Meat and mojitos fuel a fun-filled night at Buenos Aires Grill
Seattle Times restaurant critic
Bravo to Marco Casas Beaux, whose Buenos Aires Grill is a godsend for Argentineans hungering for a taste of home. A back-street ambiance adds to the allure of his rustic retreat where the menu is kind to cash-strapped carnivores. Best of all, this reinvention of The Poor Italian Café brings hope to a city moving toward mourning for its once-exciting restaurant scene.
Though pampas-grazed Argentine steer gaze from the logo on Buenos Aires Grill's walls and menu, that prized cattle is unavailable in the U.S. An import ban imposed after foot-and-mouth disease struck in Argentina remains in effect. Meantime, beef gets its Spanish accent from a stay on a parilla — the wood-fueled grill that's the star of this show.
While meat is the mission, don't mistake this for an American steakhouse. There, back-slapping suits meet to eat. Here, double-cheek-kissing, leather-jacket-wearing Latins converge to converse. There, it's martinis and cabernet. Here, it's malbec and caipirinhas. There, it's piped-in Tony and Frank. Here, it's a tantalizing tango. There, creamed spinach is the "side" of choice. Here, creamy cheese-kissed Swiss chard is what creamed spinach longs to be when it grows up. There, two can burn a Ben Franklin on a shrimp cocktail and filet mignon. Here, $25 buys an extraordinary center-cut filet — a towering hunk of burning love that cuts like butter, could feed two and highlights the menu's high end.
Show up on a Friday or Saturday night, secure a table in the main dining room and thrill to a talented Argentine tango team. A satin-swathed swan reincarnated as a willowy woman flows gracefully in the arms of her partner. Watch as they move through the big brick-lined room past high wooden booths and the open kitchen, heels barely touching the tile floor before landing atop the long wooden bar in a lusty embrace. It's fork-stopping magic.
Casas Beaux and his engaging hostess oblige guests with a warm welcome, setting the mood for a festive evening. Spanish-speaking waiters greet patrons with "Bienvenidos!," bringing crusty baguette along with two styles of Argentina's all-purpose condiment, chimichurri: one the classic puckery swim of herbs, oil, vinegar and spices, the other a fiesta-colored sweet-pepper relish.
Order a caipirinha laced with lime and sugar-cane liquor, and time may lag. Be patient. The busy barkeep is a pro, adept at muddling minty mojitos and other refreshers while waiting on patrons dining at his well-stocked bar. Here they make a simple feast of perfect lamb-filled empanadas ($6) or aromatic provoleta — molten, crispy-edged provolone scattered with sea salt and oregano ($7). Taste buds tingle over picadas ($9), Argentina's answer to the antipasto plate: finger foods that may include smoky chorizo, Manchego cheese, pickled peppers and white anchovies brightened with lemon.
The leather-bound menu encompasses a wine list heavy with South American labels, including a solid sampling of Argentine malbec — the perfect, mouth-filling varietal to stand up to chef Marianne Zdobysz's hearty fare.
Zdobysz (pronounced like "show biz") is a petite bundle of energy and a familiar face to those who've traveled to such well-respected restaurants as Chez Shea, Queen City Grill and Madison Park Café. After a whirlwind trip to Argentina for an introduction to the parilla concept, Zdobysz scores with her best-selling parrillada.
This mixed grill is an exceptional value at $19 per person, providing a sampler from a menu rife with the "exotic" economical cuts of meats beloved in Latin America. Served on a coal-heated brasero, complemented by platters of fresh-grilled vegetables and fried half-moon-shaped potatoes, these meats, available à la carte ($4.50-$14), appear (and reappear, by request) until patrons cry "No mas!"
Spicy chorizo links burst with juices. Char adds character to marinated skirt steak. Pleasantly chewy beef sweetbreads bear little textural resemblance and a stronger flavor than their veal counterparts typically sautéed to succulence at fussy bistros. Vacio, all the rage in New York as hanger steak and famous in France as onglet, translates here as a gorgeously gamy lobe of hanging tender. Asado de tira — "flavorful beef short ribs," however, skimped on flavor. This was true when sampled as part of the parrillada, and on another visit when the waiter mistakenly heard "short ribs" (it's very noisy in here) rather than the object of desire, rib eye.
The rib-eye steak ($19), tried on another occasion, was too fatty and tasted as if it had been grilled over dying embers. Other disappointments included lean and oddly livery lamb sirloin ($16), and a shrug-worthy butter lettuce salad with hearts of palm and bay shrimp ($8.50).
But those slights were forgiven when recalling "Sorrentinos" — rich cheese- and prosciutto-stuffed pasta blanketed in saffron cream sauce ($14). And canceled out entirely with one taste of morcilla ($4.50) — blood sausage whose grilled black casing gives way to innards fragrant with ground pork, feisty with spices and earthy with pig's blood. Finish with dulce de leche crêpes ($6), flamed with rum and oozing liquid caramel, and the memory that remains is that of a sweet, fun-filled night in Buenos Aires.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org