Every now and then an experience at a restaurant completely blows my mind. I’m eat out at least three or four times a week and while many of these experiences are pleasant, there are those that are completely forgettable. From the get-go every restaurant has the potential to dazzle but its what they do with that potential that makes all the difference. For my third visit to L’Atelier d’Argentine in Old Montreal I was pleasantly surprised and it all started with an unexpected invitation to join executive chef Natalia Machado for a meal at her chef’s table in the restaurant’s kitchen.
When it comes to a restaurant’s potential to dazzle the last thing on my mind are gimmicky tricks or smoke and mirrors that mask shortcomings. For me I am most impressed when the food is simple yet expertly prepared and presented, when the service is honest and human and all of this should be wrapped in a decor that makes me feel welcome.
Our night out at Atelier d’Argentine as a two-pronged affair. It all began with a cocktail tasting upstairs with several bloggers and other VIP guests before we were escorted to a dinner showcasing the restaurant’s meats that are now imported from Argentina. I was with Veronique, Caroline and Vincent and we went expecting to be seated in the restaurant’s beautiful dining room. I think it still one of the city’s most inventive and entirely unique dining spaces. The chef had other plans for us. When we finished our cocktails we were escorted to the chef’s table located adjacent to the kitchen downstairs. We turned heads and we took to the stairs and upon arriving at the table we were greeted warmly by Natalia and her team.
Natalia passionately spoke about what drives here as a chef in Montreal, her influences and of course her native Argentina. As you can imagine, having meat imported from South America isn’t without its fair share of red tape. The risks were high but in the end its the customers who win because each cut of meat has distinct flavour and how she prepares it allows it to shine without any sauces to cover it up. The ingredients are simple, the passion is reassuring and the result is dazzling.
We started things off with a glass of champagne and opened our appetite with some empanadas (fried, not baked – just the way I like them) stuffed with braised beef and onions and Bunuelos (fritters) filled with spinach and fontina cheese, served with a wonderful roasted garlic mayo. The main event came shortly thereafter when a platter of five, perfectly cooked steaks arrived at the table accompanied by polenta fries and watercress salad. The steaks included bavette, hanger, sirloin, rib-eye and skirt steak. They were flavourful and topped only with a little sea salt that helped bring out the flavour. We capped things off with a little flan for dessert and Natalia dropped by our table once again to make sure everything was to our liking.
With everything she has on her plate; running two restaurants, raising two kids, filming the second season of a TV show on Gusto, I don’t know how she does it but she does it with a dazzling smile that makes it all look easy.