Thursday, 26 April 2007

The Steaks Are High

For a trainee chef and passionate foodie, I can be very bad at trying new restaurants near to my home. I still haven't been to my local molecular gastronomy palace Bacchus, for instance, despite repeated pledges to do so and having read several excellent reports by fellow London food bloggers. But in the case of Santa Maria Del Buen Ayre I really have absolutely no excuse. Vegetarians should look away now as the rest of this post contains FLESH AND BLOOD.

Broadway Market's own Argentinean restaurant
I must admit that when I go out to eat, steak houses are not the first places I think of visiting. But Buen Ayre is within walking distance of my house and the amazing reviews it has received since opening a year or two ago include plaudits from food critics Charles Campion and Faye Maschler of The London Evening Standard, Marina O'Loughlin of Metro, Jan Moir of The Telegraph, Thomas Sutcliffe of The Independent and Ruth Jarvis of Time Out. Not bad for a Hackney steak house!

Time to mistranslate "well done" as "medium"
What prompted the visit was the presence of my Portuguese friends Sandra, Zélia, Lúcia and Rosa. Not into our typical UK restaurant cuisines (Indian, Chinese, Thai, etc.), they all expressed an interest in Argentinean steaks once I suggested the option. So on Tuesday night, off to Santa Maria del Buen Ayre we all went.

This is an old-fashioned bistro joint, except here the trestle tables are tightly packed and the place is full to bursting every night of the week.

The first thing that hits you as you deposit yourself on one of their folding wooden chairs is the bustling activity of the staff and the torrent of excited babble from the customers. This is not an establishment for the gentile or for the timid. Nor is it an establishment for those in a rush, as the service is unhurried. This is a place to relax and enjoy good food and good company.

The menu at Buen Ayre is not over-taxing on the brain. Fillet steak. Sirloin steak. Rib-eye steak. Or rump steak. With chips. But steaks the like of which you are unlikely to have seen before unless you are from the Americas. Huge, fresh, tender, juicy Argentinean beef to die for. And chips that Heston Blumenthal would be delighted with. All served with giant bowls of tomato and onion salad along with a special homemade seasoning sauce for the beef.
Juicy steak that melts in your mouth

The real surprise was the flavour of the fillet steak. As a well-informed British gourmet, I would normally steer well away from the fillet. Although incredibly tender and succulent, fillet simply lacks that deep, full-bodied flavour associated with those cuts of the animal that perform more physical effort. But on this rare occasion I thought to myself what the hell, I'll push the boat out and go for the fillet steak for once. And boy did I make the right choice! 10 ounces of the most mouthwateringly flavoursome Argentinean beef fillet soon sat before me, which was not a problem in the slightest I can assure you. Without knowing what it was, I would certainly have mistaken its potent flavour for a rump steak. To put it simply, it was the best piece of beef I've ever eaten, ever.

Everybody tucked in at our busy table
As you can see from the photo above, they like to sear their steaks well and I found this a bit excessive. I discussed the searing with one of the chefs, who explained that it is traditional in Argentina to sear meat at a higher temperature than we are used to here. I got the impression that he thought this helped to seal in the juices, whereas having read my Hervé This I know that the only benefit (apart from elimination of surface bacteria) is the addition of flavour through Maillard reactions.

During our conversation I enquired about the breed of beef they use at Buen Ayre, explaining that I also was a chef. The eager young man immediately popped back to the kitchen and to my delight returned seconds later bearing a board, on top of which was an entire raw fillet of the beef we had just eaten. Chef seemed very pleased to encounter a customer with such an interest and I was equally amazed at his reaction - something I have never experienced in a restaurant before!

Two and a half hours after arriving, we'd all experienced a thoroughly enjoyable meal accompanied by a few glasses of rosé and our plates were scraped clean. Unable to find room for desserts and with the time approaching midnight, it was time to make sure my guests found their way home safely. A hard job, bodyguard to four slightly inebriated and very happy young women, but someone had to do it.
Am I tall, or are Portuguese women short?
Tonight we are going to cook the traditional Portuguese dish Bacalhau à Braz. More of this later.


Mallika said...

Have you been to the Gaucho Grill? Was it better? That fillet steak looks gorgeous.

Trig said...

No I haven't tried this restaurant chain yet, Mallika, but looking at their website they look impressive and I see they won a Time Out award for best London steak. So next time I pass one and I'm really hungry I may well pop in and try for myself.

Ben said...

Gaucho steaks are pretty good, but for the real deal you must go to Hawksmoor. It has the marginal edge over Buen Ayre (on price as well as steak). Gaucho can't touch these two.

Hawksmoor uses Longhorn beef from Ginger Pig I think. What did the chef say here?

Ben said...

Incidentally, I meant that Hawksmoor is more expensive than this place. Definitely not cheaper!

Trig said...

I'll certainly take you up on this, Ben. I see that Hawksmoor is very close by in Commercial Street and serves English produce from North Yorkshire. Swaledale features on their website and it is my mum and dad's favourite part of the Yorkshire Dales. Next time you are planning a visit let me know and I'll come with you.

The TriniGourmet said...

d00d either you're 7ft 7 or they're smurfettes :)

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