Bold Latino flavors have been thought to be the next big thing for a while now. While Mexican food has indeed become one of the central pillars of North American cooking, the other sources of the flavors of most of the Americas have yet to take the continent by storm. There are, however, a number of chefs and restaurants that manage to extend the reach of these ingredients and run successful and delicious restaurants. Canada, though a land of diversity, is not typically thought of as a bastion of Latino-ism, yet there is at least one Chef/Restauranteur, who has almost single-handedly brought a taste of the Latino world to Montreal over the past five years or so and has established himself as one of the continents leading proponents of Latino inspired cooking. Mario Navarette, Jr., born in Lima, Peru, opened his first restaurant, Raza back in 2007 to great critical acclaim. This was a modernist restaurant with a decidedly Latino (mostly Peruvian) tilt. Since that time, he has opened two more restaurants, Madre, a Latino flavored bistro and Atable, a restaurant with less distinct Latino overtones. Even Navarette, though, has had to adapt to his market. Though the Latino and especially Peruvian influence remains decisive, none of his restaurants are unabashedly and totally Latino. What I discovered on a recent visit to Montreal was a style of cooking that owed a considerable debt to Latino culture and especially that of Peru without being pure Latino.
Raza remains Navarette’s flagship. It is a small, long and narrow corridor of a dining room with a tiny, minimally equipped kitchen, located On Rue St. Laurier on the Plateau in one of Montreal’s trendy residential neighborhoods. The dining room, though cozy, is smartly decorated by Navarette with all of the work in the restaurant done by Navarette and his father. Dining there on a Friday evening, the place was as busy as they could handle, with Navarette doing the cooking assisted by a dishwasher. Up front, there was a bartendress and a waiter. At Raza there is no menu, but one. Navarette serves a set tasting menu that changes depending on the market or his whim. The good news is that his whims tend to be pretty tasty.
My wife and I started with cocktails. Of course, they served a Pisco Sour and of course it was a good one. It had its own style, though, with the egg whites whipped and dolloped on top of the rest of the drink. It came out looking like it was topped with whipped cream.
Served in a similar fashion was a Chicha Martini, my wife’s cocktail. This fused chicha morada a sweet beverage made from Peruvian blue corn with a few different liquors. The result was a dangerous sweet and sour concoction that went down rather easily.The tone of the meal was set by these house made rolls. I don’t need bread during a tasting menu, but if it is to be served it should be worth the effort. These rolls came out warm with a crisp exterior and fluffy center. They were addicting. The combination of wheat and sweet potato flours representing a combining of European and South American ingredients would be a motif repeated throughout the meal. The sweet potato flour provided a hint of sweetness. These rolls looked rather ordinary, but they were excellent.
Ceviche is a Peruvian and Latino staple, so it was fitting that the meal would start off with one (I was hoping it would). This one combined New Brunswick scallops with lime juice, an avocado mousseline, sweet potato purée, rocoto pepper and pepperoncino oil and some herbs. With a little bite at the end, this dish was a clear and tasty nod to Chef Navarette’s Peruvian roots, though using a seafood product with a very local character. Notably missing from the dish was a frequent component in many Peruvian styled ceviches -choclo – the giant Peruvian yellow corn kernels. While they would have added a nice visual touch and perhaps some textural contrast (toasted corn or cancha are also typical in Peruvian ceviches), my experience has been that they simply are not a very good product outside of Peru. The process of exportation drains the flavor and makes the kernels somewhat mealy – at least they did in an otherwise outstanding ceviche at La Mar in NYC. Had they been added, I suspect they would have served as a distraction more than an enhancement.
While not overtly Latino and more closely resembling Quebecois French, Navarette’s mushroom soup, was delicious. It had been lightly smoked with applewood via a “Smoking Gun”, but the three different kinds of sautéed mushrooms (shiitake, king oyster and yellowfoot) all stood out. This fine dish would have been at home anywhere with a sylvan tradition and good mycological sources.There is no cuisine in the world that has been more successful at fusing various culinary cultures than Peruvian with its multiple subtexts taken from its own native ingredients, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, African and other cuisines. This next dish served as a superb example of that success. Yellowfin tuna was seared and served with arepa gnocchi, Peruvian cau-cau sauce, pickled radishes and Parmesan shavings. Navarette took some components from various cultures and created an interesting, unique and quite delicious dish. Gnocchi are an Italian pasta, but Navarette used corn-based arepa flour to make them. Arepas are more commonly associated with Colombia and Venezuela than they are Peru, but the gnocchi proved to be an excellent concoction and a superb part of the dish. Were good choclo available, they might been a component of the dish, but these gnocchi made a terrific substitute. The cau-cau sauce, reminiscent of a curry, added an undercurrent of heat, while there was also an understated, but welcome presence of mint. Like the scallop in the ceviche, the tuna was ostensibly the central element of the dish, but the real focus was on the flavors around it. It is because of dishes like this one that Peruvian cooking always seems poised to take the culinary world by storm.
Navarette is a modernist at heart and nowhere was this more apparent than with this dish – Beef Cheeks with a cinnamon inflected red wine/chorizo sauce, small Quebec potatoes covered with a squid ink aioli, mushroom and sesame dust and a chorizo foam. This dish also deviated from the Latino-ist base of Navarette’s cooking and headed towards Spain, both by using some cooking techniques from the Spanish Vanguardia movement as well as Spanish flavors like the chorizo foam. The potatoes looked like black olives, a trick which once again evoked the influence of contemporary Spanish chefs. The net result was another delicious dish, demonstrating Navarette’s facility with a variety of flavors and cooking styles.The dulce de leche cream was covered by a chocolate/coffee crumble, hazelnut dust and edible flowers. This was a delightful dessert with interesting textures and flavors that called to mind tiramisu. Once again, Navarette was combining multiple influences in an effective single dish. It’s amazing what Chef Mario Navarette Jr. can cook up in a small space and few traditional kitchen appliances. While he doesn’t have a legitimate traditional cooktop, he does have an anti-griddle (we did not sample anything from it) and other Modernist tools. Though he has an assistant to help with a few chores and clean-up, he essentially did all of the cooking himself. This, along with an all-tasting menu program does have a cost, though. Dinner at Raza takes time. It is not a restaurant, at which one should expect to be in and out quickly. The night we were there was moderately busy and dinner took a while. On a busy night, I would expect to wait. That said, the food is worth waiting for. The other weakness of Raza is the wine program, though that is a relative weakness. The South American oriented wines were primarily from the international style of big, oak-heavy wines popularized by Robert Parker. While they worked well enough with the food here and that is the main objective, they are not generally the most food friendly or distinctive wines. While the wine program is not a strength of the restaurant, the food is once again, good enough, to make it a non-issue. Raza is now a mature restaurant and in today’s world, mature restaurants often don’t get the attention they deserve. Raza is not a flawless experience, but it is still a very, very good one that fulfills a unique niche. It deserves attention.