"At long last" you mutter over your early morning espresso as the first of the promised F&WT missives from three weeks in Argentina appears, a little jet-lagged and a little later than it ought owing to a flight cancellation on the way home. Curiously, the cancellation was neither due to the incident at Buenos Aires International Airport - irate Argentinian passengers responded maturely and indifferently to the cancellation of some Aerolineas Argentinas flights by smashing the AA ticket counters to bits -, or the still mysterious crash landing of the British Airways flight just outside the Heathrow runway on Thursday morning.
The nipple-tasselled booby prize for the canceled flight was the chance to spend almost a full day in New York. And after eating nearly a steak a day each over 21 consecutive days in Argentina, V and I caught a taxi from JFK Airport in New York straight to the iconic Peter Luger's steakhouse in Brooklyn for a lunch. Less than ten hours away from from my departing Buenos Aires fingers-crossed-behind-the-back promise of "no way Jose, no red meat for a few weeks baby", yes, indeed, V took some convincing that I did really need to know how the best steak in Argentina stacked up against Peter Luger's, arguably the finest steak in New York.
Argentina, land of the asado
Sprawled in the back seat of a taxi speeding and swerving dangerously - having forcefully yelled "fuck" on each of the four times my life nearly ended, the taxi driver reassuringly pointed his lit cigarette at his toothless grin, winked and mouthed the name "Schumacher" - from the Buenos Aires airport towards the city center, the second smell (the driver's close range cigarette being the first) to waft gently towards my nose was the peerless aroma of charred beef. Fears of near death by taxi vanished.
Beef has a long and slightly checkered history in Argentina. Consensus seems to be that the marauding Spaniards brought the first cattle to Argentina in the 1500s. The cattle thrived on the Pampa, a green sea of grass that occupies about a third of the surface area of Argentina. The mild climate and even rainfall provided perfect conditions for rearing and breeding cattle and over many years many new tastier breeds, particularly those from the UK, were introduced. One of the buried costs of the cattle industry was the slaughter of many South American Indians who occupied much of the prime grazing land.
Much more so than in Australia, the Pampa on which I grazed for 25 or so years and another country with a history of culling natives, the BBQ (called an asado in Argentina) is an essential and deeply ingrained ritual of Argentinian life. The asado requires two key elements: a large grill or parrilla with glowing embers under it and huge quantities of meat for grilling. Alberto Vazquez Prego, author of "How Argentina Cooks", warns nervous male grill-masters (as in Australia, women prepare every other meal apart from the BBQ, which is the exclusive dick-swinging domain of men), "a generous half a kilo of diverse meats must be allowed per person if a large group is to be entertained".
The typical asado involves three stages: first on the grill are the tasty pork sausages (chorizos) and, at least for me, the even tastier blood sausages (morcillas); next are the entrails - sweetbreads (mojellas), kidneys (rinones) and small intestines (chinchulings); and finally come the beef and other larger cuts of meat. Average portenos, as the people of Buenos Aires are known, live in small apartments. This presents some logistical difficulties for the smoke billowing parrilla, so most are forced to pursue their meaty pleasures at neighborhood parrilla restaurants.
Neighborhood parrilla restaurants vary quite a bit in fit-out and ambiance. In La Bocca, one of Buenos Aires rougher don't-visit-after-dark neighborhoods and the home of the Bocca Juniors (Maradonna's old football team), the grill is often outside the restaurant, hissing smoke into the air while working class diners in wife beaters and Y-fronts sit on small plastic chairs downing Quilmes, the very good local beer. In Palermo Hollywood, a part of Buenos Aires which takes its name from the large number of television and film companies in the area, the neighborhood parrilla restaurants are often modern and wouldn't be out of place in New York or London - high ceilings, indoor grills with serious smoke extractors, chic furniture and artwork, impossibly beautiful waiters gliding about like tropical fish.
Parrilla restaurant menus are pretty basic and follow the typical stages of the asado. The starters on offer are the pork and blood sausages, the offal and a few basic salads. Most chorizo sausages in Argentina are exceptionally tasty and nearly every meal we had in Argentina kicked off with a few of these. Please, please, please don't travel to Argentina and not try the offal. Most locals wouldn't dream of starting an asado without offal and lots would forgo the finest beef steaks on offer for the offal alone, particularly the sweetbreads, which are held in such high esteem that they're often more expensive than the restaurant's finest beef steak.
I loved the blood sausages and sweetbreads in many parrilla restaurants but was generally much less keen on the kidneys and small intestines. Not for squeamish reasons, but because I generally found the kidneys and small intestines to be dried out, chewy and lacking in flavour. The blood sausages and sweetbreads were the complete opposite. I expect to be troubling London butchers with a few unusual requests over the coming weeks. Hell, it might even encourage V to cook a little more often if she's luke warm about the prospect of eating pancreas or thymus gland (the wigless, yellow-toothed reality of what sweetbreads are) again after a long day at the office.
The mains are different cuts of grilled beef - generally sirloin as we know it in the UK but much longer, wider and at least three fingers high (bife de chorizo), fillet from the sirloin (lomo), rib-eye (ojo de lomo) and flank (bife de vacio) -, roasted or grilled lamb (cordero), roasted or grilled pork (cerdo) and roasted or grilled baby goat (chevito). Comments on the lamb, pork and baby goat will have to wait for another rainy day.
Above: Hungry then? Beef and Patagonian lamb for four at La Tablita, El Calafayte.
The quality of the beef in most restaurants throughout Argentina is superb. Most people you talk to in Argentina attribute the high quality of the beef to the quality of the grass in the Pampa - my limited Spanish prevented me from discovering the extent to which the cows are also fed grain, which is quite common in the US and the UK. Beef quality reaches its peak in Buenos Aires, where we were served some of the the most tender, juicy and tasty - exceptionally grassy, nutty, buttery, beefy - beef I've eaten. The quality diminishes as you drift further away from Buenos Aires, but it's still pretty darn good. Portions are huge - in excess of 500 gm per steak - and prices for prime cuts are low - about 50 pesos (8 quid) at the most expensive parrillas and 30 pesos (5 quid) elsewhere.
Most parrilla restaurants don't coat their beef in olive oil or season it with pepper before cooking. And you wont find pepper at your table. Having tasted 21 or so steaks in the last three weeks I agree that most are fine without pre or post-cooking pepper or olive oil. Instead of pepper and other possible condiments, the ubiquitous accompaniment is chimichurri, a spicy sauce made from garlic, chili, spices and oil. Quality of the chimichurri varies a lot from restaurant to restaurant. Even when the chimichurri was excellent, I found it murdered the red wine, so I avoided it more often than not out of respect for the grumbling Malbec nearby.
In London and New York the best steak restaurants and beef suppliers dry-age their beef and promote their product heavily on that basis. The dry-aging process is meant to weaken the connective tissue to make the meat more tender and succulent. It can also add a funkiness of flavour - a bit similar to blue cheese - which not everyone likes, but I do. Robert's Steakhouse in New York sometimes dry ages its beef for up to 18 weeks. The cost of the aging process is a significant loss of weight. Argentinian steak restaurants and suppliers don't seem to age their beef. The best steak I ate in Argentina, at La Brigada in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, was from a majestic and mythical beast that I was told met its end just two short days before sizzling on my plate.
Argentinians eat their beef well cooked, much more so than Melbournians and Londoners. Jugosa is Spanish for rare. If you ask for your steak to be cooked jugosa, chances are that in all but the very best restaurants in Buenos Aires it will be overcooked by Melbourne or London standards. If, as I do, you like your steak charred on the outside and almost raw in the middle then ask for [welter welter], which roughly translates as just flip it.
My three best steaks in Argentina
So, here goes, my three best steaks in Argentina were:
1. La Brigada, San Telmo, Buenos Aires. Truly amazing steaks from recently slaughtered Aberdeen Angus cattle. Incredibly tender, juicy, grassy and beefy. Have never seen a table of meat lovers look more satisfied. Walls are cluttered with football memorabilia and signed bottles of wine. Bustling. Ambiance is unique and waiters are very helpful.
Below: the T-bone at La Brigada is higher than three fingers and probably the best steak in the world.
2. La Cabrera, Palermo, Buenos Aires. Tried twice (once at each location - there are two nearby). Superb the first time and slightly less impressed the second time though still incredibly good. Buttery and grassy steaks but slightly less tasty than La Brigada. More touristy than La Brigada but don't let that put you off.
3. Don Julio, Palermo, Buenos Aires. Stunning texture and juiciness but less flavour than La Brigada and La Cabrera. Very helpful maitre de willing to show and talk through all the different cuts of meat and the offal. Cheaper and less touristy than La Brigada and La Cabrera and the best and cheapest wine list of the three.
More information on these restaurants and brief reviews of the others we visited in Argentina will appear in a separate post in the next week or so.
V and I ate at my three best steak restaurants with three friends from Melbourne who also happen to be huge fans of Vlado's in Melbourne, my favourite steak restaurant in Melbourne. The five of us agreed that La Brigada was clearly the best of the three above and, shock-horror coming from the mouths of hate-to-lose Australians, better than Vlado's.
Some lawyerly qualifications on my munching methodology. V and I were in Argentina for the first time and for 21 days (but ate about 21 steaks in 19 restaurants - we revisited two of them); we dined in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, El Calafayte, El Chalten and Iguazu; we had a strong preference for eating at traditional parrilla restaurants (for no other reason than the few higher end and highly regarded restaurants we tried in Buenos Aires (e.g. Sucre) were very disappointing - more places to see and be seen than to eat well; where possible, V and I shared both a sirloin steak and fillet steak (often without any discernible difference in flavour, juiciness or texture, though my preference remains the sirloin); time did not permit us to taste the steak at some highly regarded restaurants including Minga and La Cabana; and the restaurants we ate at were selected based on recommendations in Time Out, Wallpaper, the Hedonist's Guide, Lonely Planet and jancisrobinson.com.
Argentina's finest steak v New York's finest steak
Turning then to the question our canceled return flight posed by offering a few lunching hours in New York on Thursday, how did Argentina's finest steak compare to New York's finest?
Peter Luger's has been open since 1887 and has been voted number one steak house in New York by Zagat's, New York's most influential restaurant guide, for the last 15 years. The menu is brutally short and to the point: for starters there are a few non-enticing and best avoided treats such as raw onions and raw tomatoes, or a strip of bacon; for mains you can choose steak for one, two, three or four, depending on how hungry you are and how many people you're with. Steak for two (US$80) is what the New Yorkers call porterhouse - a large piece of meat cut from the wing-rib end of the sirloin which comprises sirloin on one side and fillet on the other side. Peter Luger only uses beef graded "Prime" by the US Department of Agriculture, which accounts for only two percent of the meat available in the US. It also dry-ages all of its beef but will not disclose for how long.
Peter Luger's steak for two arrived on a sizzling hot plate, sliced on both sides of the bone, coated in melted butter and with a plastic model cow stuck in it showing the doneness - red for rare in our case. According to Heston Blumenthal, who was recently allowed into Peter Luger's kitchen, the steak sits on a very hot grill for seven or eight minutes, is removed, sliced, basted with butter and put under a second grill for four or five minutes.
And the verdict? Peter Luger's steak was not as good as my top three in Argentina. It was a superb piece of meat - tender and juicy - but less so than Argentina's best and definitely less tasty - less beefy and less interesting - than Argentina's best. I was expecting Peter Luger's dry-aging process to add a depth of flavour and funkiness that I didn't find in Argentina. Not so. It seems that dry-aging the best Argentinian beef is either not necessary, or, if done well it could make the best Argentinian beef vastly superior to the New York's best beef. Oh, nearly forgot, Peter Luger's steak is about twice the price of Argentina's finest.
I now have a legitimate reason to visit Robert's Steakhouse, probably New York's next most highly regarded steakhouse after Peter Luger's and which dry-ages its beef for up to 18 weeks, despite (and hopefully not because of) its location in the Penthouse Executive Club. No-more-beef promises aside, I must also have strong grounds to revisit my favourite steakhouse in London, Hawksmoor, to re-taste its dry-aged Ginger Pig beef to see whether this dry-aging business is all its cracked up to be.