Tiradito might just be the most refreshing restaurant to arrive on Montreal’s scene in recent years.
That is, if you can call it a restaurant: speak to co-owners Marcel Larrea (also the chef, formerly of Village restaurant Mezcla) and David Dumay, and their associate David Schmidt, and a few different words come up to describe the 60-seat spot on de Bleury, right near Place-des-Arts: a snack bar, something similar to a Japanese izakaya, and so forth.
The trio seem to agree on one thing, though: the establishment they opened just over a year ago — which nabbed Eater’s Restaurant of the Year award last week — isn’t your mom and dad’s white-tableclothed downtown restaurant. (In fact, tablecloths would be an impossibility here: there are no tables, and most seats are at a long bar that snakes around the space, and chefs work behind that bar, directly in front of many customers).
“The customers get a different experience, they’re closer to the food, closer to the experience,” an experience with more action, says Schmidt.
“We wanted to screw with downtown culture a bit and say there can be restaurants downtown that have more of a neighbourhood feel and are more of a hangout.”
Questions of layout aside, where does that newness or freshness lie? A key part of it is Tiradito’s Nikkei cuisine which fuses elements of Japanese and Peruvian fare. While this style is new to Montreal with Tiradito, Larrea is careful to emphasize that this doesn’t mean it’s at all a novelty form of fusion — the culinary style dates back about a century; it’s just that it took this long to finally find a place in Quebec.
“I would say it’s the blend of food from the kids of Japanese immigrants, who married with Peruvians,” says Larrea.
“It’s not like it was 20 years ago…[Japanese immigrants] got there almost 100 years ago ... this place is not trending, it’s something that exists and is already old,” Schmidt adds (Japanese immigration to Peru picked up at the end of the 19th century).
At Tiradito that includes the eponymous tiradito — along the lines of a sauced sashimi — anticuchos, a meaty street snack on a skewer (duck heart has been a featured one), empanadas, and ceviches.
Larrea’s culinary aptitude benefits from his close ties to Peru, with Larrea wielding experience in the kitchen at internationally famed restaurants including Lima’s Astrid y Gaston, which has clocked in at number 14 on San Pellegrino’s rankings of the world’s top 50 restaurants.
“I was lucky to work for [famed Peruvian chef] Gaston Acurio over there, and everybody who came from that kitchen are the chefs you know all over the place, like Virgilio Martinez.”
Larrea is well-established in Montreal: he already opened Village restaurant Mezcla a half-decade ago, doing Nueva Latina cuisine, a modern take on Peruvian with a focus on terroir. He since left Mezcla (and it closed a while after his departure), taking on a new challenge at Tiradito. As much as he’s a Montrealer, he’s keen to promote Peruvian cuisine here: he’s affiliated with the Chambre de Commerce de Pérou, has organized Peruvian culinary events at high-end spots like Renoir at the Sofitel, and while he admits to not frequenting many of the city’s few Peruvian restaurants, he names Rosemont restaurant Madre (headed up by his countryman, Mario Navarrete Jr.) as his favourite.
While Tiradito’s cuisine is an innovation for Montreal, there’s another key part of the restaurant that shakes things up: from the beginning, Tiradito has operated without servers, instead using chefs as all-purpose staff, mixing drinks and carrying plates on top of their cooking and plating duties.
Schmidt and Larrea agree that the no-server approach is not without issues — particularly in the beginning, it needed careful tweaks. A chef working a station that produces a popular dish (example: ceviches) could potentially get too busy to handle serving duties, yet it has been overall disaster-free. (Tipping has proved straightforward, with the chef-servers simply splitting their gratuities.)
Plus, Larrea needed to school some staff to get them out of the kitchen mindset, and in the habit of talking with customers.
“Coming from other restaurants, they have egos, saying things like ‘you need me’, and so on...I took them to church, now they’re all nice and calm. Now they’re good boys.”
While twists like the elimination of servers could end up as a curiosity, it’s the combination of fresh elements that makes Tiradito an innovator and not just a novelty. The cuisine, the staffing, the exquisite, art-déco interior (complete with decorative metal palm tree) altogether make Tiradito greater than the sum of its parts — and a worthy Eater Restaurant of the Year.