MONTREAL – When dining out, many enjoy partaking in that delicious pastime known as “cuisine de voyage.” The idea behind this expression is that instead of plunking down a grand on a plane ticket to say, Tuscany, one can happily saunter over to, say, Graziella for a taste of Tuscany through the rabbit pappardelle. Yearning for Paris? Then head to L’Express for a pot-au-feu. Hankering for some nouveau Peruvian? I highly recommend the ceviche at Mezcla.
But what if you would like a taste of Argentina, the featured country of the last Montréal en lumière festival and the homeland of the new Pope? Why not, for there are a handful of Argentine restaurants in our city, chief among them the swish new L’Atelier d’Argentine.
Located in the chic Old Montreal space that last housed DNA, this 9-month-old restaurant is run by the group that owns Newtown and Decca77. Early reports weren’t too promising, yet right before the Montréal en lumière festival, Argentine chef Natalia Machado was brought into the fold. Just the sight of her on the restaurant’s website in a black satin shirt holding massive steaks had me salivating.
When one thinks of Argentine cuisine, images of slabs of grilled meat devoured by gauchos on starry nights come to mind, followed by those of polo players quaffing caipirinhas … Buenos Aires beauties sipping coffee … picnicking schoolchildren nibbling empanadas … tango dancers licking dulce de leche off each others’ necks. Get the picture?
When fantasizing about Argentine cuisine, I also always think of El Gaucho, that late great Mountain St. restaurant. A creation of famed ’70s restaurateur Louis Tavan, the restaurant was lauded for its costumed waiters and traditional Argentine fare — especially the spit-roasted meat revolving in its front window. El Gaucho closed before I was a teenager, yet no doubt it was Montreal’s first great Argentine restaurant. Could L’Atelier d’Argentine be the next? I booked a table to find out.
Those familiar with the former DNA’s decor will recognize the east side of the room, which hasn’t changed much. The west side has, though, with tables in place of what used to be a lounging area filled with orange couches. The restaurant was sparsely populated and the few tables occupied appeared to be filled with tourists.
Three menus were placed in front of us: food, wine, and cocktails. I tend to ignore cocktail menus, yet as this one is so extensive, I gave it a glance. There are classic cocktails as well as more modern ones like the “Pedro,” the “Evita,” and the “Speedy Gonzales,” a mix of rum, lime and energy drink. As I had no intention of vacuuming my entire house when I got home, I opted for a classic caipirinha, along with a mojito and pisco sour for my friends. All were excellent and we sipped away, enjoying their summery flavours on a cold winter night.
The menu includes a series of appealing starters, side dishes, grilled meats (beef), and extra main courses that range from roasted chicken to spinach and ricotta gnocchi, which isn’t as odd as it sounds because Italian cuisine is big in Argentina. To get the ball rolling, we began with the “bunuelo de espinaca,” spinach and fontina cheese fritters served with roasted garlic mustard. Extremely delicate, these fritters are more on the bitter greens side than cheesy, and the potent mustard adds an extra punch of flavour. They’re very good and quite different than anything I’ve tasted before.
Next came a quartet of empanadas filled with beef, smoked paprika, fontina cheese, caramelized onion, corn, ham, bacon and provolone cheese. Each pocket, a three-bite wonder of fine flavours, was light and flaky. Frankly, I would have preferred two classic empanadas over four smaller ones, if only to get a better feel for the fillings, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.
Last, we enjoyed the “tamal del norte,” a tamale filled with a corn salad enhanced with red onion and jalapeno peppers. The whole was topped with braised short ribs that were a bit chewy, which is unusual for braised meat. Again, there was a certain fuzziness with the flavours in this dish that would have been sharper with acidic element to punch up things.
For our mains, we selected two steaks — a sirloin and a hanger — as well as a roasted rock cornish game hen. As for sides, we chose an excellent watercress salad sprinkled with parmesan, and some garlic- and herb-enhanced french fries that looked and tasted as though they were fried too far in advance.
The sirloin was good, juicy and grilled to the requested medium-rare. Though far from the best steak I’ve had in this city, I enjoyed it. The hanger steak, less so. Tough and overcooked, the steak didn’t have much going for it taste-wise either. Thank heavens for the accompanying chimichurri and criolla sauces to zuzz up the flavours.
The roasted hen also underwhelmed. Topped and stuffed with a mixture of smoked bacon, sweet potato, basil and capers, the bird sounded promising. Yet when slicing into it, I found the flesh itself tough (especially the leg meat), lacking succulence, and not all that tasty. The stuffing made up for some of it, but still half the dish went back uneaten.
Just when we needed them, desserts provided some nice surprises. The “panqueques” consisted of rolled crêpes filled with dulche de leche, honey-roasted walnuts and caramelized bananas served with a square of milk semifreddo. Yum! No further description needed. That South American classic, flan, was like a richer and thicker crème caramel, but in this case, the caramel was enhanced with coconut. And a dessert listed as “almendrado” turned out to be a large chunk of vanilla ice cream, topped with almonds and served with chocolate sauce. I considered licking that plate clean.
L’Atelier d’Argentine’s wine list is filled with South American (mostly Argentine) bottles, many of them private imports and fairly priced. I love a good, meat-friendly malbec, and there are plenty of them here. Though I found his manner a little abrupt, our waiter did well with his recommendations.
And as for my recommendation of this establishment? I’m on the fence. Yes, there were faults in the food, but doggone it, I liked being here. I guess what I enjoyed best was just eating something different. Mind you, it was steak/frites, but it was different steak frites. Sadly, it didn’t quite meet my fantasy-meal-in-Buenos-Ares expectations, but my tastebuds embraced the adventure just the same.