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Successful quest for wok hai in Mercier! Restaurant Maison Basilic

m
moh Dec 14, 2008 06:23 AM

Some of you may have read a thread I started on the "Not About Food" board on CHow-Crushes:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/553439

I was posting about a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out/resto place in Verdun where we found the most amazing wok hai (breath of a wok). The two cooks were leaving for other places, and so I did not post about this place on the Quebec board, as I did not want to post about pleasures none of you could hope to enjoy. One of the cooks has sadly left for Chicoutimi, but the wok master, Ming, has now been found in Mercier!

Restaurant Masion Basilic is located on the main street or Mercier, near the town hall, and across from the Ultramar. It is not fancy, and when we were there, it was very drafty in the resto, and quite cold. We ate our meal with our coats on, and managed. We noticed there was a steady stream of take-out customers, so I suspect there are many who have discovered the joys of this resto, but have decided to eat in the comfort of their own home in front of the Habs game. Smart people! The one drawback to this plan is that you don't get to fully appreciate the marvel of wok hai, the breath of a wok, the magical quality food gets when it is skillfully prepared in a well-seasoned wok over high high heat, higher than most of us mere mortals can attain in our home kitchens. Wok hai only lasts for a few minutes, and it is imperative to eat the dish immediately after it comes off the wok, so you can't really get that when you do takeout. Hence the coats.

The menu is deceivingly simple, and at first glance, one might dismiss it as being a typical dumbed-down North American Asian menu with no redeeming qualities. Fried rice, chow mein, pork spareribs, General Tao, beef with broccoli, even some Thai dishes. But do not be fooled. Ming is a master of technique. He can take the most mundane ingredients and turn them into a revelation. The key here is his impeccable frying/wok technique.

We weren't sure if we had found the right resto. We had been given some vague instructions before he left the last resto in Verdun, but we knew that there was another Asian resto in Mercier, and we weren't sure if he was definitely in Mercier, as life can change. But when we peeked into the kitchen, there he was over the wok station, wonderful smells emanating from his general vicinity. I squealed, and started yelling "Ming! Ming!" At first he was confused, but when he saw my bouncing dancing hand-clapping, and my friend's broad grin (he looked like a mongoose in love) he broke into a great big smile. After a joyful reunion, we asked him to make us whatever he wanted, whatever he thought was good.

We started with a simple egg drop soup, made with vegetables, diced shrimp, and strips of barbequed pork. The vegetables were the standard frozen vegetable mix, and yet, the soup was a delicate symphony of clear flavours and textures, with a true finesse that one expects from high quality Cantonese cooking. So simple and pure.

Then came a beautiful stir-fry of shrimps and chinese vegetable in a clear consomme-based broth thickened with ?corn starch?. There were slivers of fresh ginger and bell pepper beautifully placed on top. Ahh! Such perfect wok hai! The shrimp was tender and juicy, delicately flavoured by the sauce, and the greens were crisp yet seared through. Yet another symphony.

Next dish: battered deep-fried pork in a dark red sweet and sour sauce, surrounded by steamed broccoli. Served with a side dish of Tuong ot toi sauce, Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce that you can add if you want a bit of zing. On the surface, a stereotypical dish that reminds you of every bad North American Chinese buffet. But with Ming executing, this dish is a masterful reminder of the noble history of this dish, of everything deep-fried pork balls should be in a Utopian world. The batter is incredibly crispy, there is no grease, no sogginess, just perfect frying. The pork is tender and hot, and the sauce is balanced, not overly cloying as many sweet and sour sauces can become. The broccoli is perfectly steamed and acts as a nice counterpoint to the sauce and pork balls.

To end the evening, thin rice stick noodles stir-fried with beef and onions. Thin, marinated tender slices of beef melt in your mouth. The onions are caramelized by the high heat, and add a savoury bite to the beef and noodles. And the noodles are so satisfying, nice bite, no clumps of noodles, so delicious.

Now all of these dishes are off the menu, but none of them were particularly unusual in ingredients. I would have no problem ordering anything off the menu, as again, it is the technique which is so noteworthy. I ordered a cantonese chow mein to go off the regular menu, and although it did not have its wok hai when I ate it for breakfast, it was still very flavourful and satisfying.

I have no reason to go to Mercier, but I am making up reasons now. This place is an absolute gem! Plus, it is very inexpensive (about $7-10 per dish on the regular menu, although our special shrimp dish was $12, and worth every penny!). Even better, Ming has offered to make us his fabulous crispy duck dish if we call in advance and warn him so he can get the ingredients. I have been dreaming about this dish since I first had it 3 months ago. I am so happy....

I would say that this is a place worth making a trek to. They have revamped their menu in October 2008, just about the time that Ming started working there. I would probably stick to the Cantonese/Chinese items, as I have not tried the Thai dishes, and I suspect they aren't Ming's specialties. Now you aren't going to find unusual ingredients, or luxury items. You won't have a lot of selection. You will find some suspect items with frozen beans/carrots/peas that sound tired and uninspired at first glance. But if you look past the cracked veneer, you will find a master chef, and you will find wok hai. This place delivers that which we all seek when we fruitlessly go to all those nameless, faceless Chinese restaurants.To quote the commercials: Priceless.

Restaurant Maison Basilic (Basil House
)850 Boul. St. Jean-Baptiste (highway 138)
Mercier
(450) 692-6889
Open: 7 days a week, 16:00-21:30

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  1. kpzoo RE: moh Dec 14, 2008 08:32 AM

    Wow, thanks for the report, moh! I'll have to give this place a try just as soon as I dig my car out. ;-)

    1. hungryann RE: moh Dec 14, 2008 09:06 AM

      Thanks moh. If you guys organize a chow-meet there, count me in. I'll never be able to drag DH in Mercier for chinese!

      1. porker RE: moh Dec 14, 2008 01:55 PM

        I've passed this place many times and chalked it up to "being a typical dumbed-down North American Asian" resto myself.
        I remember you having the heads-up on this place and appreciate the report. We will definitely check it out, maybe I can get the wife to squeal "Ming Ming"!

        I love finding a wolf in sheep's clothing every once in a while!

        2 Replies
        1. re: porker
          m
          moh RE: porker Dec 14, 2008 07:30 PM

          Porker, if you and your family have no issues with pickiness, see if you can get Ming to make you something off the menu. I should warn you, communication may be an issue, although the staff seemed to understand us well enough when we were there. And we also have the advantage that Ming knows we will eat anything he makes.

          If you can't get them to do this, then try the following menu items: The eggrolls will be beautifully fried, I saw them going to another table, and they looked great. Get a noodle dish, the Cantonese chow mein is yummy. I recall his spare ribs were very delicious at the last resto. And make sure you get a stir-fry dish, try the beef and broccoli. Being a fan of fried foods, I would also try one of his fried dishes, like the General Tao.

          I'll be interested in hearing what you think. You may still feel it is a typical dumbed-down N.A. Asian resto after you try it. And I couldn't really argue with you. But there is something very satisfying about this food.

          Goodness! I am quite jealous you pass this place often! I think I'd be there multiple times a week if I was that close by.

          1. re: moh
            porker RE: moh Dec 15, 2008 04:03 AM

            Well moh, I used the 'dumbed-down' expression right outta your post - I liked it and it pretty much sums up many small-town chinese eateries.
            Its our favorite cuisine, we're in chinatown at least once a week. Whenever we travel, we'll find the chinese joint, but most times its only adequate. Once in awhile, we find a jewel in an unlikely place - we go in expecting the usual, and find someone like your Ming who really knows what they're doing, seemingly almost despite his customers and its a great surprise.

        2. m
          moh RE: moh Jan 6, 2009 04:59 AM

          Oh dear. Major Chow Disaster....

          So I recently went back, and discovered that Ming is no longer there. It turns out he had a 3 month contract to help revamp the menu and is no longer there.

          The eggrolls were excellent, well fried, plump, good filling, not greasy, I could have eaten a plateful. The vegetable chow mein was very good, vegetables were crisp and tasty, but noodles were a little under-fried, and the sauce was very good, but not as balanced and sublime as they have been when prepared by MIng. But I would eat these two dishes again. It was as if there was a ghost of MIng still lingering in the kitchen. However, the pineapple chicken and the pad thai - <shudder> - step away from these two dishes.... I was so sad. And of course, we never got back for the crispy duck...

          So, I have to warn you that this place isn't what it was a month ago. Wow, talk about fleeting... Now, if I happen to be driving by, I will plan to stop for eggrolls and chow mein. But I wouldn't make a special trip out. And I would choose items very carefully.

          And of course, the Quest for Ming starts again. Wok Hai is such a special flavour, it really cannot be easily recreated at home. I can't believe we have let this master slip away again! The real issue is the language barrier. We have a possible lead, but I am quite worried I may never eat Ming's food again, and this would be a very sad thing indeed.

          Needless to say, if we find him again, I'll let people know. And if we do, run to try his food.

          2 Replies
          1. re: moh
            porker RE: moh Jan 6, 2009 06:54 AM

            How many times do fall in love only to have the place close down, people move away, new management screws things up, etc.
            In a way, it keeps us on our toes, always looking for something great, but I feel your pain, moh.
            We had a long-time relationship with a family who owned a small resto on St. Laurent. The father was in charge of the kitchen and had a way with the woks. Sadly he passed on so young. Try as we might, there are no substitute for some of the dishes that he made...
            Lets hope your lead pans out!

            1. re: moh
              hungryann RE: moh Jan 6, 2009 08:35 AM

              Thanks for the heads-up. I was planning to drive there this weekend.

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