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.
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!
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 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.
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.
Tonight we are going to cook the traditional Portuguese dish Bacalhau à Braz. More of this later.