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Immigration Problems

The Argentine parrilla loses its charm in the move north to La Estancia

Two of the things I had liked best about eating steaks in Argentine parrillas were the chimichurri and the Argentine Malbec. Chimichurri is Argentine steak sauce, a blend of parsley, garlic, hot peppers, olive oil and wine. It tastes like a parsley pesto and goes great with steak and french fries. Malbec is one of the five Bordeaux varietals; in Argentina, it produces a sturdy, inexpensive red wine that tastes great with steak and french fries, too.

When our dinner arrived, I realized the lack of Malbec by the glass was not going to be the evening's only disappointment. The matambre a las brasas -- a flank steak rolled around a stuffing of spinach, hard-boiled eggs, ham, bacon and cheese -- was beautifully presented, and the tender meat tasted great. But I was expecting the whole flank steak. What we got instead were several thin slices arranged across the dinner plate, hardly the portion you expect for a $17 entrée. In fact, there wasn't even enough meat on the plate to make a decent appetizer. In an Argentine parrilla, skimping on the meat is nothing short of blasphemous.

The $6.50 salad wasn't going to fill anybody up either. It consisted mostly of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with some raw mushroom slices on top. I looked at the menu again. The salad was supposed to have artichoke hearts. "Where is the artichoke?" I asked the waiter. He took the salad back to the kitchen and had some artichoke hearts applied.

It's got gamy: The full-flavored bife de chorizo is one of the few cuts that taste like real South American meat.
Troy Fields
It's got gamy: The full-flavored bife de chorizo is one of the few cuts that taste like real South American meat.

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(713)807-1111
414 West Gray

The Argentine parrilla experience I knew and loved was not happening -- no Argentine red wine, no big bowl of salad, no plate of hot french fries. At least the chimichurri was decent. Then the lomo arrived. I doused it with the sauce, cut into it enthusiastically and gobbled a huge hunk. The meat was terribly mushy in the center and without much taste. I immediately suspected a sham.

Tenderness is not considered a virtue in Argentine beef. The range-fed meat I ate there was leaner, tougher and tastier than the average American cuts. I could barely chew the sirloin, and even the lomo stayed pretty firm. So how could this mushy fillet I was eating be genuine Argentine beef? I fumed. On my way out, a kindly man asked me how my dinner was. He said he was the owner. I didn't introduce myself, but I expressed my doubts about his lomo.

He was mortified. "I absolutely guarantee this is Argentine beef," he assured me. I told him that it tasted nothing like any beef I had eaten in Argentina, and that it seemed like the same sort of squishy fillet you could get at any American steak house.

He shook his head sadly and agreed. "In Argentina, you eat fresh beef," he said. "But in order to import it, it must be frozen." Freezing breaks down the lomo, so it isn't as firm anymore, the owner told me. Next time I should try a firmer cut, he said.


La Estancia's West Gray location has been the site of two failed restaurants, and some say it is a doomed spot (see "Miami Spice," by George Alexander, July 6). The first time I ate at La Estancia, the restaurant had been open a few weeks; it was a weekday night, and only three tables were occupied. The second time I visited, about two weeks later on a Saturday at 7:30 p.m., there was nobody else eating there.

Once again I asked the waiter if he could get the bartender to pour me some Argentine wine. I watched intently, hoping to see the bartender reach for a good bottle. Instead, he upended a 1.5-liter jug of Walnut Crest cabernet and poured all that was left into a glass, topping it off with a splash from another bottle of Walnut Crest that was already open. I wondered how long he had been saving the dregs of that old bottle. I walked up and asked the bartender why he had poured my glass of wine from two bottles. He shrugged and said it was the same brand. The man with whom I had discussed Argentine beef on my last visit was seated at the bar. "That's good wine," he said. "Not the commercial stuff."

The waiter apologized again as he delivered an awful, flat, oxidized glass of "old" Walnut Crest to my table. This time I ordered the bife de chorizo, known in the United States as rib eye ($18.95). I didn't bother with the overpriced salads. When the steak arrived at the table, I was surprised by the thinness of the cut. It looked to be three quarters of an inch. But it was cooked medium rare, and both the flavor and texture were excellent. The wood-fired grill had left a nice char, and the meat had the kind of full-flavored, gamy taste I remembered from South America. It was served with a lame mixed-vegetable melange of peas, slivered carrots, soggy green beans and small boiled potatoes. While I ate, a couple sat down at a nearby table.

The same man sitting at the bar came by my table and asked how my dinner was. I invited him to sit down. He told me his name was Alberto Falchetti, and he told me about his history and how he had always dreamed of having this restaurant. I asked him how it was going. He said business was good, but his sad expression and the empty tables all around said something different.

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