Thursday, 20 December 2012
It's taken me a while to come round to the Argentinian approach to beef. An enthusiastic consumer of the dry-aged, US/European varieties, charcoal-grilled to perfection in London's best steakhouses (take a bow, Goodman and Hawksmoor), my experience of anything calling itself Argentinian was limited to chain pub steaks and the overpriced and mediocre Gaucho Grill. And so you can see why it was easier to think "Argentinian = cheap = bad" than entertain the idea that perhaps just because the cheapest steaks available in the UK were from Argentina, those were the ones most likely to be bought by the UK's worst restaurants.
But then, a couple of years back, I was invited to a friend's birthday meal in a little place near the Emirates stadium called Garufa, and halfway through a few hundred grams of ribeye that for once wasn't lowest-common-denominator menu filler, I finally started to understand what the deal was. Argentinian beef - good Argentinian beef - is lean and robust, with a gentle gamey flavour and very little of the buttery, minerally notes that characterised the dry-aged US and European cuts. If it helps, think of it as venison - the fresher the better, salted and seared over a parrilla, perfectly matched with a glass of Malbec. It's so different from traditional Western steakhouse steak it may as well come from a different animal, and once you release yourself from the idea that to be good a steak has to be cuttable with a butter knife and contain ribbons of yellow fat, there's plenty to enjoy.
Of course, you'll also need to find somewhere good to eat it. Garufin is to Garufa what Barrafina is to Fino, or Morito to Moro. Thanks to good pedigree and a light application of tasteful on-trend restaurant design (bare brick walls, uncomfortable seating, small plates, you know the drill) it manages to be buzzier, cheaper and more fun than the original, and is my new favourite work lunch spot. Providing you go easy on the booze you can walk away from a very decent meal for less than £20, and although the steaks are the real focus, there are enough interesting Argentinian specialities elsewhere on the menu to keep even the most demanding colleagues happy.
You know a place is going to be good when even something as simple as a tomato salad manages to impress. Crunchy and well-seasoned, underlined with a lovely smoked pepper sauce, the "Mixta" stands as proof that when restaurants get the basics right, it's that much easier for everything else to fall into place. Similarly, you may think it's not too difficult to mess up cheese croquettas, but numerous distressing experiences in lesser tapas bars across the city say otherwise; here a delicate crust contained strong provolone and the occasional toasted peanut, each sat on a light citrus dressing.
"Rescoldo" was perhaps the only dish I've tried at Garufin that I can't recommend. Consisting of slimy, underseasoned vegetables (some powerfully smoked) topped with a congealed slab of provolone, it was unbalanced and quite unpleasant, and though I can kind of see what they were getting at (a sort of Argentinian ratatouille) it needs a bit of a rethink. Their empanadas, though, were wonderful - particularly the spicy tripe & ox cheek one, a fluffy, crisp coating containing rich offal.
But to the main events. At £14.50, the "Lomo & caracu" is the single most expensive item on the menu, but fortunately was everything I was hoping it would be, a perfectly-seared chunk of tender fillet steak boasting that gentle gamey freshness, and marrow presented in a bisected bone for you to scoop out and eat with it. It's a lot for not a great deal of food, but if you ever needed convincing of the merits of Argentinian beef, it's a great place to start. And some Iberico pork, seared to medium and resting on a bed of creamy sweetcorn salsa, came with a black pudding croquetta - handily negating the need for me to order a separate side of black pudding croquettas. Because there was no way I was going to go to a restaurant serving black pudding croquettas and not order some black pudding croquettas.
The one dessert I've tried - cutely described as Dulche de Leche "Served in all its ways" was another heady helping of South American comfort food. I particularly liked the slices of banana with a DdL crust, and the excellent ice cream.
The fact that Garufin is less than 30 seconds walk from the office is, of course, a huge bonus to the restaurant desert that is Holborn/Bloomsbury and massively good news to me personally. But I'm sure that were it the other end of a 30 minute tube ride I would have been equally impressed by the cooking, the relentlessly friendly staff and the atmosphere of this welcoming little place. They are one of the first restaurants that really have a chance of convincing Londoners there's more to Argentinian beef - and Argentinian cuisine in general - than watery sirloin served at a 300% markup in the dark (yes I'm moaning about Gaucho again), but let's hope they won't be the last. If they can turn a die-hard dry-aged steak snob like me, they can turn anyone.