The dearth of friendly, independent cafés in the Golden Square Mile has always surprised me. Though slow advances are afoot – first Kafeïn, then Myriade and most recently Humble Lion – this thriving, thoughtful, studious hub remains more or less the stronghold of Chain Coffee.

Throw in the proximity of cultural havens such as the Musée de Beaux-Arts and the corporate coffee epidemic seems even more puzzling.

That’s why I was delighted to happen upon Café Aunja, new inhabitant of now-defunct Galerie Mazarine on Sherbrooke St. W., just a block from the main entrance of said Musée. I stumbled on it by mistake the first time, charmed in off the cold street by colourful furniture and brick walls (Disclosure: I’m a sucker for both).

Cafe Aunja © Valeria BismarA cool café? I wondered breathlessly, in the midst of all these stuffy galleries? 

I couldn’t have known then that the juxtaposition was, well…not exactly intentional. According to co-owner Majid, Aunja was conceived as something of an extension of the Musée itself, a friendly “space for artists.”

“We thought about all the things we like to experience when we go to a café,” he mused, a skilled artisan himself. “Then we made it.”

So Saturdays are performance nights and space is allotted for artists to sell work. There’s the obligatory vintage sofa, shelf of dusty books and mismatched chairs—de rigeur for any artsy café.

But Aunja is no l’Éscalier—at least to my eye. There is a strong sense of authorship, a precise aesthetic, a sense that the space, perhaps more than the menu, is “curated” just for pontificating…or creating.

I like that. As a (sometime) writer, I’m definitely biased. But it’s my kind of place—with a vibe that might be described as a nearby blend of student-run Café X and chic Olivier Potier—in other words, equal part sketchbooks, hushed conversation and modest elegance.

Cafe Aunja © Valeria BismarSpeaking of curation—there’s more. A roundabout conversation about the décor (which also includes stacks of National Geographics, startling black-and-white portraits and even an “antique camera museum”) unearths the fact that even Aunja’s furniture is detail-driven .

“We made these tables by hand,” Majid says, grinning.

The co-owners of Aunja—a “circle of friends” in Majid’s words—were warm, welcoming and refreshingly forthcoming on every one of my visits. My questions (whether about tea, history, or the menu) were often met with modesty, bright smiles and generous anecdotes.

Hamed Masoumi, another part-owner (pictured below), received with delight one of my coffee companions’ memories of his travels in the owners’ native Iran. I later found out that Masoumi is also the photographer behind those exceptional wall portraits.

Majid chuckled at my sense of awe. “We made this countertop, too,” he said, tapping the rich mahogany espresso-counter.

Though Aunja specializes in teas, a small rotating menu of soups, salads and sandwiches are just enough to keep a creative type cocooned away from big, cold, traffic-laden Sherbrooke West.

And though I am not enough of a coffee aficionado to really rate it against giants like Myriade, Pikolo or the Humble Lion, my few forays into short espressos certainly seemed spot on.

So I leave you with this truism—which is especially à propos with the looming winter— a “cool café” is all about what you make of it.

Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar
Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar
Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar

Café Aunja is located at 1448 Sherbrooke West.

Photos by Valeria Bismar.

Vegetarian dish from Cuisine Szechuan

I like spicy food. I like it a lot. I like it so much that once in Thailand I spotted players from Sriracha’s District Football Club (yes, such a fantastic entity exists) from across an airport and then tracked them through the terminal building in order to snap fuzzy, stalkerish photos of logos on their navy blue jackets.

Despite such interest in culinary heat, I’ve always felt a foreigner amongst wing-guzzling pepper fanatics who see fiery food as a competitive sport. To me, there’s a good reason why spicy cuisine has never found its way to the Olympics. It’s because it’s not an event; it’s a subtle art.

One region might be known above all others for mastering such fiery arts: the mountainous province of Sichuan, China. And though many Canadian-Chinese restaurants offer dishes with “Szechuan” in the name, very few can legitimately lay claim to its complex (and very oily) lineage of heat.

But we Montrealers are a rather fortunate bunch (if slightly clueless). Many years ago, we were blessed with one of the first – and still possibly best – true Szechuan restaurants in Canada. If you’ve missed the diamond in your midst, now is the time to take a quick hike up the hill from metro Guy-Concordia and be absolved of your Canadian-Chinese food-eating sins.

Cuisine Szechuan (2350 Guy) is the stage for expressive and addictively-hot works by Norman Fei Peng and Andy Su. A semi sous-sol half-buried under a salon and flanked by a Botox clinic, its nondescript demeanour belies some pretty ferocious offerings.

An example: the chili beef (#64), an aromatic kick to the jaw that startles in its balance of heat, crunch and acidity. To say it wakes the mouth up is a happy understatement. So, too, does Peng’s famed cumin chicken explode most Westerners’ preconceptions of what cumin can be made to do.


There’s a reason, I mused while picking flaming peppercorns from my teeth, that local culinary god (and Jamie Oliver business-partner) Derek Dammann voted Peng his coup de coeur of all Montreal chefs, admitting his Cuisine Szechuan cravings had become so violent and unpredictable that a lack of chili beef actually caused noticeable swings in his mood.

Cuisine Szechuan is the real deal. But a few tips to the wise (ie, non-competitive): don’t imbibe the whole bowl of leathery-skinned peppers unless you want to relive that post-root canal experience of a frozen, senseless maw.

Chef Peng, who was out waiting tables the two times I visited, told me that Canadians have only recently crossed the threshold to embrace “non-Canadian Chinese food.” He warned me that more (and real) Sichuan peppers, including both the flower and peppercorn, would combine with increased oil to result in the lively flavour profiles that have been part of Sichuan life for centuries.

Though the fiery chili-flaked beef is indeed legendary – a must try for any self-proclaimed foodie in this town – I can’t neglect highlighting the real surprise gem of any CS experience: the plants.

I’m not usually a fan of vegetables in North American Chinese restaurants – they’re often drowned in oversweet sauce or, if left “bare,” coated in oddly-unpalatable grease. I’m even less turned on by tofu – regardless of the nation preparing it. So imagine my surprise when not one, but two tofu plates from the vegetarian menu hit notes nearly on par with that fiery beef.

You wouldn’t expect the Juicy and the Ultra-Spicy to be perfect bedfellows. But then you taste that thick, chili-laden
eggplant-and-tofu, laced with oozing (yet slightly crunchy) green beans – or the famous Spicy tofu plate. Embraced by this Szechuan kitchen, tofu might just find a new place in your heart…and your grandmother’s beloved string beans will begin to seem like dry bamboo.

Oh, and one final tip: there’s a reason Mr. Peng urges you to order extra rice (and fills your water glass ten to eleven times). Believe me: just follow his lead.

In short: don’t wait until your next Botox appointment to visit the less-than-charming southwest corner of Guy and Sherbrooke. Cuisine Szechuan is cheaper, tastier, and a hell of a lot more rejuvenating.