Toronto's Tanto fuses elegance and innovation
Queen West restaurant expertly mixes Spanish, Italian and Argentine flavours and influences
A young cook backpacks through South America for the first time and upon his return home, he starts a new restaurant inspired by the things he ate on his voyage.
Such a story would make many chefs vulnerable to accusations of culinary tourism (a misdemeanour charge in the food world) or worse yet, cultural appropriation (a felony). But Julian Iliopoulos, head chef at the Argentina-inspired Tanto restaurant, has steered clear of both with original cooking that references traditions yet transcends borders.
Mr. Iliopoulos makes clear that he only visited Argentina once for a few weeks in late 2016 and has no familial ties to the place. Tanto is not meant to be an authentic reproduction of Argentine food or the common parrilla – the rustic steakhouse that is a dining staple there, serving piles of char-grilled meats accompanied by cheap malbec wine. Instead, Mr. Iliopoulos serves elegant and innovative dishes that pull together Spanish, Italian and Argentine flavours and influences . Situated on Ossington Avenue, a strip that often favours style over substance, Tanto is a rarity that scores high on both.
The recently opened room marks Mr. Iliopoulos's first venture as a head chef. He previously worked at Spanish tapas joint Cava for four years until 2016, when he was tapped by its owners to start a new restaurant. (Cava is run by the Peer to Peer Hospitality Group that also owns French bistro Chabrol and Moroccan restaurant Atlas in Yorkville.)
He accepted the mission, quit his job and travelled for several months to get inspired.
After touring the United States (where he worked a short stint at two-Michelin-star Atelier Crenn in San Francisco), he moved on to Mexico and much of South America. When he reached Argentina, he was impressed.
"I didn't know a whole lot about Argentina going in," he said. "But one thing I saw is that it's a melting pot of cultures in a similar way that Canada is."
The country currently looms large among Toronto chefs: Tanto is the third Argentina-influenced restaurant to open downtown in the past year after Lena and Ama, and the most subtle in its references. Case in point: There is not one Argentine malbec on the wine list.
Argentina has a varied cuisine that extends beyond steak and empanadas. There are stews from the highlands, fish from the coast and influences from Spanish and Italian immigrants – the latter are especially common in urban areas where pizza, pasta and tortillas (of the omelette kind) proliferate.
Mr. Iliopoulos's cuisine is a synthesis of his own European heritage, Canadian geography and Spanish restaurant experience.
He's no slave to authenticity, although he knew he wanted to include one Argentine mainstay: the live-fire grill. (Argentina is, after all, home to Francis Mallmann, the celebrated chef who believes everything is better cooked over open flames .)
For a first-timer with fire, he's a quick learner with a deft touch. It's trendy among chefs to use live flames, and it's easy to overwhelm with smoke and burnt food.
But Tanto's grill, fuelled by a mix of hardwood and charcoal, is used to kiss ingredients. Almost every protein and vegetable spends some time on the grill, but smoky flavour never moves into the foreground. Even lettuce and cabbage get exposed to fire, adding a harmonic bass to the flavour chord.
The menu is divided into bar snacks, medium-priced seafood and vegetable dishes and higher-priced grilled meats.
Tanto is best experienced like Spanish tapas – order many, share and eat with wine. The bill will escalate quickly, but there's little quibble about value – the food here is adventurous and satisfying.
Bread ($6) is a small dome of a crusty sourdough and comes with a ramekin of whipped beef tallow, which tastes like butter and steak. The smoked ricotta emapanadas ($7) are small dumplings, about three bites worth, and are deep-fried rather than the usual baked. The dough is light and the cheese gets just the right amount of smoke.
Mr. Iliopoulos's talent really shines with the small handful of seafood dishes. Raw albacore tuna is thinly sliced and dressed with salsa criolla, a tomato-and-pepper-based sauce that typically accompanies grilled meat but actually fits perfectly with fatty tuna.
Grilled squid is the standout, full of flavour and varied textures. Squid, a bit smoky, is cut into eight pieces, accompanied with a garlicky, crunchy burnt-almond pesto, slightly acidic pickled chanterelle mushrooms and small crispy strips of pancetta. This is not Argentina; this is Toronto: South America and southern Europe synthesized into a bite that tastes like something you wouldn't find in either. At times, the strong garlic and mix of crunch and chew give the dish an Asian inflection. Culinary geography is flouted. Who cares? It's delicious.
Mr. Iliopoulos's call-out to Argentina's Italian diaspora is unusual, too. His leek noquis (gnocchi), little fluffy dumplings made with grilled leeks instead of potatoes, come with hen of the woods mushrooms and covered with melted Taleggio cheese. It's unlikely you'd see this tasty, decadent dish on a menu in Rome or Buenos Aires.
Tanto sources excellent beef from Penokean Hills Farms, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. The chef forgoes typical steak cuts, offering instead bavette and short rib. The bavette is tasty and slightly chewy, grilled to our desired medium-rare and seasoned correctly.
The thick short rib, a cut that is typically reserved for braising, is cooked sous-vide for two days before it's grilled on fire. It's well blackened with a crusty exterior, but a bit too soft in the middle. A day too long in the sous-vide? Still, the flavour is excellent.
Niall McCotter, a partner in the restaurant's ownership group who is also overseeing the dining room during Tanto's launch phase, compiled a wine list that, on my visits, had only one Argentine bottle – a white riesling. The reason: He buys wines from small, independent agents; Argentine wine exported to Ontario is dominated by mass producers who sell large quantities to the LCBO.
Instead, he stocks bottles such as Domaine Karim Vionnet's Vin de Kav, a beautiful natural wine from France's Beaujolais region, and Bodegas Valdesil Montenovo, a neat, tight white from Spain's Galicia. All the wines sampled paired well with the food. Trust his suggestions.
With the bar set so high after successive dishes, desserts feel like a bit of a letdown.
The milhojas – an Argentine version of the French mille-feuille classic – is the best of the lot, sweet and rich, as it should be. The other desserts – a poached pear and a coconut tres leches cake – could be sweeter. It's a whimper ending after so many successful dishes.
Desserts aside, there were no other apparent kinks. The restaurant just opened in December but service is smooth and prompt, and the kitchen is cooking confidently with ideas. Mr. Iliopoulos is rewriting the culinary map here, using Argentina as a starting point but going to many other places along the way. Follow his lead and you'll eat well.