Address: 114, ave. Laurier West, Montreal
Type of cuisine: Contemporary take on casual Peruvian cuisine
Dinner on Tuesday June 17th, 18:00
Phone: (514) 227-8712
Recent reviews: Restaurant Mercuri, Bar Mercuri, Le Serpent, La Chronique, Jun I, L’Européa, Sushi Yasu, Kyo, Peter Luger, Kam Fung, Firegrill, Patrice Patissier, Raku, Au cinquième péché, Au Pied de Cochon.
Last review before submitting this web blog to a long summer/autumn break (the activities of this blog shall resume in November).
One of my all time favourite Chefs, Chef Mario Navarrete Jr has opened Restaurant Callao (opened yesterday June 16th to the medias, June 17th being its official first day of operation to the public so I went paying a visit on June 17th). In my view, Chef Mario Navarrete Jr has the skills of any of your favourite 2 or 3 star Michelin star Chefs out there. On this evening, he was at the helm and what had to happen, happened: a dazzling meal all way through. Chef Mario Navarrete Jr came in the dining room and talked to his patrons, on this evening, and when my turn came we had a very honest discussion. He explained that he is around for about one month, the time his staff masters everything he expects from them. He understands that it is never easy for one cook to replicate the exact touch of another one, so he wants his cooking at Callao to be approachable, easy to replicate by his brigade so that a good standard is maintained. We also covered the subject of the foodie scene in Montreal: again, I was upfront with him, telling him what I really had in my mind. I told him that he could be a culinary god in some cities abroad and that I do not think that the foodie scene in Montreal can really appreciate what he is doing. Of course, as humble as ever he invited me to better appreciate the local scene, but politely listened to my suggestions. Listen, I never hesitate to praise Quebec wherever I find it accurate: they have the best singers of the globe, the best artists, and Quebecois are the most fun Francophones you’ll meet, BUT its foodie scene is CRAP! Yes, CRAP! When a wanna be cook who can’t even cook a risotto properly is praised like a god by most food journalists while a real Chef with word class talent is overlooked, when your foodie scene does oftently that kind of silly mistake, then let’s call a cat a cat, it’s called CRAP (do not worry: I love Montreal, I just do not understand how laughable cooks who can’t even cook properly some rice are praised like gods)!
Chef Mario Navarrete Jr cooked the dishes of this evening, so naturally the level of amazement was very high. But before I start reviewing this meal, I have one friendly reminder for the kitchen brigade that will soon have to perpetuate Chef Navarrete Jr’s initiative at Callao: seize this beautiful opportunity to learn from such giant Chef, folks! Seize it! Whatever the food actuality is trying to make us believe, there are not many Chefs of Chef Navarrete Jr’s calibre in town anymore. Mark my words….
I went back two days later, on Thursday June 19th, with my wife (the review can be found at the bottom of the current report)
First, the review of Tuesday June 17th, 18:00 meal ->
Abadeche fish, Huancaína, cherry tomatoes – Top quality ingredients will persist through the entire meal, so Abadeche fish was packed with fabulous oceanic flavor, served as a ceviche, the citrusy marinade coming straight from very skillful hands as expected from anything crafted by Chef Mario Navarrete Jr. Huancaína is a typical Peruvian sauce consisting of yellow aji amarillo chile peppers, queso fresco cheese, milk, garlic, onion. The sauce featuring superb refined texture, its taste exciting (it was mixed with tigre de leche, which is basically the citrusy sauce that comes with ceviches, but obviously one of the exceptional type) . A world class Ceviche (the brigade will need to focus seriously on plenty of little details if they want to replicate this dazzling dish — as I keep repeating ever since I discovered the cooking of Chef Mario Navarrete Jr, his craft is so impressive in dazzling details that most Chefs would just catch half of his symphonies ;p) 10/10
Scallop ceviche, hibiscus, samphire, passion fruit – I had passion fruit served with scallop ceviches served to me, many times, even by very ambitious kitchen brigades but rarely meshing this well. Again, plenty of little details that the brigade will have to remember: first, Chef Mario Navarrete Jr explained that he had to turn down plenty of top quality passion fruits till he gets to the right one he needed for this dish. Then the scallop: again, he had to thoroughly select it, so that it had the ideal sweetness his palate deemed opportune to match the chosen passion fruit. Clearly, there’s no secret to great cooking: it’s a communion between a creator and its ingredient. How do you teach that to a brigade? I have no clue, but they will have to find a way, lol. Say whatever you wanna say, think whatever you wann think. but at th end of the round that is what real top level cooking is about: personal touch, a communion between a Chef and its produce, tremendous skills, all proper attributes of this dish (the top quality fresh U8 scallops from New Brunswick complementing excitingly the passion fruit). Another superb dish. 9/10
Tiradito, ginger sauce, soya, drops of sweet potato mousseline -Tiradito is a sort of carpaccio, this time using salmon. The quality salmon being a highlight, the judicious seasoning (the oriental ginger/soya sauce superbly accomplished) another one, but the drops of mousseline of sweet potato blew me away. In my tender childhood, there’s a mid-eastern complex and exciting (for my taste, obviously) sweet potato purée flavor that was very popular where I grew up. I have rarely stumbled upon sweet potato creations as dazzling as those of my childhood, but this one was up there, trading head to head with those, so I asked what it was made of: the sweet potato was mixed with orange, Cinnamon, aniseed. Bingo: those of my childhood had those exact components. This, for my taste, is what I perceive as a benchmark sweet potato purée. 8/10
Potatoes, eggs, Huancaína sauce, olive oil powder, blue potatoes, aioli – Ah the aioli….so easy, that is what every Chef says in town and yet, and yet, and yet….here’s a benchmark one with texture and precise work of the flavor that I have rarely seen in town. Again, crafted by Chef Navarrete Jr on this evening, so not a surprise for me. The huancaina sauce continuing its fabulous demonstration of top level balanced flavor/texture, the olive oil powder technique simply superb, the quality potatoes simply boiled and not seasoned proving a point: when ingredients are of top quality, when they are skilfully handled, well….you do not need salt to mask their natural expression..they just express themselves beautifully. If you think that what I just wrote is geeky BS, then think twice! And more, if needed. For sure, if you look at this dish as just potatoes and aoili, you’ll miss the point as plenty of culinary prouesse are left to be admired by an eye for details. Sharp sharp skills and an impressive understanding of how to handle beautiful produce. 8/10
Octopus, black beans purée, beet emulsion, queso fresco. The quality octopus brilliantly braised, its chargrill flavor spot on. The beet emulsion technically, texturally and flavorfully perfect, re-affirming what I have always maintained: Chef Mario Navarrete Jr silky skills can trade head to head with this globe’s finest Chefs. Only the black beans purée suffered from a personal resistance, that has nothing to do, obviously, with the kitchen: I had so much black bean sauces / purées , etc throughout my entire childhood that I can’t appreciate it anymore, but objectively that purée was done as it should, smooth and creamy as it can get (though, if you are familiar with black beans purée, you won’t fail to observe that it tends to dry out easily. It is its NORMAL condition. I take time to mention this kind of stuff because I see too many people who assess food without proper understanding of / familiarity with the nature of the ingredients they are talking about ) , its taste as great as the taste of great black beans purée gets. Very good. 8/10
Lomo saltado (hanger steak, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions) – A contemporary take on the classic Peruvian lomo saltado. Dish as simple as this (sautéed hanger steak and veggies) depends a lot on what I call the personal witty touch as well as palate of whoever cooks it. Chef Mario Navarrete Jr personal witty touch could be amply appreciated throughout this dish as the meat was profoundly delicious, the seasoning exciting, the veggies beautifully sautéed retaining a nice enticing crunch and their natural flavor expressing themselves in a startling way. Here’s a superb proof that classic cooking can be revised in an exciting way with no need of futuristic hallucinations. Furthermore, the obsessive great sourcing is to be admired as even a simple onion is of the fine sort. Excellent 9/10
Salmon, Coriander/beer aguadito, carrots – Superb quality salmon, cooked to perfect firmness/to tenderness balanced consistency, the taste great. Aguadito is a a sort of Peruvian soup, on this instance a mix of beer and coriander, its texture rendered fabulously here. The vegetables cooking continues to showcase sharp skills in keeping the crunch of the ingredients vibrant in mouth. We are a world away from the tired looking sautéed vegetables that sadly plagues our restaurant scene. Easily a benchmark salmon-based dish by Montreal finest restaurant standards. 10/10
Quinoa crust, Quinoa pudding, Chantilly, Chocolate ganache: I like this dessert because a spoiled palate will overlook plenty of superb details you certainly won’t find anywhere else in Montreal. First the quinoa crust. Easy hein? Well, no, not at all. Certainly not as fresh tasting and precisely textured as this. Quinoa pudding, easy hein? Just milk with Quinoa? Well, yeah, we all know how to make a Quinoa pudding, for sure, but how many can make its milky taste as dazzling as this one? Well, not many. The technical prouesse went on with a superb choco ganache of flawless quality as well as a Chantilly pertaining to ambitious pastry standards. So it’s really a showcase of superb technique, sharp skills, exceptional understanding of flavor combinations that led me to elect Chef Navarrete Jr as one of my all time favourite Chefs and this dessert epitomizes just that. 10/10
Service: Good balance between coolness and professionalism
Wine pairing: Plenty of nice discoveries by the glass, on this evening with numerous inspired pairings with examples like a glass of 2011 Domaine des Entrefaux-Charles et Francois Tardy Crozes-Hermitage which leather tone balancesd so well with the chargrill octopus dish, a 2012 Gini Soave classico which elegant sweetness matched well with the passion fruit/scallop ceviche.
Pros: A Chef of world class skills. It’s a priviledge to get to enjoy the food of one of the last true skilled Chefs of this city.
Overall food rating (meal of Tuesday June 17th, 18:00): 10/10 by current Montreal finest International cuisine restaurant standards, for this evening’s meal. Benchmark cooking by Montreal standards as expected from anything that comes from the hands of this superb Chef. But as I wrote, and Chef Mario Navarrete Jr is clear about it: soon, his brigade will take over at Callao. There is no doubt the brigade will do well and hopefully they can replicate or get as close as possible to Chef Mario Navarrete Jr’s cooking. No pressure, just a wish.
Conclusion (meal of Tuesday June 17th, 18:00) : A meal to never forget!
Next, review of the meal of Thursday June 19th, 18:00 ->
Impressed by the first meal, I went back two days later, on Thursday June 19th, 18:00 with my wife. I am of the honest/straightforward/down to earth type (when it dazzles, I see no reason to not express it enthusiastically; when it does not, you will clearly know) as I believe in honesty as the only way to be constructive. So as ever I am upfront with my ratings, which I find to be the best way of (subjectively, of course) conveying the level of excitement sensed by my palate. The ratings of the two meals (reported in current post) are not trading on the same level, I’ll admit, but that does not mean that one meal was bad and the other was good. To the contrary they were both of good standard (by Montreal international cuisine restaurant standards) in their respective categories: the second meal is more representative of the casual dining philosophy (his contemporary twist on casual Peruvian cuisine, to be more accurate) that Chef Navarrete Jr wants from restaurant Callao (in the sense that the dishes were less complex in depth of taste and technique) , whereas the initial meal was deeply rooted in formal dining (flavor combinations and technique were more elaborate as it’s common with fine dining fares ) . Furthermore, it will be accurate to understand that (1) both meals were sampled two days apart, therefore it’s normal that the dishes are almost the same, (2) that such exceptional meal as the earlier one is not easy to repeat , actually virtually impossible without the help of novelty (again, it would be utterly naive to expect the effect of surprise to impart its influence in the course of meals enjoyed two days apart). Now, on with the review of the second meal – the dishes are virtually the same as on the initial meal, so needless to re-post the same photos over and over. I’ll stick to some pics here and there::
Abadeche fish, Huancaína, cherry tomatoes - on this evening, the fish’s seasoning unbalanced in comparison to its Tuesday’s version as it was frankly too salty this time. The rest (huancaina sauce) as good. Certainly of good level by any Montreal restaurant standard, though,for me, less remarkable (compared to what I had on Tuesday) . 7/10 for me, 9/10 for my wife who did better appreciate it on this evening (for eg, the unbalanced salty-ness that did bother me was not a problem at all for her).
Tiradito, ginger sauce, soya, drops of sweet potato mousseline – For my taste, the drops of potato mousseline, on this evening, were less impressive in texture and taste’s sophistication (mainly just sweet potato) than the one I had on Tuesday (those on Tuesday had orange, Cinnamon, aniseed added to the sweet potato), though still delicious. The salmon I found more vibrant in taste on Tuesday, most likely because of the more expressive marinade, though, again, this is of good standard, the flesh fresh and its quality irreprochable. 7/10 for me, 8/10 for my wife (my wife was in a ceviche/raw fish craving mood at the time of this meal, and she did not partake in Tuesday’s dinner, therefore your interpretation of my perception of the food Vs hers needs to be synchronized to that reality) . At this point, it became clear in my mind that the current meal was going to be about what Chef Navarrete Jr expects from his restaurant Callao (rather than his complex fares of the precedent meal): fares that are easier for the brigade to replicate and that better represent the theme of restaurant Callao (their contemporary twist on casual Peruvian cooking ).
Octopus, black beans purée, beet emulsion.- Almost as identical as its version of Tuesday with only the octopus a tad less impressive in texture (on Tuesday, I could really sense the nice chew so typical of octopus, whereas on this evening it was slightly leaning towards the mushy consistency, though not mushy, just leaning towards it. It’s tough to reproduce the exact same precise texture with octopus, so I am just pointing out what my palate did sense, but rest assure that most ppl would not notice that slight difference and that the octopus was certainly tasty). Perhaps another little quibble, though again nothing severe, would be the observation that the char-grill flavor seemed more present on Tuesday. The rest (beet emulsion, onions, black bean purée) as flawless as on Tuesday. 7/10 for both my wife and I .
Stuffed potato came with a filling of hanger steak’s minced meat , the seasoning exciting, the taste delicious, the accompanying drops of ink squid as well as the ‘splash’ of avocado/ chlorophyll simply flawless on my plate (an amusing observation, so really not a quibble, far from that, is that I suspect that my ‘splash’ of avocado/ chlorophyll was made by Chef Navarrete Jr whereas his brigade did the one of my wife as the former had glamourous and precise ‘splashy’ lines, whereas the latter looked like a splash that refused to look like a pretty splash ;p ) . They roll the potato mixture in corn flour instead of bread crumbs, which lends (for my taste) more exciting flavor. A successful contemporary and updated take on the Peruvian papa rellena, one I suspect was crafted by Chef Navarrete Jr himself as not many Chefs can pull off the sort of precise exciting flavors that was shining through that croquette (yes, hanger steak tends to be more exciting on the palate than filet mignon, to take an example, yes corn flour add an extra layer of surprise as it’s not usually used for potato croquettes, but it takes a great palate and sense of food flavoring to truly bring all of that into such enjoyable bite. 8/10 for me, 7/10 for my wife (she’s not a big fan of potato croquettes in general, consequently the details that jumped to my attention were less evident to her, though she still found this to be very tasty).
Other dishes we had were the salmon (picture on the left, or at the top of current text, depending on your web browser’s display settings) which came with the same good aguadito (Jean-Francois, our waiter, explaining that they are using Jamaican red stripe beer for now, but that their intent is to use local beers – their aguadito is a blend of beer and coriander / there was also couple of chives flower completing the salmon course, those flowers are indeed a perfect alternative to chives as they really taste of chives….it’s with ingredients like this that we better understand that food seasoning can do really well without the usual chemically-transformed seasonings that we depend on, and some drops of aioli) that I had on Tuesday, the fish nicely cooked though less spectacular than two days ago (7/10 for both my wife and I), Scallop ceviche/hibiscus/samphire/passion fruit (6/10 for me – on Tuesday, I was seduced by the exciting oceanic dimension as well as expressive natural sweetness of the scallop, in comparison both the bold taste of the sea as well as sweetness were a tad less expressive on this evening, the passion fruit fine enough but not meshing superbly with the scallop as it managed to do two days earlier , but my wife found this good enough 7/10 as her rating), then hanger steak/potatoes,/carrots/tomatoes/onions (the meat as superb as on Tuesday, its medium rare doneness truly underlining the flavorful character of this cut, 8/10 for both my wife and I, the onions sautéed al dente as it’s the way Peruvians usually prefer their onion as explained by Chef Navarrete Jr. I already knew this as I eat a lot of the food of the Mums and Grandmas of my Peruvian friends, but this is good to share, indeed, as some cultures prefer mushier textured onions. I have always maintained this: when people assessing food talk about textures, they really really need to make an effort to inform themselves about the intent/customs behind the cuisine they are enjoying as we, especially foodies from the West, tend to hastily assess food of other cultures with Western expectations…best way to be inaccurate! ) as well as the Quinoa crust/Quinoa pudding/Chantilly/Chocolate ganache (as dazzling as on Tuesday, in my view. A 10/10 for me, a 8/10 for my wife).
By now, I have dined at many Peruvian friends whose mothers and Grandmas have tried to replicate as accurately as possible (of course, within reasonable limits: they are using the ingredients they have here) the flavors of their beloved Peru and it’s clear in my mind and for my palate that Chef Navarrete Jr has an exceptional memory of such flavors as he perpetuates them within his contemporary take of Peruvian cooking. When his brigade will take over, soon, all they need is to do just that: ensure they, in turn, have a tight grasp on the great flavors inherited by past generations. From there, however crazy you want your food to be, you’ll most likely get it to shine beautifully.
Overall food rating for the meal of Thursday June 19th, 18:00 : 7/10, for me a 9/10 for my wife, by current Montreal finest International cuisine restaurant standards, . It’s fair that we have both my wife’s and my opinion as it better showcases the subjectivity of food appreciation (her 1st time here at Callao, my second time in only 2 days of interval, the virtually impossible task to repeat an exceptional feature day after day – there is simply no kitchen in the world that can do that, etc). What matters to me is that Callao has already a clear identity: they are offering Casual Peruvian dining with their own contemporary twist and where the initial meal was spectacular, the second one did compensate with a demonstration of what lies ahead -> it will be casual cooking, with their own twist, approachable but with care and refinement of course.
Conclusion for the meal of Thursday June 19th, 18:00 : Technically, I should remove the report of the initial meal and just keep the write-up about the subsequent one as I think the latter will be more representative of what lies ahead (meaning the cooking will be more approachable/simple/casual/less complex than what was on display during the initial meal ) , but I can’t read in the future (lol) and keeping the initial review is a way to appreciate that Chef Navarrete Jr hasn’t lost his Genius touch. So, this second meal will be, indeed, easier for the kitchen brigade to replicate (technically less complex than the initial meal), which is the intent so that a good standard is maintained, regularity ensured. I am a hardcore fan of Chef Mario Navarrete Jr’s personal explosive cooking touch, but a restaurant is first and foremost a platform to reach out to the most, therefore it is perfectly understandable that the cooking is made approachable. Wine by the glasses are reasonable by local standards (in between $8 to $14 whereas it starts at $12 at most restaurants), the service charming (Jean-Francois and Alexandra, the front house staff of this evening, applying so well the good standards of hospitality I came to expect from Chef Mario Navarrete Jr’s establishments ), the restaurant cozy, its interior decor simple but elegantly bathed in wood, glass, and warm colors. The prices can be found on their online menu (here). I shall be back!
What I think a week later (June 24th 2014) : A welcoming and refreshing new addition as it adds variety to a local restaurant scene that is relatively conservative (most openings in town seem to have the same recurrent keywords at heart: steaks, lobster rolls, tartares, isakaya, tapas). I am confident about the ability of the brigade to thrive well with the cards that Chef Navarrette Jr laid on the table.
Wishing a happy summer to all of us! Shall be back in November.