The name la Canting is a play on words, cleverly riffing on can ting, the Mandarin term for restaurant, and cantine, which is French for a casual lunch counter or cafeteria.
I’m not usually one for a pun in a name but in this context, it’s really very fitting. The restaurant, designed by Sabrina Barazin on the ground floor of the massive Nordelec building in Pointe St-Charles, is owned and operated by chef Helena Han Lin (of Bouillon Bilk and Elena) and front of house manager Benjamin Serapins (Cadet).
Lin was born in Taiwan, raised in Shanghai and for the most part trained here in Montreal. She, like the food served in her restaurant, is a cultural amalgam — finessed yet undefined. Officially, the food at la Canting is billed as freely flowing between Chinese and Taiwanese. In reality, her food is more complicated than that. It’s both Chinese and Taiwanese (there are unmistakable classics from both countries on her menu) but at the same time it’s neither.
Eating her food, I’m reminded of chefs like Anita Feng and the Ku brothers of Dobe & Andy, chefs who are inextricably linked to the cooking traditions of their ancestry yet not beholden to them. Lin’s professional background was shaped by one of Montreal’s most elaborate and refined menus at Bouillon Bilk and also by one of Montreal’s best contemporary Roman restaurants in Elena. In her own menu, one bears witness to the epicentre at which all these forces collide. More often than not, when all these conflicting influences meet, it’s a recipe for disaster. Lin, however, manages to make it work.
That’s the real beauty of La Canting, it’s a restaurant undeterred by convention that treads the throughline of its many influences with a surprising amount of skill and competance Take for example the cucumber salad — a dish that features as prominently in Sichuan cuisine as it does in Korean cuisine or Greek cuisine, for that matter. Lin’s version is characteristically refreshing and could easily appear on nearly any menu in town, it’s delicious but doesn’t scream of any one place or tradition. The mushrooms with fried whelks is an attractive mound on the plate abundant with textures and garnish, the Bouillon Bilk influence is unmistakable. Take one bite and your mouth fills with the subtle fragrance of white pepper — if I close my eyes, I’m eating salt and pepper squid in Chinatown. The next dish, which arrives in a ceramic bowl, is Lu Rou Fan, a braised pork sauce (sometimes called Taiwanese Bolognese) served over rice with steamed greens and boiled egg. It’s the epitome of Taiwanese home cooking.
Within the span of three dishes, the breadth of Lin’s influences are on display and despite the diversity of regionality, approach and technique, the meal is completely cohesive. Dishes are elaborate when necessary, like the mushrooms and whelks, and are left simple and uncomplicated when intervention would be a disservice. It’s a style of cooking that requires a chef to be innovative and restrained and to respect traditions while embracing experimentation.
I’ve had a similar experience once at a restaurant called Xiang Se that happens to be in Taipei. Xiang Se, like la Canting, is a restaurant with cultural fluidity, moving seamlessly between Taiwanese food to French and Italian fare in a way that is precise and never confused. It’s the only place in which I’ve had shaoxing poached chicken, tagliatelle and the best cannelé in the same meal. It takes a lot of guts to make a menu like that and it takes even more skill to pull it off. Lin’s menu may not be quite as wild, but conceptually I’d say that she’s cut from the same cloth.
While I won’t say that la Canting is one of the city’s best restaurants (it’s not), I will happily confirm that it is a very good place to eat. Lin might be one of the rare young cooks who not only dares to create a diverse menu, she actually has the skill to pull it off. It’s by the hands of those kinds of cooks that great restaurants are born.