Branca is an Argentinian grillhouse located on Dundas West at Lansdowne, well past the bustling stretch of new restaurants extending westward from Ossington. It's easily identified by three-foot letters that read "PARRILLA" (which means barbecue) spanning the exterior of the converted residential building.
The 34-seat bistro is owned by first time restaurateur James Bateman, who worked in kitchens throughout his youth before studying civil engineering and art history. What differentiates him from other noobs I've seen before is that he also apprenticed at Eigensinn Farm with Michael Stadtlander - just to get that perspective of where food comes from.
Bateman gets design credits, too, for totally gutting the property, adding big modern windows, installing recessed ceiling lights, and positioning some cheeky illustrations around the room to keep things light.
When it came time to enlist a proper chef, the hiring process serendipitously reunitied him with a grade-school friend, chef Kanida Chey, who was most recently Chef de Cuisine at Weslodge , Patria and Byblos . Chey employs authentic South American grilling techniques here at Branca; I'm expecting very rustic fare, and yet, when it comes to the starters, the presentation is surprisingly very nouvelle.
First up: a very pretty Spanish-influenced plate of pulpo ($14) - octopus and confit potatoes - along with traditional Argentinian entrada (apps) like warm provoleta ($7), a mini skillet containing a gooey, melted disk of provolone cheese served with grilled Portugese bread.
The main attraction is the selection from the grill; meats are cooked on temperature-controlled, V-shaped grates over hot embers that are raked under from an indirect fire built to the side. Even more unique is the al asador-style BBQ, which sees whole pigs and legs of lamb cooked on a spit over open flame in a dedicated BBQ hut located out back.
The skirt steak ($19) is an 8oz inside cut, seasoned and char-grilled over controlled heat to reveal a beautifully-blushing centre once sliced. Served solo, it deserves a few add-ons like the bright, garlicky chimichurri ($2) and an order of crispy thin frites ($5).
On Friday and Saturday nights, the best bet is to order the Chanco Al Asador ($34), a board featuring four fine cuts of suckling pig, including supple spit-cooked loin, fat-striated belly, tender shoulder meat and blistering, fried chicharrons.
For $2, you can add on condiments like the marinated salsa criolla, roasted eggplant or harrisa; same with sides $5 each) like burnt carrots topped with fried carrot fronds and goat cheese, or rice with black beans and fried garlic chips. Considering it's portioned to share, it's not as pricey as I thought at first glance.
At the bar, you'll find classic cocktails plus a brief list of Latin-inspired drinks like pisco sours ($14) and caipirinhas ($9). The house fave (as you might guess from the name of the place) is Fernet and cola ($7). Beer taps are unmarked, and there are only two choices: blonde or amber, sold 20oz at a time for $5.
When it comes to the wine list, Bateman tells me that Argentinian bottles would have been the obvious choice, but being partway through the sommelier course at George Brown, he's discovered there are better options out there. Instead, he's assembled a list that "just goes really good with BBQ-ed meats". Bottles start at $40, while selections by the glass range from $9 to $14.
Branca is open Wednesday through Sunday from 6pm. The side patio is set up to seat 40, but is licensed for 108, which can be booked for private cocktail receptions - the only thing is, it's not yet paved, and the gravel floor is killer if you show up in heels.
Photos by Morris Lum.