Restaurant Raza Rocks Taste MTL
There are only a few more days to take advantage of affordable prix fixe menus as some of the city's best restaurants as part of Taste MTL. At nuevo-latino (and BYOB) restaurant, Raza, Chef Mario Navarrete Jr.'s four-course $39 offering combining Peruvian, Cuban, and modernist elements is a great way to subtly edge away from the, albeit delicious, vortex of traditional and contemporary French restaurants in the city. It's like dipping your toes into refreshing lime and chili-infused waters.
Originally from Peru, Chef worked at Daniel and Cafe Boulud, so he comes by his French cooking chops honestly. He keeps elements of different countries' culinary traditions neatly tucked into separate courses, thereby avoiding shiver-inducing fusion disasters.
No better way to start than with ceviche:
Scallop ceviche, hibiscus jelly, red onion, avocado blobs
You've probably never seen a thin slice of hibiscus jelly in your ceviche before either. The tradition version of the Peruvian dish is served with boiled sweet potatoes, fresh hot yellow peppers, and bland, tender white fish to balance the sour of the lime juice marinating the raw fish. The mouth-puckering citrus is the perfect way to whet the appetite. But here Navarrete Jr. thinly slices creamy sweet scallops sashimi-style. Picasso-influenced avocado blobs add nothing , and I miss the heart-racing effect of the chili peppers, but the floral and tangy hibiscus jelly hits a sweet note.
Some may find the lime juice too pungent, and prefer the other appetizer option: a starch-heavy Cuban black bean soup.
Black beans Cuban soup, Pork flank, red onion salsa
The super smooth black bean soup, poured artistically into the bowl, needed a lot more pig, and a bit more sliced onion and cilantro. But if it's hot comfort you want to start the meal, this is it.
Poached cod, Peruvian bouillabaisse sauce, Yukon gold potatoes, Quinoa and fresh Andes cheese
Traditional Peruvian ingredients, quinoa and boiled potatoes, combine with a gentle chili-based sauce (dubbed "Peruvian bouillabaisse" but it sure isn't soup-like) and perfectly seared (though unsustainable) cod filet. Black caviar and coiled zucchini strips in the home-style comfort food dish are a step in the prettied-up international fusion direction, and would be more forced to stay in one country by a wider moat of bouillabaisse...
Better are the perfectly tender chili-spiced short ribs with sweet potato mousseline (pictured above).
Don't worry about the chili; you can't taste it. Sure, they ran out of baby onions and forgot to ask the mothers to get frisky, and the raw mushrooms were a weird stand-in, but it's all about the beef, and these short ribs were stellar. That's an immersion circulator in the open kitchen, so the short ribs were probably cooked sous vide - plastic-sealed, long and slow - giving optimal results. Short ribs shouldn't be so tender they fall off the bone, but they shouldn't be tough either, and these were perfect, with a thick glaze and an addictive sweetness from the sweet potato purée.
Immersion circulator under microwave in Raza's open kitchen
The other other modernist toy in the kitchen is an Anti-Griddle. Maxime Bilet, former head chef of the Modernist Cuisine lab in Bellevue, Washington says this grill pan that freezes on contact instead of searing (instantly frozen pancakes; custards; and desserts where you want a warm interior and cold exterior) isn't going to last. It's gimmicky, and when we asked the server how often it's used, he said he's only seen it used three times in year he's worked at the restaurant. So, not so practical, but it's cool in a chef-y way:
Anti-griddle being used for practical purpose: It's a shelf
And for "desert" (as says the Taste MTL website):
Caramelized banana mousse, coffee crumble, dehydrated peanut butter
Well, the menu was almost right. Instead or dried fruits and honey crisps, it's a caramelized banana mousse with coffee crumbs, dehydrated peanut butter and strawberries. My gluten-free, dairy-free dessert was just as interesting, though. Thanks to calling ahead to inform the chef of dietary restrictions and make sure it wouldn't be a problem my gluten-free, lactose-free "desert" didn't even involve sorbet or a dreaded variation on fruit soup!
Caramelized banana, dehydrated peanut butter, strawberry mousse and strawberry coulis
It was basically a peanut butter, strawberry and banana sandwich without the bread. Playful, comforting, cool, and smile-inducing. The dehydrated peanut butter is an intensely flavoured peanut powder or soft crumb whose oil turns creamy as the strawberry mousse collapses in your mouth. The strawberry coulis wasn't overly sweetened, so the whole thing was light and airy, though the peanut butter definitely made it rich. And the banana at the bottom balanced the tang of the strawberries.
Definitely worth checking out if it's still possible to get a reservation this weekend. If not, here are some other picks. And a few more.
114 Laurier West
How much: $39, BYOB