When Cartel Street Food Restaurant opened its doors two months ago, it did so with the mission to serve tapas-inspired dishes as authentically as they are served in South America, Mexico and Asia. Nothing new, you might scoff. But hear me out. What sets this restaurant apart from the others that came before it is that it is committed to only using meat raised without antibiotics or hormones. In addition, Cartel endeavours to prepare its dishes in a way that very closely duplicates those that are served in the food kiosks that line the world’s sidewalks.
STYLE OF RESTAURANT
This spanking new eatery is in the heart of Montreal’s most jetset area. The buzzing young crowd that populates Crescent St. can find tapas at a good price here. And the customer in search of a restaurant where he can eat food that’s not loaded up with hormones or additives also has a place to go. And it’s the same address.
The restaurant, designed on its longest bias, enjoys the spectacle of a very long bar. What it does not enjoy, however, is an abundance of light. Even lunchtime customers will find it’s terribly dark inside this place, and it’s certainly not the kind of joint that appeals to weary professionals looking to catch a drink after work. It’s worth noting that Cartel was the recent subject of a comprehensive renovation, but it’s difficult to pass judgement on the revived décor here because, again, there isn’t proper lighting to illuminate it. The small terrace, visible near the window with its clutch of small tables and wooden chairs, is not very comfortable.
When we visited earlier this week for lunch, we found the place populated by young students, likely from nearby Concordia University. Another visit in the evening revealed the same clientele, presumably playing with a little more time in the later hours, and no doubt in the mood to celebrate. Dim restaurant or not, Crescent St. is the designated gathering site of this crowd’s nightlife.
At lunchtime at the beginning of the week, a mere five tables at Cartel were occupied, and those all by the window. None of the tables in the back were in use at all, probably because of the lack of lighting there, an oversight that levels considerable negativity on the restaurant’s overall atmosphere.
The wine list at Cartel is well put together with good choices to accompany the spicy dishes on the menu. Indeed, the wine and alcohol offerings at this place are of uniformly extraordinarily high quality. The variety of cocktails of all stripes at this restaurant is impressive, and each is more authentic tasting than the last. I could find a mojito with mint and basil here that’s every bit as good as what I might uncover in the bars of Havana.
It all started with the service of an organic mesclun salad. The tender lettuce, under a well-balanced bed of sesame, ginger and miso dressing, was very fresh tasting. Next up, the tacos arrived: one chicken, one beef, one pork. The trio was soft and nicely presented, but their meat, guacamole, tomato and cilantro fillings notwithstanding, sorrily lacking in flavour. It was nice to have a bottle of hot sauce on the table, but I never used it because I really wanted to taste what came out of the kitchen as is. There was also a tomato sauce on hand that might have helped the tacos’ cause, but the stuff tasted mostly of tomato paste. Very bland. I tried the mini house burger next. In this case, its lovely presentation—a chic bun topped with Swiss cheese and a slice of house bacon—was matched by its taste. Delicious. I followed the experience up with a go at the Alabama pork burger on a mini ciabata bun. This one was simple, but equally delicious. Each of these dishes was accompanied by a nest of home fries.
Whether or not a restaurant is judged to have good service is very much a function of the attitude and etiquette of its staff. I'm not just talking about the server here, but also of the table attendant, hostess and even members of the kitchen brigade with whom customers might come into contact. Taking into consideration all of these factors for Cartel, I have two good pieces of news to report, and one bad.
A good one first: I arrived a little early at the restaurant and was greeted by a kitchen staff member who was carrying some equipment near the front door. She might well have chosen to ignore me, but she greeted me with a smile and a nice hello and asked me to wait until the waitress arrived. The second bit of positivity on this front is that the wait service was perfect, from start to finish. Our server knew her menu well, and was able to make useful suggestions with a smile.
Now the bad news. I know that the establishment in question is on Crescent close to Concordia, and that much of the clientele are Anglophones, but I find it unacceptable that the waiter failed to speak even a word of French when he addressed me.