Type of food: Argentinian inspired bistrot/grilled food
Addr: 374 Ave Victoria, Westmount
Phone: (514) 303-4123
Lavenderia is the Argentine style bistrot of Antonio Park. I am a long time fan of Antonio and do have fond memories of some of his best dishes. A simple scallop bathed in a dashi-based bouillon was a world class highlight of a meal at his (other) restaurant Park. It sounds line nothing special, but plenty of very ambitious Chefs around the world have hard time pulling off the sort of texture and dazzling taste that scallop boasted .Not every dish, during that meal, did dazzle, and the meal ended on uninspired notes in comparison to its spectacular beginning , but the scallop proved that when Antonio is in his prime, he can be counted among the very best cooks of this city.
Recently, he opened an Argentinian inspired bistrot in Westmount. What followed were impressive reviews from local food journalists: the critic from Le Journal de Montreal raving about an exceptional parrillada completa (assortment of grilled items) , the critic of the Gazette showering the place with ratings as high as her ratings of the better Chefs of this city (Lenglet, De Montigny), the critic of La Presse was not impressed by the service (actually the highlight of my visit, btw) but floored by the originality of the menu (sorry, but grilled meats,ceviche, tamal, empanada nah…that is not that original. That is normal Latin American food).
Fortunately, for us living in North America, Argentinian food is not a mistery. It would take a very close-minded person to find this type of food that unusual (especially in a cosmopolitan city like Montreal) as you do not have to travel all the way to Argentina to get an idea of how their food tastes like.
I started with :
Tamal of duck, okra, crema con salsa — clearly they want to put the emphasis on quality produce, as their duck is one from La Canardiere, a high end type of Quebecois duck. I am all about quality produce, but most ethnic food does not require the use of high end /fancy meats because…however great is your meat, well… the reality is that the cooking methods found in the big majority of ethnic cuisines (slow cooking/mijotés) will end up with food tasting great regardless of the quality of your meat . It is as simple as ABC: take a cheap quality of meat and let it cook slowly for hours. Then buy some top quality meat and do the same…the end result will be the same (actually, oftently, when compared to their luxurious examples, some of the supposedly poorer quality ingredients are even more exciting in mouth…) unless you try to force your imagination otherwise. The tomato sauce is one of which someone not familiar with Argentinian sauces would expect more flavor, but this is one legit example of Argentinian-inspired tomato sauces, so done properly, the tamal was a refined version of its more traditional renditions, the execution good, the okra was also of fine quality. Good 7/10
Then the fabled ‘parrillada completa‘ (assortment of grilled items, for eg sausage,beef, couple of veggies, chicken, etc – the choice of the items is left to the Chef’s discretion in this instance) that you can only order for two persons. From my understanding of the review of the critic of the Jounal de Montreal, he had his grilled meats served in a plate but he saw nearby tables with their grilled meats laid atop a table top grill which felt and looked more exciting to him. So, I requested the table top grill as the idea appeals to me too (think of Japanese/Korean restaurant food that you grill at your table -whether it is built into the table or laid atop a table top grill, the theme remains the same ) but things turned out to be very different from what should be expected: the table top grill was empty,no charcoal, no fire, just the grilled meats atop. The point of leaving a tiny grill on a table is to enhance the dining experience with the warmth of the fire, the fun of picking the food from the heated grill.I understand that in Quebec, the laws make it hard to do that…I understand that the setting of this restaurant is not designed in a way to allow the experience of table top grilling…..BUT then, again, why bother proposing a table top grill??? If your grill is not meant to serve any purpose, you may as well leave the grilled meats on my plate! But the parrillada completa’s disappointments did not end there: the chicken was of the very tiny type, and worst..only half of it was served!!! Which I naturally found frustrating as the parrillada completa is a serving for two persons, btw! This was contrasting with the notion of generous portions of meats that are typically associated with Argentinian asado cooking . I do not care how luxurious that chicken was (it was of good quality, indeed) as only its taste matters! It tasted good, but it won’t be hard to find tastier chickens in town. Same thing for the beef, pork chop, sausage: objectively good, tasty BUT I can get equally good ones at a fraction of that price, right here, in Montreal,cooked by Latin Americans (too bad the few Argentinian restaurants we had in town have closed by now, but their asado cooking dazzled more than what I was having on this evening). 6/10
Queso fundido (melting cheese) con Arepa (flatbread) – The cheese of good quality, its effect in mouth enjoyable but I had more exciting queso fundido cooked by Argentinians right here in Montreal (most people would argue that there is a limit to how exciting melting cheese can be, as it’s generally always tasty anyways,and this one I was sampling was tasty, indeed, but you still can suprise your host with this simple dish, as, in this example, it would take some cheese that our local palates are not used to in order to get to the necessary exotical dimension that such dish would benefit from). With the cheese came a refined rendition of the arepa (the arepa –not pictured — was actually the best food item of my meal as its refinement took nothing away from the best aspects of most traditional versions of the arepa, meaning that it tasted as delicious and was executed really well). In my subjective and imperfect assessment, a 7/10 for the queso fundido, 8/10 for the arepa.
Pan de naranja con truffas de café – a sponge cake with some orange jam atop, a coulis of chocolate and some whipped cream.The advertised coffee flavor of the truffa barely noticeable. For me, not really a restaurant quality dessert (the overall was as uninsteresting as you would imagine a piece of basic sponge cake/some orange jam/some chocolate truffle and coulis as well as a bit of whipped cream could be — there are certainly some Argentinian desserts that fare much better than this ) ,especially at those prices and reputation. I can understand that this is a $9 dessert, but in the context of a ‘high end meal’ bill…..even a $9 dessert needs to live up to the expectation. Afterall, at way less than that, plenty of ethnic-inspired desserts are mouth watering many palates. 5/10
Pros: I loved the service, the cool and festive / recreative atmosphere, the fact that the meat is grilled to order (the minimum that one should expect from grilling meat at a restaurant, indeed, but which a frightning increasing number of eateries in town seem to have forgotten about…).
Cons: (1)A bit pricey for what it is. It’s the problem of most restaurants, in town, nowadays…their staff thinks that the top quality ingredients are enough to boost the prices, but hey..we are not in Tokyo or on the Mediterranean coast here!!! We are in Montreal, and however good is your produce, it is never enoughly good to justify its price tag! (2)The absurdity of leaving an inactive tiny grill on my table …cry for me Argentina! (3)quality produce is good, but in the context of ethnic cooking..it is just an excuse to charge more!
Overall food rating 6/10 I am a fan of Antonio, but that is no excuse to rave when there is no need to. I know how good his performance can be, but this meal I just had at Lavenderia can’t speak to that. The flaws of this meal are really not hard to understand: ethnic food relies a lot on slow cooking, so why bother with quality produce?? Whether the meat is from Jupiter or planet Mars…guess what…it is slow cooking….therefore not much of a difference in its end result!!! Furthermore, right here in Montreal, the ‘asado’ spirit and flavor…eventhough we lost most of our Argentinian eateries…we are not that unfamiliar with it. So, if you want to take that path,`make the flavor as exciting …if not better…especially if you are going to charge me more for it!
What I think days later: Our local food jounalists,my preferred critics included, should travel a bit more outside of the common destinations which food is already familiar to most Westerners (France,Spain, Italy) and/or to foodies (Denmark), or at least get some ethnic food prepared for them by grandmas/grandpas of the country which food they are reviewing. From there, they will be in a better position to assess the revised/contemporary takes of offerings like these (At Lavenderia the cooking is generally a contemporary take on some Latin American food items). I am not even a critic, I am just sharing my dining experiences with relatives and friends, and yet it takes me years of familiarizing myself with a specific cuisine before I feel comfortable to share my opinions on it. I therefore do expect more diligence from so-called professionals. That said, my perceived flaws of this meal are easy to iron out: the appeal of Argentinian asado grilling is to be found in its bold beefy / meaty aromas, but what I was having was some nicely refined grilling. Rest assured that I am not expecting a Latin American style eatery, in Montreal, to replicate the flavors found in Latin America (in some parts of Argentina, they roast their beasts alive as it’s supposed to enhance the flavor of the meat…obviously,you can`t do that in Canada – so keep such important details in mind before trying to compare what can’t be compared). I am just expecting this kind of food to simply match what’s already possible to find in the western world (In Canada, the US, Europe …. plenty of Argentinian style eateries have been able, for decades, to convey a better sense of the bold beefy / meaty notion associated with Argentinian asado grilling ).