Food & Drinks

Restaurant review: Peruvian meets Chinese at Montreal’s Chifa


* out of ****

1080 Bleury St. (between René-Lévesque Blvd. and de la Gauchetière St.); 514-543-8488;

Reservations: Yes

Accessibility: Washrooms are down a full flight of stairs.

Vegetarian-friendly: Yes

Price: Sharing plates from $6 to $45 (duck for two)

Ratings are from one to four stars: One is good, two is very good, three is excellent, four is exceptional.

When a glistening ceviche hit the table at Chifa, I was immediately intrigued. Simple but finessed, this fish dish had generous slices of translucent white halibut swimming in Peruvian leche de tigre — a citrusy, spice-infused marinade used to cure fish — and garnished with paper-thin peels of radish, red onion slivers, a small heap of grated carrots, cilantro leaves and a light shower of black sesame seeds. Fresh, clean, bright and a revival for my senses on a dreary, rainy evening, I was suddenly very excited to see what would come next at Chifa. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last.

Located on Bleury St. in the lower downtown area that borders Old Montreal and Chinatown, Chifa is the new restaurant from chef Marcel Larrea (along with co-owner David Dumay), who wowed Montrealers —

including former Gazette restaurant critic Lesley Chesterman

— with his Peruvian-Japanese cuisine at Tiradito. Right next door to Tiradito and open since November, Chifa also has a Peruvian focus, this time with dishes influenced by Cantonese food. Chifa is the actual term used in Peru for this fusion and stems from arroz chaufa, a Peruvian-Chinese fried rice dish.

Upon entering the sleek, narrow room, Chifa feels more bar than restaurant — and actually is, legally speaking, as no one under 18 is allowed. A long bar that runs the length of the room provides a good portion of the seating, with more intimate booths on the opposite side, as well as a big table for groups at the back. Soft lighting, marron velvet accents, touches of green and shiny, aquatic-coloured tiles make this place feel cool, modern and worthy of a date night.

The menu is concise but provides many appealing options (like a take on barbecue duck crêpes for two, which piqued my interest), and the staff are at the ready to offer suggestions and explanations. Despite this, our waiter kept changing — we were served by three staff members, who tended to overlap with the same questions and made things slightly confusing. Regardless, we went with some of their recommendations and some things that just intrigued us, and came up with a great dish and a few that missed the mark.

That ceviche was definitely a high point, the leche de tigre made with Chinese five spice as Larrea’s fusion ingredient. Perhaps starting with such a bang set too high a bar, gradually lowered right through the end of the meal, when the single dessert on the menu was unavailable (for the second time this year at a restaurant reviewed for the Montreal Gazette).

 A ceviche featuring citrusy, spice-infused leche de tigre marinade was a revival for the senses, and was a memorable way to begin the night at Chifa.

With several anticuchos (Peruvian marinated meat skewers) to choose from — including veal tongue, chicken skin and swordfish — we decided to go with the meat of the night, which happened to be filet mignon. The single stick was deeply marinated, had a pleasantly smoky, grilled taste, and was served with a light drizzle of a vivid sesame-based sauce called dare. Although the flavours were punchy and pronounced, the meat was more tough than tender, taking away some of the pleasure from this attractive stick.

Next came calamari tausi — sautéed and fried calamari in a garlicky, fermented black bean (tausi) sauce, with sugar snap peas and a side of rice. The sauce was light and thin, with a good tang of fermented umami flavour — such a great pairing for calamari. Unfortunately, the calamari tubes, which had been cut lengthwise, scored and sautéed, were uneven — some overcooked and chewy, others slightly less so. The contrasting fried tentacles were good, but not good enough to save this dish. The sugar snap peas, on the other hand, were crisp and perfect.

 Chifa’s calamari tausi included sautéed tubes and fried tentacles in a tangy sauce.

The tortilla China, a smaller confit duck pancake dish, was my consolation option for not ordering the much larger barbecued duck dish. Although I truly appreciated the concept — confit duck mixed with mushrooms, vegetables and aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili pepper), sandwiched between two crêpes and topped with a dollop of crème fraîche and a small scoop of caviar — the dish was overly greasy, and the crêpes were heavy sponges. On a more positive note, the duck mixture tasted exactly like Christmas dinner.

I couldn’t wait to sample our final dish, aubergine dragon. I love Chinese and Japanese eggplants (they used Japanese in this case) — which are long, tender and slightly sweeter than the more common grocery-store globe eggplant —

 and this vegetable dish put them in the spotlight, along with wood ear mushrooms in garlicky tamarind sauce. When it arrived, it was hard to discern what was on the plate — the eggplant melting into a deep, dark vegetable void, contrasted with a scattering of fried onions, cilantro leaves and sesame seeds. The sauce was almost inedibly salty and with too much tamarind smack; the naturally sweet, soft fried eggplant pieces were completely overwhelmed and saturated to the point where I couldn’t taste anything but that intense sauce. The mushrooms had more of a fighting chance, thanks to their gelatinous texture, but also couldn’t shake the saltiness, even when tempered by large spoonfuls from the accompanying bowl of white rice.

And then dessert … was non-existent.

 Chifa’s aubergine dragon put Japanese eggplant in the spotlight.

The cocktail list at Chifa is creative and reflects the fusion concept, and the wine list, though small, is well priced and offers some interesting options that can be easily paired with the style of food. That being said, the dishes I sampled offered more misses than hits — such a letdown, as I had high hopes at the beginning of my meal. I love food with big, bold, pronounced flavours, and I appreciate chefs who aren’t afraid of taking risks, but regrettably this meal just didn’t do it for me. Regardless, there are a couple dishes I still want to try at some point — maybe just not right away.