[All photos: Jason Finestone]
Recall everything you know about Argentinian cuisine— hunks of seasoned beef and sweet desserts spiked with gooey dulce de leche, maybe some empanadas? Truthfully, how much do you know about Argentinian food? Not much? Branca is here to enlighten you.
James Bateman wasn't well versed himself before several visits to the South American country. There, he fell in love with a long forgotten style of cooking that's seldom made its way to North America— el asador.
Exemplifying the Gaucho (Argentina's real-life cowboys) style of cooking, large cuts of meat and in some cases, whole animals are butterflied, splayed up on a stake and leaned over a wood burning fire.
"When [the Gauchos] were out on the pampas they would bring lamb, goats or smaller animals along with them," Bateman explains. "After a day of herding, they would butterfly an animal, lay it out on the cross like we do, but instead they'd drive the stake into the ground and light a fire underneath it. We've tried to mimic that in the most effective way possible."
Bateman serendipitously linked up with chef Kanida Chey (Weslodge) through a mutual friend, Richard Andino (North 44, Sidecar). After a bit of Facebook creeping, Bateman admits, "I realized I recognized the guy". Turns out Chey used to go by his middle name, and the two were close friends at The Island Public School. They hadn't seen one another in over 20 years.
Chey and his crew are at the restaurant splitting indigenous Canadian hardwood like white oak and fruitwoods by 10am to build the fire. The first cuts are splayed up shortly there after, where they remain for at least 5 to 8 hours over continuous heat that reaches 400-degrees in "la casa del fuego". The fire never touches the flesh or custom cut 5-inch short ribs and organic Highland Farms pork. The result is succulent, slow-cooked mouthfuls where the intramuscular fat has broken down to baste the meat from the inside. The smokiness is subtle – unlike a pervasive southern US smoke, the el asador style is just kissed by smoky wood flavour.
"Monitoring the el asador is a major commitment," says Chey. The fire is a living thing, if you don't take care of it it's going to die."
Smaller cuts of meat like sausage or their remarkably textured Spanish octopus are done up on the parilla, a v-notched shape grill bar that's angled from back to front allowing fat to render off without sparking flare-ups. The parilla is rigged to a winch that allows the grill to be raised and lowered for temperature control. Embered charcoal blazes underneath for a searing, flameless heat.
The intimate 30-seat dining room with regal, forest green banquettes is meant to balance a fine-dining atmosphere with no airs. The patio outside is licensed for 108 but will likely house closer to 40 or 50 next summer. The space will be available for private parties, weddings, and the like in the meantime.
So what else can you expect at Branca?
Expect the meats to remain staples and the sides to switch up – that's where Chey gets to be more playful. Expect a wine list that will push you to experiment with new flavours. Expect Branca to become a destination at the frontier of the Dundas West dining strip. Prepare to come hungry and expect to leave with a full-bellied understanding of what Argentinian cuisine can be.
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