Branca, the Argentine grill house, is the best new restaurant on Dundas West

Branca, the Argentine grill house, is the best new restaurant on Dundas West

The best new restaurant on Dundas West is an Argentine grill house called Branca—a hedonist’s dream of woozy cocktails, swish service and perfectly charred slabs of meat

The Critic: Branca From left: Branca chef Kanida Chey slow-roasts whole suckling pigs over a smouldering pit in a fire-brick hut behind the restaurant; Argentine shrimp
Branca ★★
1727 Dundas St. W., 416-519-8165
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For a couple of years in the early 2000s, I shared an apartment on the Brazilian strip of Dundas near Dufferin, which felt like the middle of nowhere, nary a Starbucks for miles. Every so often, I’d awake to the sound of drag-racing Civic hatchbacks. Dundas West always seemed ­gentrification-proof. Only soccer bars, auto garages and funeral homes thrived. Today the street is so trendy it’s surpassing Queen in DJEBs (deejays, espressos and beards) per block. Somehow the neighbourhood’s roughness has become a virtue—the decaying storefronts impart authenticity to a speakeasy-style bar or a Japanese streetwear boutique.

Of the dozen or so restaurants that have opened there in the past year, the best is Branca, an Argentine grill house in a converted semi that sits next door to a gas station. Some of my all-time favourite Toronto dining destinations have occupied houses: Chris McDonald’s long-gone Avalon, in a Victorian on Adelaide; ­Barbara Gordon and Bob ­Berman’s Boba (also departed), marooned between offices on Avenue Road; the still-great Auberge du ­Pommier, built from two fieldstone workers’ cottages in Hogg’s Hollow; and Edulis, on Niagara, which is like stepping into a Catalonian countryside inn. The only clue that Branca isn’t someone’s home is the pink neon sign in what used to be the living room window. Inside, past the natty bartender stirring pisco sours at the five-seat bar, there’s a narrow ­dining room with white oak floors in an elegant herringbone pattern, marble-topped tables (a few too many crammed together—it’s difficult to avoid knocking your neighbours’ wine glasses as you slip out) and a vaulted ceiling painted a glowing gold. When it gets busy, which is most nights, it’s like attending a well-dressed dinner party.

Kanida Chey, Branca’s 31-year-old chef, isn’t from Argentina and admits to never having crossed the equator. That news will be damning to strict traditionalists. I don’t believe you need to be French to cook frog legs, although it’s peculiar to encounter an Argentine restaurant in Toronto, where they’re relatively rare, without a national at the grill. Chey, however, is something of a savant in gastro mimicry. His Cambodian mother fled Pol Pot and arrived here when he was a year old. He became obsessed with cooking while growing up near the St. Lawrence Market, then studied at George Brown and apprenticed in the catering kitchen at North 44, back when the uptown restaurant was at its starriest. He cooked at Claudio Aprile’s Colborne Lane, a veritable chef hothouse, alongside Matt Blondin (who went on to do brilliant things at Acadia). He helped open Aprile’s Origin before he was snatched away by the restaurateurs Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth to serve as culinary director of their three showy restaurants, the saloon-themed Weslodge, the Spanish tapas room Patria and the Middle Eastern–Mediterranean spot Byblos. In short, he’s a quick study.

The Critic: Branca Kanida Chey makes clever Argentine bar snacks like empanadas filled with roast pork, potatoes and sultanas

Branca’s owner is James Bateman, a trained civil engineer and management consultant who’d become a fan of meaty Argentine cooking on trips to Buenos Aires. He’s a restaurant virgin, though you’d never know it from Branca’s smooth operation. Bateman equipped the kitchen with a parrilla—a coal ­barbecue upon which Chey grills a lemony and herbal pork sausage; well-aged, rosemary-scented skirt steak; and a gargantuan, 12-ounce slab of Alaskan halibut, with the bone in for extra flavour oomph. On my last visit, the fish had spent a few minutes too long on the grill, which wasn’t a problem once it was slathered with one of the house ­condiments—a fiery harissa paste, roasted garlic mashed in olive oil, an oniony salsa or a traditional chimichurri.

Bateman, making use of his engineering background, also designed a free-standing fire-brick hut behind the house, where Chey experiments with the al  asador method pioneered by ­Argentina’s roaming gauchos: he slow-roasts ­chickens, whole suckling pigs, short ribs and lamb legs on stakes over a smouldering pit. (He and his staff begin each day by chopping cords of cherry and white oak.) I especially liked the thick short ribs, self-basted under a cap of smoky fat, and the suckling pig, which is served four ways on a wood cutting board: twists of chicharron, a slab of silken belly, pulled threads of shoulder and a single exquisite ­medallion of juicy tenderloin.

Backyard barbecue geeks will obsess over this stuff. One night, my dinner date, a Weber smoker devotee, paused every few bites to stifle little moans.

The Critic: Branca Roasted short ribs (top); Grilled Alaskan halibut (right); Branca’s (bottom)

Dozens of Toronto restaurants are offering huge portions of meat slow-cooked over wood-fire pits and fancy barbecues. Even Victor Barry at the Harbord fine dining institution Splendido is using a Big Green Egg smoker in the alley behind his kitchen. But Chey’s stiffest competition comes from Mata Petisco Bar, another South American–themed place that opened on the western edge of Parkdale last summer, just in time for the World Cup (they held viewing parties). Mata’s kitchen is run by Felipe Faccioli, Tulio Lessa and Patrick Fraser, three young chefs who met at Salt Wine Bar and the excellent ­Portuguese restaurant Chiado. They specialize in Brazilian and Peruvian takes on shareable bar snacks. In their version of poutine, they pile pulled pork, glazed with a guava barbecue sauce, over super-sweet cassava frites. They stack sliders with caramelized onions and garlicky, grilled picanha patties—that same ­Brazilian rump cut of beef that churrasqueria waiters usually present at the table on a sword-like metal skewer. Mata is also one of the few places in town where you can order organic chicken hearts, which they smoke for an hour over pecanwood, batter in corn flour, deep-fry, and serve in a salad of pickled fennel and baby kale. The hearts are densely meaty and laced with woodsmoke ­flavour—posh chicken nuggets.

At Branca, Chey prepares his own clever bar snacks, like his two-bite empanadas, buttery pastry filled with more of that suckling pig, duck fat confit potatoes and sultanas soaked in licoricey Fernet Branca (the restaurant’s namesake). He grills curling, pimentón-brushed octopus tentacles until the tips are gorgeously charred. And he tracked down an elusive Toronto supplier of wild-caught Argentine shrimp (they’re incredibly sweet, closer to lobster), which he pickles ceviche-style and plates prettily with crema, microgreens and peppery, paper-thin radish rounds. In most grill houses, sides are an overpriced afterthought. Chey spoils us with roasted heirloom carrots served with dollops of earthy chèvre, charred endive dressed with a champagne vinegar ­gastrique and a heaping bowl of perfectly crispy sea-salted shoestring fries tossed in clarified butter that I finally had to ask a busser to take away before our already overextended belts snapped.

Chey’s desserts are largely traditional and unfussy, which is heretical when so many chefs are still preoccupied with “compositions”—desserts deconstructed into powders, crumbles and foams, plus a shard of shattered something, all artfully splattered across a plate as if by Jackson Pollock. Chey serves an eggy flan with fresh raspberries and honeycomb, as well as a cheese board (usually loaded with Quebec blues and chèvre). The simplest option was the standout: Argentine panqueques, gossamer-light crêpes as good as anything you’ll get from a Paris takeout counter, wrapped around spoonfuls of dulce de leche, plus a dollop of unsweetened chantilly cream studded with salt flakes and nasturtium petals. They were a little old-fashioned and as pretty as they come, a dessert Mom would try making on a Saturday in the late ’80s, from her New Basics Cookbook. The kind of dessert that’s all the more delicious in a converted house.