial space for people to go for a drink and enjoy quality Vietnamese food. For me, however, the fact that it’s good (quite good even) leaves me slightly disappointed because I believe that Ăn Chơi has the potential to be exceptional. In my mind, the proof is already there. If Joe Beef can convince a generation of diners to eat eel croquettes and horse tartare and Pichai has cool 20-somethings clambering to get the last order of whole firefly squid, then there are no limits to what a menu can look like. I once declared that Vo made the best Vietnamese food in Montreal. That statement stands on the shoulders of her uncensored approach to championing the diversity and inherent deliciousness of Vietnamese food. Add a few spoonfuls of Vo’s iconically fiery passion and I have no doubt that Ăn Chơi can become the restaurant I believe it’s meant to be. ■

For more on Ăn Chơi Plaza, please visit their website.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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