My recent panning of some of Miami's Hispanic eating establishments seems to have gotten folks wondering if I'm a bigot. After my negative reviews of the new (and dreadful) Malaga and the historic (and dreadful) Botin, the mail poured in. In a letter to me, Donald Berger of Hollywood was upset about my Anglo-conformist angle on the ultra-expensive La Dorada, where the staff did not speak English; he pointed out that "we should consider ourselves fortunate to live in so colorful and interesting and different an area." Next, Maria-Fernanda Martinez of Miami, whose letter to the editor stewed about my unflattering review of Victor's Cafe; she wondered if I have "a vendetta against the new owner." And Isabel Young of Miami, also in a letter to the editor, writes that she "truly believes Jen Karetnick must have a hidden agenda."
For what it's worth, I don't consider myself to be harder on Spanish, Cuban, and Latin American restaurants than I am on, say, Italian, French, and Russian places. But I steadfastly refuse to let Miami rest on its Latin laurels; if this is the cuisine for which the city is famous, then I hold it to high standards. Case in point: El Gaucho. Located in North Miami Beach, this Argentine-style steak house opened in late July after Jack Johnston, a sports-bar owner from Atlanta, first encountered the eatery in Aruba. (There are 56 El Gaucho restaurants in South America and the Caribbean.) He grew so fond of the Aruba outpost that he decided, with the benediction of the chain, to open his own El Gaucho in Miami.
Along with his wife Stacy, Johnston transformed a deteriorating Tony Roma's (the first-ever Tony Roma's, which opened about 40 years ago; except for three months when a barbecue joint occupied the spot, it's been vacant in recent years) into a handsome, haciendalike, 125-seat restaurant. The interior was completely gutted. They put down Mexican tile. They whitewashed the stucco walls, adding accents of handmade bricks, mirrors, and sconces. They had a grill custom-made for the kitchen. They kept the menu simple but bona fide, offering items such as sweetbreads (thymus glands), chinchuline (intestines, according to our waiter), and morcillas (blood sausages) as starters, and a selection of grilled meats, poultry, and shellfish as main courses. And they stocked the wine cellar with more than two dozen reasonably priced red and white Argentine wines.
Fine, but the place has a major problem: Few people there seem to know what they're doing. Certainly our server was at a loss throughout the meal. He failed to accurately describe an appetizer of matambre, neglecting to tell us it was served cold. This dish, common throughout South America, has many variations. Literally, it means "kill hunger," and usually it refers to a rolled or stuffed flank steak that is then pressed and sliced. At El Gaucho the room-temperature matambre was filled mostly with carrots and had a pleasant, mild garlicky flavor; meanwhile, the garnishing scoop of potato salad (a surprise to us) was bland.
Our server also wasn't particularly wine-savvy. After recommending a $24 Navarro Correa pinot noir -- one of the pricier vintages, believe it or not -- he poured the vino into white wine stems. When we didn't express overwhelming enthusiasm for it (the word insipid comes to mind), he told us it needed to breathe. It's difficult for red wine to breathe in white wineglasses, which have a narrow circumference; red wineglasses should have more of a balloon shape in order for the wine to aerate and mellow. We then discovered that one of the glasses was cracked. But when the waiter took away the wine stem, he also took away the wine inside it, which, unlike the glass, was never replaced.
We ran into a practical problem with the soup of the day. Two bowls appeared instead of the one we had ordered. But because it was a good, zesty lentil-chorizo (pork sausage), we decided not to make an issue of it. What did bother me was the size of the spoon I was expected to use. Bigger than a tablespoon, this was more like a serving ladle; I felt positively medieval wielding it. When I asked for a smaller spoon, however, I was told that the restaurant didn't have any -- despite the fact that my guest, sitting across the table from me, was holding one in his hand! Didn't Tony Roma's leave behind even a teaspoon or two?
The Johnstons intend for their meat entrees to be oversize, and their efforts certainly are successful, notably when it comes to El Gaucho's signature main course, a twisted hulk called the churrasco Argentino ("Gaucho steak"). We couldn't quite identify the cut of this boneless, flavorless, sixteen-ounce filet, which was as tough as its namesake, the cowboys of the pampas. We had just about decided the good reputation of Argentine beef was little more than the result of a cagey marketing scheme when we tucked into the pincho toro caliente. An eight-ounce filet mignon, an eight-ounce pork chop, and a length of chorizo had been skewered and grilled with a whole tomato, a whole yellow bell pepper, and more than half an onion. A kebab on steroids. The meat was especially juicy, particularly the thick and tender filet mignon. But I'm still trying to figure out why A.1. steak sauce was served alongside the more traditional chimichurri, a condiment containing parsley and garlic.
The grill failed us with a main course of jumbo shrimp, having sucked the moisture, right along with the flavor, out of the crustaceans; they were truly inedible. Fortunately, an entree of grilled whole rock Cornish hen was big enough to share; while not dripping with juice, it was satisfyingly moist. And all main courses were accompanied by an assortment of vegetables, including slightly overcooked broccoli; sauteed, skin-on potatoes; and chewy corn on the cob commonly known as cow corn -- corn raised for animal feed. It was especially disappointing to this Jersey girl, who grew up nibbling ears of Silver Queen and Bread-'n'-Butter, some of the world's best corn.
But the chewy corn wasn't as distressing as the provoleta (a square of grilled provolone cheese dusted with parsley and slippery with oil), or an overly sweet beef empanada. These two appetizers had something in common with the rolls brought out beforehand: All of them tasted as if they had been pre-prepared and then reheated in a microwave. Worse, the provoleta looked as if it had been purchased in a novelty store. ("Fool your friends! A sure-fire laff riot!")
"Gaucho pancakes," dessert crepes stuffed with dulce de leche, also had a made-beforehand taste. But they might have stood a chance with their thick, sticky filling had they not been under-flambeed with brandy. The resulting fumes were noxious, as was the gasolinelike flavor that coated the tongue after just one bite. A refrigerator-burned chocolate minibundt cake didn't fare any better.
So I guess you could say I didn't like El Gaucho. I'm already bracing for a flurry of hate mail, similar in tone to the responses to my reviews of Malaga, Botin, and Victor's Cafe.
Tony Marin, president of the Hispanic American Business Association, outraged on behalf of Victor's, took me to task in a letter to the editor about what he termed my "hatchet job." I "have a right to my opinion," he wrote, "[but I] also have a great responsibility as a journalist able to reach multitudes and to form public opinion."
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15700 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 305-947-5555. Open Wednesday through Monday from 6:00 till 11:00 p.m; Friday and Saturday till midnight. Open Sunday 5:30 till 11:00 p.m.
Pincho toro caliente