Restaurant Review: Why I ordered a $140 steak at Branca, the hottest table in town


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The skirt steak at Branca

Image: CJ Baek

Who gets away with selling a steak for $140 in hipster west end Toronto, and why do I order it?

Because Branca is still the hottest table in town, and their meat is really fun to eat, even at that outlandish price.

It’s an Argentinian grill: the Argentinian tradition is to cook over a live fire of hardwood and Argentinian lump charcoal, which imparts a bit of a smoke undertone to the meat along with a charred crust that’s kissin’ cousin to crispy. Rather splendid.

So splendid the South Americans are flocking to the sweet room with loden green velour banquettes, marble tables and cute jungle print wallpaper punctuating brick walls. One can easily ignore the few culturally appropriate but esthetically unfortunate stuffed deer heads.

And it isn’t only the grilling that wows at Branca. The kitchen is in superb control of starters, from house-made ricotta to empanadas. The ricotta comes in a sweet little cast-iron frying pan, warm, fluffy and anointed with chili, garlic and boutique mushrooms in enough oil to seduce. The empanadas are divinely crisp and ungreasy, stuffed with sweet corn, oozing provolone and herbs. We’re also fond of tender octopus marinated in pimenton and served with lemon garlic potatoes and pickled mustard seeds, and crunchy tostadas for scooping house-smoked mussels spiked with serrano pepper and smoked aïoli. This is a serious kitchen.


Charred octopus (IMAGE: CJ BAEK)

 

The best deal in the house is the supernal skirt steak, studded with coarse salt and grilled hot and fast for a sexy char on the crust and a ruby red juicy heart. Served sliced, it’s perfect for sharing. To get away cheap, add an order of their uber-crisp skinny fries for dipping in the three charming house salsas: chimichurri, pasilla chili and salsa criolla (traditional salsa made with peppers, onion and tomatoes). Lamb skewer is the other good deal here: $24 for fast-grilled big hearty chunks of tender lamb, pink in the middle and crunchy on the outside.

About the $140 tomahawk steak: It’s a 30-day dry aged bone-in rib-eye; it comes sliced for sharing, perfectly cooked and seasoned, the bone a crispy treat for gnawing. Is it worth the price tag? It’s not better enough to make me do it again.

Since Branca is all about the wood-fired grill, eggplant comes carefully balanced on that knife-edge between charred and burnt, which is a great favour to do for a vegetable that needs all the help it can get. 


The interior (IMAGE: CJ ​BAEK)

 

Rescoldo onion is the trad Argentinian onion cooked in the fire’s hot embers, its edges charred, its heart soft and mellow. 

I would, however, not use my spare calories on either crepes stuffed with dulce de leche or chocolate mousse with burnt marshmallow. Both are fun but a tad sophomoric.

Which everything else at Branca is not. This is a sophisticated restaurant with comfort to spare and a very sharp kitchen.

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Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine. Follow her on Twitter @JoanneKates.

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