- 1727 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario
- appetizers $6 to $15, mains $19 to $34.
- Good cocktails (including $7 Fernet and Cokes) and a well-chosen wine list with good picks at any budget.
- A spare, comfortable room on an underdeveloped block of Dundas West, with friendly service, woodsmoke in the air, and a fun, Fashion Week –afterparty soundtrack.
- provoleta, salchicha parrillera, endives, sweetbreads, charred carrots, lamb, short ribs, skirt steak, flan.
I'm a live-fire grilling fanatic. It's not what you expect – I do not own a "Licenced to Grill" apron, or one of those "Every Butt Loves a Rub" t-shirts with the perma-stretched gut and the ochreous Frank's RedHot stains (or was it maple hickory sauce?) on the sleeves and collar. The more complicated cooking gets, the more I crave simplicity. No amount of cheffy futzing – and nothing that anybody will ever do with a boil-in-the-bag sous-vide machine – can improve on the taste of great ingredients cooked with skill in the dry, crackling heat of a low-burning hardwood fire.
Which brings me, and happily, to Branca, a casually fashionable new Argentinian-style grill house – a parilla, as South Americans would call it – on Dundas Street West at Lansdowne Avenue. The Argentines, bless them, are obsessed with old-school, live-fire grilling, the way the country's gauchos do it. Branca has gone to extraordinary lengths to replicate that respect for meat and fire.
The place is a project of first-time restaurateur James Bateman, an engineer and former management consultant who's nursed along a love for food since university (he spent six months as a stagiaire cook at Eigensinn Farm), and Kanida Chey, a 31-year-old chef who ran the kitchen at Weslodge and helped open both Patria and Byblos. Mr. Chey's work at Branca is so blunt-force simple, so uncomplicated, that you can forget at times it takes real expertise and specialized equipment to get this sort of cooking right.
In the restaurant's kitchen, they've installed a live-fire grill where Mr. Chey's crew sears thick halibut steaks and skirt steaks over a mix of charcoal and hardwood logs that they chop in the yard behind the kitchen every morning. They dry-fry provolone cheese rounds to gooey and crusted in tiny cast-iron pans, and flash-grill endive leaves so they're crisp and bitter-edged and crunchy still, but also nicely sweetened and smoky from the embers.
Out back, Mr. Bateman and Mr. Chey have installed the sort of get-up that would have all but the most jaded food-lovers panting: a purpose-built cinderblock cookhouse where the chef and his crew splay whole chickens and 25-pound pigs, thick legs of Ontario lamb and fatty, bone-in short rib racks onto tall metal crosses strung with meat hooks. It all looks like some sort of twisted, Iron Age jungle gym – a jungle gym that leans into a hardwood fire.
I loved a lot of Branca's cooking: the skirt steak in particular, which comes medium rare and sliced across the grain so it looks like a big, beefy, salt-flecked barcode, rendered in alternating fiery brown-blacks and iodine-flavoured pink. I loved the five different sauces the restaurant sells for $1 each: particularly the red pepper-based salsa criolla, the smoked eggplant and the deep-green chimichurri that mixes parsley and oregano with oil, garlic and a torrent of white vinegar for kick and refreshingly high-strung lift.
The short ribs, if you've only ever had them braised into sticky, porridge-like softness, or done sweet and super-thin the way Miami folk and Koreans do them, are dazzling at Branca. Imagine one of the most flavourful, if not exactly filet mignon-tender beef cuts, cut thick on the bone, and then grilled slowly so that the smell of wood smoke has imbued their buttery, grassy fat – so that they're just soft enough, but you also have to use your teeth to tear and pull in a way that modern homo sapiens aren't entirely accustomed.
One of the glories of this sort of cooking is that there's nothing for the ingredients or the cook to hide behind. Mr. Chey uses good meat, most of it from Ontario and grass-fed, all of it antibiotic-free. The only seasoning of any note is salt, which Mr. Chey stirs together with water and then paints onto the meat at 30-minute intervals, using a bunch of rosemary sprigs as his basting brush.
The meat here tastes like really good meat. But that glorious simplicity is also Branca's handicap. The kitchen hasn't yet been able to nail down any level of consistency with its grilling, so that some nights the chicken is crisp-skinned and dripping with juiciness and other nights it's dry enough that you need half an order of that chimichurri to get it down. Though I haven't had the restaurant's suckling pig – it's available only on Fridays and Saturdays at the moment – I've heard credible reports that it, too, can be dry at times, which is the last thing you want from fire-roasted suckling pig.
And I've had mixed experiences with those short ribs, also, melting one night, gristly in spots the next. They're a wickedly difficult cut to get right when your only tools are time and fire and a heavy steel crossbar. "Simple" and "easy" are entirely different things.
This is a problem, certainly – a problem that a kitchen with just one job should get to fixing, quickly. But I have to admit that in the moment, over good wine and well-made caipirinhas and excellent side dishes and big platters of fire-grilled meat in a room that smells just enough like maple smoke and sizzling flesh, the inconsistency didn't bother me so much.
It could be the warm, relaxed space itself, which Mr. Bateman converted from a former three-storey semi, with a tasteful modernist's touch. (He lives on the top floor.) That block of Dundas West in particular is empty most nights; there's a Money Mart nearby, and next to the restaurant, a parkette and an auto garage. When you walk in off the sidewalk, seemingly from nowhere, the room is filled with just about every sort of person, and they all seem happy and surprised to be eating pretty good and in some cases unbelievably delicious fire-grilled Argentine food in a converted house near the Lansdowne No Frills.
Mr. Bateman has hired well. His floor staff aren't cool. They're nice. Which is perhaps the greatest form of coolness. I'd like to encounter more un-cool nice servers. It's a steakhouse that feels like a backyard barbecue, but with really good music, too.
And inconsistency aside, the winners can be captivating: The super-mild veal sweetbreads one night, beloved in Argentina, done here so they're crisp-shelled on their outsides, butter-basted and sizzling, and nearly custard-creamy inside, hit hard with lemon juice. Or the lamb leg, the best piece of lamb I've had in the city in ages, rich-tasting and coursing with lamb juices and just subtly gamey, crunching with fire-hardened bits.
The Argentinian desserts – dulce de leche panqueques, a light, glorious flan that's most mostly whipped mascarpone and raspberries – are excellent too.
A food writer friend of mine who's spent a lot of time in Argentina looked at me one night in the middle of dinner at Branca, and sighed, contentedly. "Screw sous-vide," he said. I nodded – hell, I might have grunted, even. And then I dove back into that lamb leg.
Up with simple.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of people's minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.