Moo Times Two
I have long maintained that if the axiom "you are what you eat" were true, the language among Argentines would be reduced to only one word: moo. The Knife and Matador, a pair of all-you-can-stuff-your-gut-with Argentine steak houses that have recently set up ranch in these parts, reinforce the notion that our Latin neighbors are simply mad about cow.
Readers are more apt to be familiar with the former establishment, which had already rounded up hurrahs in the Hallandale and Sunrise markets before corralling the old Fuddruckers space in Coconut Grove this past March; Matador, waving its red meat cape in North Miami Beach since February (but with new owners taking over in May), hopes to create a cash cow of its own by emulating The Knife's ultrasuccessful formula of including a bottle of wine for each diner for an already absurdly low dinner price: The Knife charges $21.85 weekdays, $23.95 weekends; at Matador it's $19.95 and $23.95. Permit me to preface any mild criticisms to come by proclaiming that these restaurants ultimately deserve shouts of Bravo! for providing working-class residents of their respective communities the opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry in a decadent yet affordable fashion.
Although The Knife has the edge of experience, and as such runs a far sharper operation than Matador, the most obvious difference lies in the décor. The Knife, with soaring wooden ceilings and a corny but effective gaucho theme, splits into two airy, brightly adorned rooms and an outdoor balcony overlooking Grand Avenue. There can be quite a line to get in, particularly on weekends, when waiters wade into the waiting masses to pass out empanadas. The way in which diners are herded into the eatery is a bit fitting; perhaps it would be more appropriate if those tasty egg-flecked turnovers were simply placed in a trough by the entrance.
Matador is an inelegant rectangular arena centered by a circular salad bar, with wooden booths running around the perimeter and potted plants placed here and there in an attempt to warm the space (which works about as effectively as candles in an igloo). Then again, the lack of a slick, franchised veneer is sort of refreshing -- it's akin to eating at a big, unpretentious barbecue joint.
Here's how it works at both spots: Each diner is offered a bottle of red or white wine, or two glasses of soda, or two beers. A basket of warm, pale, soft baguettes is promptly set down (though at these all-you-can-eat venues bread is viewed by most as foolish filler taking up precious intestinal space). You are encouraged to start by heading to the salad bar, which also contains cold appetizers. After grazing on greens, you go to the grill area, grab a metal plate from the counter, and let the grill guys load it up with your requested cuts. Unlike at a traditional Brazilian rodizio restaurant, where meat-hauling men meander from table to table offering their wares, here you have the opportunity to burn a calorie, maybe two, each time you rise for refills. It isn't all self-service though -- the waiter is responsible for delivering starches (either French fries, mashed potatoes, or white rice), desserts (one apiece), and coffee. After paying the bill, you will waddle off into the wobbly night.
Although red wine is considered the most judicious match for red meat, steamy summertime begs for an ice-cold beer -- make that two. At Matador it's a choice between bottled Miller or Bud with frosted mug; at The Knife it's draft Bud or Bud Light. I'm not suggesting that the complimentary Argentine wines aren't drinkable, although I wasn't encouraged when the label on my bottle at The Knife relied on words such as "amiable" to describe the wine's appeal; after tasting, I would add that it likewise possessed a strong sense of humor. The Knife hands out a separate wine and beer list for those who take their drinks more seriously. Matador plans on following suit but currently one-ups its competitor by offering a choice of Cabernet, Merlot, or Malbec as a freebie.
Salad bars at these spots showcase the usual medley of canned ingredients (corn, beets, green beans, cannellini beans, and artichoke hearts), fresh vegetables (lettuces, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, celery), and commercially prepared dressings. Other items include potato and egg salads; roasted peppers, eggplants, and assorted vegetables marinated in olive oil; and traditional Argentine specialties such as tongue vinaigrette, tuna pinwheels, and flank steak roulades (matambres). I found Matador's egg-battered slices of fried eggplant wrapped around ham and cheese to be particularly satisfying.
Once you've whet your appetite with a sensible (or not) sampling of light foodstuffs, it's time to meet the meats. More cuts of beef prepared by more cooks come off the grill in a faster, fresher manner at The Knife, though it's possible this could change if Matador were to draw the same voluminous crowds. The Knife also features a number of dishes that Matador does not, like beef and chicken brochettes and the classic Argentine grilled Provolone, oozy cheese capped with oregano and assertively imbued with smoke. Otherwise, the quality of product at the two steak houses is indistinguishable, both presenting crisp sweetbreads, juicy chorizo, rich blood sausages, and reliable, sometimes rousing renditions of red meats --New York strip and entraña (the outside skirt steak used for churrasco) are safe, solid bets, but I preferred the more flavor-intense flank (matambre), rump roast (costilla de cuadril), and short ribs (asado de costilla).
Each place prepared one or two items better than the other. The Matador's chicken breast and thigh possessed darker crust and moister interior than The Knife's regrettably pale version, though the latter offered a bacon-wrapped leg stuffed with ham and peppers that was tasty as anything we tried. The Knife's pork loin rolled around raisins was dry, yet less so than Matador's dreadfully desiccated version of the same. French fries were equally hot and crisp -- thin sticks at The Knife, thicker steak cuts at Matador.
Crêpes filled with dulce de leche comprise the best dessert at both venues, though at The Knife they're better, and you get more of a show -- the delicate pancakes are freshly flipped in an open kitchen. Other acutely sweet options are similar at the two locations: rice pudding, profiteroles, tiramisu, chocolate mousse, flan, bread pudding, ice cream, and a bowl of fruit. To put these places into economic perspective with other dining establishments: A bowl of berries at Baleen costs fifteen dollars.
In short, The Knife and Matador offer a lot of beef without much bull. And after dining at these restaurants numerous times over the past few weeks, I have only one more thing to say: moo.
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