Leña: A Short Rib Lover’s Heaven
Add this to the list of restaurants I’ve walked by a hundred times and have always said I’d try but never managed to get my act together to actually do it.
Lucky enough, the perfect occasion finally presented itself: Chris’ birthday. Excitedly, I made the dinner reservation.
The bar is the first glimpse you get walking into the funky world of Leña, an O&B spawn. The sounds of servers shucking $1 oysters during happy hour and waitresses whizzing past with cocktails, their feet tapping against the Spanish patterned tiles, fill the air.
Velvet aquamarine stools line the octagonal bar where countless, colourful liquor bottles reflect the dim lights from above—lights that look as though erupting from the bar’s floor. Golden metallic accents make the space look like something out of Baz Luhman’s Great Gatsby.
Down an artsy staircase is Leña’s Bar Lala where cocktails and tapas-inspired bites are offered as Latin music fills the lively space. Another staircase leading upstairs brings us to the main restaurant, where Chris and I are seated.
Just beyond a private party, we’re sitting in a bustling room just off of the kitchen. But we aren’t sitting at any old table. No, we had the cutest little velour-cushioned loveseat to snuggle up close to one another and take in the atmosphere around us. I loved our nook and tbh, I’d probably request to be seated there again for date night.
Convinced that Bar Lala was just a part of Leña, we were surprised to be handed an actual menu (with all the courses) when we took our seat. As we quickly learned, though the restaurant has apps and shareables, that isn’t really the vibe at Leña. Plus, with so many interesting mains, how could you not order a personal entrée?
That said, I did need some munchies to go with my wine. So we ordered the Carved Jamón and Susana’s Gaucho Empanadas. We were in the tapas mindset, after all!
Aged a ripe 24 months, the sliced Serrano ham was incredibly earthy, almost nutty like a toasted chestnut. Silky, it melted instantly when it touched the tongue. I also loved the presentation of the sliced garnet-coloured ham on a fresh white and blue floral tasting plate.... it's definitely the next kitchen item I’ll be scouring the internet for!
The empanadas were also quite lovely, so much so that I snagged two, leaving one sole empanada for Chris. Stuffed with beef and olives, I also found a silky element inside, which I soon realized was chopped eggs. What a textural surprise!
It’s hard to track down empanadas in Mississauga and the ones I have enjoyed have been pretty basic, so the addition of a silky egg was quite exciting. But the real star was the chiminasty sauce. A slightly more piquante version of a classic parsley and oil sauce, the chiminasty sauce was a sexy and spicy flavour boost. When drizzled over the empanadas, these pastry pockets were instantly revitalized!
Feeling somewhat stuffed at this point, Chris and I were nervous we wouldn’t touch our mains. But, that didn’t seem to be a problem as the dishes were all too appetizing to put down.
Chris ordered the Brisket Burger. What can I say? The man loves his burgers. With a toasted hazelnut & red pepper spread, cremoso cheese, and charred endive, the premium beef burger was indulgent to say the least. Unfortunately after about three bites, Chris had to wave the white flag.
I also had a few bites, and while the burger was tasty, it was just too decadent to be entirely devoured. Also, I want to point out that the side of fries was sort of lame. Plain, unseasoned potato wedges paired with such a gourmet burger didn’t seem to balance out. The opposites were too different to attract.
I, however, decided on what I’m convinced was the best thing to order on the menu: the Braised Beef Short Rib. Damn! Major heart eyes for that dish.
Chris usually gives me a hard time ordering short ribs because that seems to be the one thing I almost always gravitate towards. I go berserk when I see it on a brunch menu and a dinner menu doesn’t generate any less of a reaction.
Confession time: Leña’s short rib was incredible, probably one of the most delicious dishes that I’ve eaten in awhile. Every element of the dish was beautiful, each bite more incredibly composed than the next. Cooked in a tomato braise, garnished with candied orange and coriander seed gastrique and served underneath polenta, this was the best $34 I’ve ever spent!
From presentation to texture to flavour, there were so many contrasting elements that all came together to create an honest sense of balance. The soft and creamy polenta played well against a just barely caramelized shallot while the sugary candied orange rind teased the bitter charred greens. A savoury tender short rib was simply a gorgeous vessel for all these rich ingredients to mingle with one another.
It’s safe to say that the short rib was the best bite of the night. Even Chris suddenly understood the power of the short rib. It was enough to make a non-believer believe.
Though service wasn’t the best—we waited long stretches of time between courses—I liked the overall atmosphere of Leña. I enjoyed the wild and always-contrasting design elements of the space and that echoed through the dishes as well. The dining experience challenged me to see beyond all the perceived chaos, to deconstruct the complexity and find simplicity in my surroundings and in dishes like the short rib. The confusion of familiar flavours and textures playing with each other to create something new was exciting.
Chef Anthony Walsh, describes Leña as “An ode to matriarchal ideals at the table, to that style of cooking that percolates in all of us cooks.” Though the Argentinian dishes may not be what mama was cooking up in the kitchen, the flavourful undertones and infusion of comfort through each lovingly crafted dish, certainly resonates with you.
Overall, this is a great restaurant to head to when you feel gives your senses a workout. I know I’m going to be keeping Leña in my back pocket for when a special occasion calls as the fare is fancy and so is the price tag. Then again, I might just have to pop back when I have a serious craving for short rib.
Am I insane or do you love Leña’s unreal short rib, too? Let me me below!