Food & Drinks

Brownstein: Beloved L’Orchidée is reborn but spareribs stay the same

Oh joy! Oh bliss! The best dry garlic spareribs in Montreal and, according to some aficionados, the greatest in this galaxy are back and ready to be devoured.

There was much moaning and gnashing of teeth when the landmark L’Orchidée de Chine closed a little over a year ago after more than three decades on Peel St. Among other mouth-watering Cantonese and Szechuan offerings, L’Orchidée was renowned for its famed spareribs, the secret recipe for which had been perfectly replicated by waiter-turned-restaurateur George Lau from the original creation that came from the owners of the long-defunct but, in its day, uber-posh Ruby Foo’s on Décarie Blvd. And try as others have, no one else had really come close in matching those spareribs.

Well, the good news is that what was once L’Orchidée has risen up again, with a new name, 31° Latitude, and a new location, St-Laurent Blvd., but with pretty much the same team and same fare as before. It opened quietly Jan. 10.

The main difference is that George Lau, L’Orchidée’s driving force over the years, has retired from the biz to travel. But his sister Eva Lau, who co-ran and co-owned L’Orchidée, is now at the helm of 31° Latitude along with former L’Orchidée manager Joe Zhou. Also back are the chefs and wait staff. The setting, formerly home to the equally acclaimed the Italian Il Sole and later the Japanese Izakaya Kabocha, seats 70, about 30 less than L’Orchidée, but it more than compensates on the intimacy and ambience fronts with a decidedly cozy yet rather chic design.

Apart from the food, what’s particularly encouraging about this development is that it is a reversal of what has been happening on the downtown restaurant scene. It has, unfortunately, become all too familiar for Montrealers to learn about the closing of yet one more longtime favourite dining spot.

Another landmark, Thursday’s, closed abruptly on Crescent St. three weeks ago. Long gone from that area have been, among so many others, such hugely popular spots as Le Mas des Oliviers, Les Halles, Les Chenêts and Troika. And that stretch of the Main where 31° Latitude has sprung has also lost more than its fair share of upscale restos: Prima donna, Globe, Mediterraneo and Buonanotte to name but a few.

George and Eva Lau know all about the vicissitudes of the restaurant business. He pretty much created a Chinese restaurant mini-empire, which once included five restaurants: four Le Chrysanthèmes, a downtown location, one in St-Sauveur and two in Florida; and the beloved L’Orchidée on Peel St.

But Eva, who had expressed an interest in going back to her first love, jewelry design, almost felt compelled to return to the food trade.

“Everywhere I went over the last year, longtime customers would come up to me or phone me and almost beg me to start another L’Orchidée,” Eva says, between greeting newly arrived diners and serving others at 31° Latitude. “They would say they couldn’t find this kind of Chinese food anywhere. They were actually calling L’Orchidée an institution. But if it was an institution, credit must really go to my brother George, who really built this brand.

“Honestly, I have been really so overwhelmed and quite touched. I guess I never realized just how much of a following L’Orchidée had.”

The spareribs, not to mention such other addictive signature dishes like the Szechuan shrimps, sliced chicken with pepper and crispy spinach and Singapore noodles, can do that to a restaurant’s loyalists.

So when former manager Zhou had expressed an interest to start 31° Latitude, Eva couldn’t resist.

“I was fully prepared to devote myself full-time to my jewelry design, but sometimes life takes unexpected turns. But I do have to admit it’s gratifying to see how happy our customers are with this opening.”

As for the 31° in the restaurant’s name, that refers to the degree of latitude of Chengdu, the capital city of China’s Sichuan province, where Zhou was born.

“That has always been a lucky number for me,” Zhou says.

But it’s doubtful Zhou or Eva will need much luck here. With no advance publicity, longtime patrons, as well as newcomers, have been flocking to the restaurant since its recent opening.

“We spent quite a few months looking for a good location and assembling our old staff together again,” Zhou says. “We really didn’t know what to expect, especially by opening in January, but we do know that if you give customers what they love — like our spareribs — they will always come back.”

Count on it.


31° Latitude, 3627 St-Laurent Blvd., is open daily. Call 514-985-8898.