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Glenn J. Nashen orders a birthday celebration from ChuChai

    A little background

    My wife Judy and I have been fans of ChuChai on St. Denis since it opened back in 1997. Indeed, I had been a regular at its predecessor eatery, Chao Phraya, which was around for nearly a decade before it transitioned into its present namesake.

    Lily Sirikittikul is the long standing owner and master chef behind the iconic vegan Thai restaurant which is a booming success. She teamed up with financial professional Marcel Roiati six years ago and he has overseen the expansion into catering and managing the business aspects.

    Lily’s origin is Chinese but she was born in Thailand and you can see evidence of both heritages in the way she manages her restaurant. It is truly a family affair which has grown to include her daughter, sister, two granddaughters and occasionally her son. Her culinary experience stems from her mother’s Chinese temple back in Thailand. She subsequently trained in Asian and American vegetarian culinary schools in Florida and California.

    Lily told us that people choose to be vegan in order to, “live right and eat right,” and largely make this decision for health reasons. Her raison d’être is to provide the “Taste of Thai” and to offer an authentic Thai flavour.

    A small, harmonious kitchen

    A tour of the ChuChai kitchen is an exposition of coordinated teamwork: precision and efficiency share the stage. Lily takes on the role of orchestra conductor in keeping her sister and daughter in sync as they harmoniously create exquisite dishes in tight quarters.

    “Our strength is in creating authentic dishes,” Lily told us. “Some customers tell us how much they enjoy the duck or beef, not realizing they were eating vegan substitutes made with high quality seitan flour delicately sculpted into a fine dish.” 

    Seitan is a vegan meat substitute that mimics an authentic texture by rinsing wheat dough to remove the starch. “It is the cream of the crop. This enables us to add unique flavours and to serve an exquisite dish,” Lily said.

    “We use seitan for our duck and soy flour for our chicken in order to make it softer. Beef is similar to chicken in this regard. For our shrimp, we use konnyaku, a Japanese noodle which comes from the potato family,” Lily divulged. “Finally, our fish is made out of soy with flour. It is a long cooking process to achieve the desired shape and authentic texture. We work with specialized producers to bring our customers the most impeccable dining experience.”

    “Our signature dish is Crispy Duck with Soya Sauce and Spinach,” Chef Lily boasts. During our interview Lily alluded to the technique she uses to achieve the crispiness, but would not reveal her secret.

    Lily continued, “Our biggest seller is Dumplings in Peanut Sauce.” I can certainly vouch for that. On my last visit to ChuChai, just prior to the pandemic, my son licked the bowl clean and even ordered a second serving.

    “We really trust our wait staff who take their time to explain our dishes to our customers,” says Marcel. “Our wait staff have been with us for a long time and they always describe the best way to enjoy our food. We want our clients to fully enjoy their dining experience and to keep coming back.” In fact, one of their most popular dishes, Miam Kram (Five Flavour Finger Food), is not being served during the pandemic because it requires wait staff to properly plate it just prior to consumption.

    Our ChuChai dining experience

    Lily told us that many of their customers are regulars, some who typically dine-in or pick-up every week.

    “In addition to our local customers from the Plateau we have regulars who come from Vermont, the Townships and of course from Montreal’s suburbs. You have to continue to strive to be the best so your customers will keep coming back. We even have non-vegetarian regulars!”

    We were celebrating Judy’s big birthday, number 50, so we chose carefully from a long list of possible restaurants. ChuChai came out on top and Marcel and Lily were excited to welcome us. They were enthusiastic, friendly and informative at every step during this unusual time period where inside dining is forbidden.

    After a face-masked visit to the kitchen and a detailed discussion on nearly every dish on the menu, we agreed upon our choices based on their recommendations. It didn’t take very long to cook up Judy’s birthday party dinner; two large bags with steaming hot dishes were brought out along with orders for a handful of other customers waiting with excited anticipation at the front door.

    “We pack our dishes in aluminum and recyclable plastic,” Lily told us, as they try to be as sustainable and environmentally-conscientious as possible.

    The car ride home smelled lovely. The Thai aromas were tantalizing and I was very excited for my family’s reaction. With vegan options ranging from duck, beef and chicken to fish and seafood, I could only imagine wide smiles when the door would be opened by my kids, Nicole, Nathalie and Jeremy.

    As we unpacked the still steaming hot containers, the wonderful scents quickly filled our dining room and transformed our nightly quarantine dinner ‘en famille’ into a faux dining-out experience. With anticipation and excitement we dished out the Vegetable Coconut Milk Soup, Shrimp Lemongrass Soup, Crispy Wontons and Breaded Seaweed. What magnificent entrees.

    The soups were particularly Thai-spicy and the seaweed perfectly seasoned with salt and sesame seeds. Jeremy said this about the seaweed: ”I never tasted anything quite like it. It’s my favourite!” And I would agree – it had a unique mouth-feel which was both crispy and tangy.

    On to the Dumplings in Peanut Sauce. I was strategic and ordered two servings. The soft dumplings served in a smooth peanut sauce were as delicious as we all remembered from the last time we ate there – ironically our last dinner outing in Montreal some nine months earlier. Had our meal ended there I think my family would have been pleased. But there was much, much more to come.

    Nathalie was enjoying her Spicy Green Papaya Salad while Nicole was digging into sweet and crunchy Fresh Mango Salad. “It has a nice kick of flavour and the mint adds a nice subtlety,” Nathalie said.

    We couldn’t wait any longer and we all reached for ChuChai’s signature dish, the Ped Palo or Crispy Duck with Soya Sauce and Spinach. Just as expected it was super crispy and oh so tasty (incidentally, Lily warned us that the duck may not be so crispy after sitting in a take out container on the ride home – she was wrong!).

    Next we chowed down on the Beef with Three Flavours, a delicious vegan beef served with an inspired three flavour sauce. So authentic, once again. Another new favourite now topped our list. The birthday dinner was exceeding our expectations.

    My wife absolutely loves spicy food. She really enjoyed the Chicken Red Curry, a vegan chicken in red curry, coconut milk and basil. Too spicy for me so extra for her!

    Jeremy was in vegan heaven enjoying the Coconut Shrimp. “It’s just fabulous,” he said. Yet another favourite!

    We were all so satisfied that we simply couldn’t eat more and revelled in the thought of enjoying the leftovers another day. While this time we ordered a birthday cake from a local shop, we have previously enjoyed ChuChai’s dessert offerings including tapioca, chocolate mousse, fried banana in caramelized syrup and vegan cheesecake.

    There are so many other wonderful dishes to enjoy at ChuChai: ask them for recommendations as they are so helpful in choosing the right dishes to satisfy your taste.

    How you can order

    While the restaurant normally welcomes 60 patrons indoors and another 18 on their terrasse, ChuChai is currently open for take out dining only, from Tuesday to Saturday from 5PM-9PM. Check with them for updates as the pandemic restrictions evolve (and hopefully end soon).  Large orders take about 20 minutes to be prepared and packed to go. 

    You can order on the UberEats, DoorDash or SkipTheDishes apps however if you’re able to pick-up on your own that is the best way to support local eateries during the pandemic. The delivery fee charged to restaurants is hefty and chips away at their profits. Mounting costs for local entrepreneurs is threatening a huge number of restaurants across the country. If you want to ensure the survival of your favourite dining establishment try to pick up directly and allow them to maximize their earnings, at least during the partial closure.

    Review your menu choices and then call ChuChai at 514-843-4194. Visit them on Facebook. Why not consider offering a gift dinner to a friend or family member?

    ChuChai also has full bar service and is located at 4088 St. Denis (at the time of this writing, ample on-street parking is free for two hours). With the reconstruction of St. Denis street, Lily and Marcel are looking forward to new and old patrons returning to the popular shopping and dining destination and maybe even welcoming cyclists who will benefit from the new dedicated lanes in both directions. 

    They are also available to cater your office meetings and corporate events as well as private parties and weddings.

    Once the confinement is lifted, ChuChai will return to expanded hours of operation. Make sure you come by to check out the major renovation which was completed in January of 2020. Lily told us that she is very proud of what she has created in the ChuChai brand and appreciates the staff’s ability to pivot in the face of unprecedented challenges as well as their customers’ enthusiasm in continuing to support their efforts to provide “unique and tasty presentations.”

    ChuChai means ‘victory’ in Thai, and given my own extremely positive experiences at this wonderful restaurant they are certainly living up to their good name. Thank you Lily and Marcel.

    Glenn J. Nashen

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