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Camelia (des tropiques)
Corner of Queen Mary and Cote-des-Neiges

Address and hours to be determined. Tel.: 738-8083
I'm dreaming. An agate sea meets an azure sky and I lie on the white sand beach. A wave laps in from under the brassy sun and on it is a banana leaf, green, curled and inviting.
The wave deposits the banana leaf at my feet in the sand, and on it is a tropical melée of feastable items: shrimps, pink and porcine, lemongrass, stiff and fragrant, rice noodles redolent of cilantro, chilies and garlic. But suddenly the dream takes on a nightmarish quality—a bay window overlooking an unrelenting snowscape, mired automobiles, harried passersby shielding faces from a cruel wind.

Happily, I awake to realise that the dream is the reality and the winter nightmare is, though also reality, far removed from this little slice of paradise that I've found myself in.

Camelia, subtitled "Le Camélia des Tropiques," occupies a corner of a forgotten block of Côte-des-Neiges that used to house a Moroccan caterer. You can still see the words "traiteur" burned in above Camelia's happy yellow awning.

In Montreal, one usually doesn't expect much from a Vietnamese resto—the usual soups and tired imperial rolls.

Camelia is different. The room is classy and refined. Mozart filters through the sound system. Bone-black ribbed chairs with comfy cushions seat you at square, paper-topped linen-clad tables. There's a panoramic view of the sorry winter landscape through the vast bay windows at the front; all the better to revel in the 40-degree cuisine in the dining room. Camelia has been here only a year and a half, but it's obvious by the experienced kitchen that there was another incarnation of it elsewhere.

You're greeted with a complimentary plate of oversized shrimp chips. "Can I bring some of these back to Japan? They're great," asks a Japanese companion. Only if you want to put food-giant Glico out of business.

There are a goodly array of choices here, but not so much as you begin to doubt the chef's ability to carry them out.

Curries, noodles, soups, and a great choice of seafood, including grouper.

The table d'hôte offers soup or appetizer, main dish and then dessert followed by coffee or tea, at prices ranging from $14.50 for Crispy Noodles (beef, chicken or vegetarian) to $21.50 for Pan-fried Shrimps in Hot Sauce.

Rest assured, however, that you're not going to get some tired, watered-down version of that fabled southeast asian taste explosion that you imagine when you think the words "Vietnamese cuisine." This is it, baby. No holds barred on the cilantro, garlic, galangal, lemongrass and nuoc mam—they should be locked down and under taste-arrest for violation of Montreal winter spice-bans. Or something like that. I know I'm only making sense to veterans of tropic shores—taste pirates, if you will.

Sample the crisp spring rolls, greaseless and shock-full of spicy pork and carrot-studded vegetables, served on a bed of lettuce and cucumbers—dip them in a pungent, fishy nuoc-mam or fiery chili sauce (available on request).

The soup, be it beef or chicken Tonkinoise, is a taste-bomb of cilantro, clear broth, ginger and garlic, fairly bursting with perfect noodles. This is the "phõ" as in "To die phõ."

The main course, in my case diced filet mignon on a bed of watercress, grilled onions and red pepper, was fabulous, arriving on a sizzling, smoking platter, of a perfect medium-rare doneness. The only puzzling thing on this occasion was that the waiter begged that the "rice wasn't ready—ready in five minutes!" He was such a cool guy, though, all was forgiven.

The rice, when it came, was magnificent, infused with coconut and deliciously toothy—perfectly cooked. My companion's "fresh fish" table d'hôte turned out to be a large breadth of salmon served on a banana leaf. Guano is extra.

Dessert was mango ice cream—instant transportation to a tropical beach, including three slices of the real thing. The green tea version is available—but why bother?

Service was carefully and beautifully understated; a bit of laxity pursuing the bill would be my only complaint.

Sample menu: Mekong duck, shrimp curry, sauté of beef in lemongrass, ginger chicken in hot pot, sweet and sour Grouper, duck sautéed with cashew nuts, table d'hôte with choice of soup or appetizer, main course and dessert with coffee or tea, $14.50-$21.00.

Reviewed by Nick Robinson

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