Lena Restaurante (Toronto)

Just try to resist digging into the hot plate of crab cazuela ($14) as soon as it arrives - it will be hard, but trust me, patience is worth it. Instead, make sure you have another small plate to nibble on first, while waiting the requisite five minutes.

Looking back, I should have reached for one of the gaucho empanadas ($13) instead. Supplied to Leña from Susana, Chef Anthony's wife, they’re good, if it weren’t so heavy on the olives. Otherwise, everything else was tasty: the pastry soft and bread-like and the beef and egg filling well spiced. A “chiminasty” sauce (chimichurri combined with Anthony’s scotch bonnet laced nasty sauce) goes nicely with the empanadas and helps to drown out the brininess of the olives.

Afterwards, then you can go back to the crab dip – so why have I made you wait so long? It’s not because it’s piping hot, but rather the fresh crackers that come with the dish. If the crackers haven’t cooled yet, they become a strange texture where the edges are crispy but the middle hard and almost stale tasting; add the crab on and things just get chewy. However, when they’re cooled, the crackers become crispy and pairs nicely with the dip.

The crab cazuela is fantastic. Large chunks of the seafood combined with a light dose of creamy lemony aioli, spinach and fennel slivers on the bottom, a cheesy parmigiano reggiano gratin on top. Unlike some dips where the creamy cheese sauce is most pronounced, you can definitely taste and see the crab – it’s the star of the dish.

Right off the bat, our waitress introduces Leña as an Argentinian restaurant with inspirations from Italian and Spanish cuisine. Having never been to Argentina, perhaps my expectation of a robust steak that has a strong meaty flavour is unfounded. So, when the meek striploin ($44) arrives, the fantasy is soon dashed.

To be fair, if the steak was served at O&B Café instead of Leña, I would have enjoyed it. The meat was tender and the fried duck egg perfectly cooked, oozing its runny yolk over everything. But, for a restaurant that’s representing Argentina, the tepid steak lacked the smokiness from being barbequed on an asado. Really, aside from the chimichurri and yucca fries, there’s not much Argentinian about the steak.

Another dish you’ll likely never find in Argentina is the pan-seared Arctic char ($29). Nonetheless, it’s good and surprisingly rich for fish. The char has such a lovely oiliness that the meat remains moist, the skin still crispy despite the dish being ignored to tuck into the steak, and the four plump mussels topping it a tasty and functional garnish. I also enjoyed the risotto-like corn and fregola gachas on the bottom, but it needs something fresh (salsa criolla maybe) to brighten the dish as everything was just so buttery and rich.

Having only been opened for three weeks, service wasn’t bad at Leña. There was a cheerful and helpful gentlemen who escorted me to the first floor hostess podium (it’s a three-floor restaurant) and our waitress provided a good run-down of the menu and its meaningful dishes. The only slip was forgetting to set steak knives before the main, and then proceeding to bring only one knife when they remembered and knew we were sharing.

Leña is a safe choice – it has a pretty robust menu and everything’s modified to meet the typical western palette. With the exception of the crab cazuela, everything I sampled was decent, but hardly memorable. So, if you want something safe, head to Leña. Just keep your expectations clear – you’re not going to experience an Argentinian affair.

Overall mark - 7 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 176 Yonge Street (inside Saks)

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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