You might have heard of Kampai Garden. And depending on who told you about it, it was either referred to as a beer hall with free pool tables (and a couple of supershot basketball arcade games), or a cocktail lounge with refreshing goji berry-sprinkled pitchers of crushed ice drinks, or a supperclub with upscale Asian bar food from Executive Chef Antonio Park, or a bar with music that ranges from classic rock (sung along to – and requested – by the kitchen staff at the second bar seating area) to booty-shaking r&b as a younger crowd takes over.
But what you might not know is that the space is gorgeous.
There are three bars, plus an upstairs seating area with long tables, a glass-covered outdoors-feeling seating area in front and a summer terrasse section nestled in foliage downstairs and out back. I’d say the place could hold a couple hundred people if they squished in. Even with the sprawling area, there’s usually a lineup out front after 9 or so, and you’re going to want a reservation if you’re coming to eat with a group. There are also cozy couches surrounding a downstairs pool table, islands for standing around with a drink when there’s nowhere left to sit (post-9pm, generally) and an open kitchen at the second bar that gets dishes out in record time.
But we came for the food and drink. And there was plenty of that. And the most amazing thing was that it was all great. I figured this place would either be a party place with lacklustre but expensive food or too-sweet drinks, but I was wrong about all of that.
A $25 (mid-sized) 48 oz pitcher of Lucky Peach (Beefeater Gin, white peach, ginger, mint and ginger beer) serves about 6 glasses, and there’s plenty of refreshing but flavourful crushed ice leftover to sober up a little before upgrading to a $30 Starboy, a 60 oz. pitcher of Hennessy, Kaffir lime mix, lime juice and coconut water. The appeal is the coconut water is hydrating and almost healthy while the booze is not. The strange thing was that the first time I came here, the Starboy barely tasted of Cognac and the second time it was very boozy. So either the pitcher didn’t get stirred enough, or the booze-mix balance depends on who’s behind the bar.
You’ve got to know three things about Kampai Garden
Note 1: All pitchers seem to come top with sweet goji berries and fresh mint. Some servers pour your glasses completely ice free, so you hahve to add your own if you don’t just want alcoholic fruit juice. And others add some ice, which waters down your juice if you drink too slow. Asking for whatever you want is probably best, I figure.
Note 2: The booze is not high end. We’re talking Wiser’s, Jameson and Beefeater. So no artisanal spirits here, but when you’re blending like this, there’s no need for subtle traces of grassiness in your gin or that extra caramelized note from maple smoked whiskey. That’d be a waste.
Note 3: Gluten intolerant people can have about 1/5th of the menu. It’s either gluten free or can be adjusted to gluten free. The maple-soy salmon, for example, was made with gluten free tamari, but a lot of the other marinades do contain soy. Here’s what you can have: the tacos without the crepes, the bahia papaya, daikon and mango salad, the lettuce wrap specials (generally – double check the sauces), the oysters with adjusted toppings, the sweet potato fries, the regular fries and the edamame. And you might luck out on the fried chicken, calamari or another special, if the fried things happen to involve potato flour that night.
Too bad about not being able to have the poke bowl, any of the cod dishes or the carpaccios. But still, those sweet potato wedges…
I’d come here just for the food. But there’s something about salty, crunchy, crispy, strong flavoured food that calls for happy hour, whether you’re ordering a rum and passionfruit blend or not (Note 4: You can get any of the cocktails in a non-alcoholic version if you’re not drinking).
The menu is perfect for snacking. Share dried garlic- and chili-sprinkled edamame. Or better yet, hog the crazy addictive thick-cut, deep-fried sweet potato wedges that come with a better serving of salted chili flakes and a wasabi mayo (the mayo reappears in a couple other dishes too). The skinny russet potato fries are boring by comparison.
On the casual side are the pogos – two battered and fried reincarnations of my wasted youth (above), while the fancier menu options include three tiny slivers of smoked maple and tamari-glazed salmon, cut sashimi-style and plated with lime and cilantro pepper sauce, shredded sweet potato strands and chili oil.
A special that night was crispy skinned salmon on lettuce wraps with wasabi mayo, sprouts and about 3 other things I can’t remember but sent this dish over the top. The next night I went, there was a similar lettuce wrap special with octopus. The lesson is to always get the lettuce wrap special. They’re a bigger serving than the maple sashimi, which is really just a mouthful, and are full of different flavours and textures in every bite. Super impressive that the salmon skin could be that crispy and the flesh not be overcooked at all.
And my very favourite dish was the crispy fried chicken that came with more wasabi mayo and a vinegar slaw underneath but was much better witih the accompanying sweet chili sauce. It isn’t always gluten free apparently, but this night it was fried in potato flour. I could have cried from joy.
I guess I lied about there being 3 notes, because here’s a fifth:
Note 5: the wine list is junk if you’re actually into wine. Skip the Kung Fu Riesling and order a pint or pitcher of beer if you’re not into cocktails. That is, unless you’re really into Kung Fu Reisling. It’ll probably pair just as well as the “Hey Girl What’s Your Name (Jameson, litchi and lavender sour mix, cranberry, tonic and lime juice).
Because with food this good, you shouldn’t be drinking badly.
Here’s the full Kampai Garden menu:
Address: 1616 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal
Phone number: 514-379-6161
Hours: Tues-Sat 5pm-3am