The Henry Hotel is a seedy little South Beach venue on Washington Avenue just north of Fifth Street. Still, Sport Café did a brisk business while situated there between 1992 and 1999, which is when it moved to classier digs up the block on the corner of Sixth and Washington. Baires Grill inhabited the Henry spot when Sport split, and it too enjoyed success via a loyal local clientele. When the Sport Café, a popular budget Italian eatery, closed a couple of months ago (they still run two Rosinella's), the popular budget Argentine Baires once again followed and settled into the vacated corner location.
The new Baires is prettier and roomier than the old (with outdoor tables, it now seats more than 200). A long, hand-crafted wooden bar barrels up the left side of the rectangular room, a slightly elevated dining area taking up the right portion. Terra cotta- tiled floors, wooden wainscoting, and soft lights conspire to cast a cozy ambiance; the restaurant's back wall reveals a glassed-in glimpse of the kitchen crew. A sizable outdoor patio, fenced in and lush with foliage, is far more intimate than the scattering of tables along Washington Avenue that defined al-fresco dining at the Henry.
Baires may be wearing a new look, but service and prices remain as friendly as ever. Manager Domingo Vilas cordially welcomes guests, and the staff, though a little English-challenged and at times disorganized, likewise shows a keen interest in assuring diner satisfaction -- not that difficult to accomplish when most appetizers are less than $10 and most main courses less than $20.
The food here is accommodating as well, the menu a populist parillada of grilled steaks with some pasta and fish dishes thrown in for good measure. There's not a whole lot of ambitious cuisine going down, but appetizers, in particular, reflect authentic Argentine cooking. Stuffed veal, for instance, is a Latin take on the French galantine, whereby the meat gets rolled around a forcemeat (in this case one of veal and ham studded with hard-boiled eggs), formed into a loaf, poached, chilled, and served as two thick, oval slices positioned against a generous mound of "Russian potato salad," which is to say potato salad with minced carrots and peas. Thin cutlets of seared sweetbreads were less unusual but equally rewarding, the crisp crusts cradling creamy white meat within. Spinach pie is worth touting too, a triangular wedge of surprising and seductively sweet pastry filled with sautéed greens and flecks of white cheese.
We were less enthused with our "complete" salad of greens, beets, tomatoes, too many shredded carrots, hard-boiled egg slices, and half an avocado, the dressing a do-it-yourself drizzle of Colavita olive oil and balsamic vinegar from jars placed on each table. Completely unremarkable.
Main courses are mostly meaty. One of only three fish dishes is mahi-mahi piccata (salmon is the other, plus a seafood special of the night), a hefty hunk dipped in egg and delicately pan-fried, the pearly flesh flaking into moist, succulent bites. Cannelloni relleños features two tubby tubes of pasta swelling with a savory filling of minced chicken, ham, and ricotta cheese, topped with tomato sauce and baked in a casserole. So far so good, but our dish was left in the oven too long, the sauce and filling drying out in the process; a splash of fresh tomato sauce on top would have helped remedy that. Continuing the Italian theme, veal and chicken breast are prepared in the Milanese manner, the latter effectively brandishing a neatly breaded, cleanly fried coat of crumbs.
Nonpasta entrées are accompanied by a side of your choosing. One of the best was a stellar rendition of creamed spinach, baked with Béchamel and capped with a browned crust of parmesan cheese. "Spanish potatoes" are recommendable as well, an ample mound of thinly sliced tubers tossed home-fry-style with onions and paprika. Mashed sweet or regular potatoes, French fries, rice and beans, and creamed broccoli comprise the other possible choices.
It's fitting that parillada offerings take up the largest part of Baires's menu. Flap or skirt steak, both taken from the flank and the preferred cuts for a traditional grilled churrasco, come in full (sixteen-ounce) or half (eight-ounce) servings. Granted the small flap looked kind of puny on the plate, but it was tasty, and even more so with a touch of chimichurri. Plus, let's face it, there aren't many places on South Beach where you can get any size steak for under ten dollars, especially ones that are certified Black Angus.
More substantially portioned meats, like a twenty-ounce slab of rib eye, is also a bargain at $19.95. Other carnivorous comestibles include short ribs, chorizo, blood sausage, a mixed grill for two, and filet mignon with various garnish options (blue cheese, mushrooms, and so on). Filet also comes threaded on a kebab, four generous chunks of ruby-rare meat (as ordered) interrupted on the skewer by thin squares of green pepper and onion -- at $16.95 that's a lot of tender tenderloin for not much legal tender. There are robust and affordable red wines, mostly from Argentine grapes, with which to supplement your steak.
You might need a glass of vino to help pass time between courses -- the kitchen here can be excruciatingly slow. On one occasion the lapse between entrée and dessert was so long I wondered whether the desserts and the actual plates themselves were being made to order. The wait on a second visit occurred between starter and entrée; we meanwhile munched on soft, warm, underbaked whole-wheat baguettes.
Baires's dessert sampler is supposed to be for two, and the $10.95 price would seem to confirm that, but the caramel custard, raisin-flecked bread pudding, vanilla ice cream, alluringly sugar-caramelized crêpe, and swirl of dulce de leche can feed at least three or four -- which makes it, like everything else, a real deal. You can also treat yourself to a chocolate mousse, made with Callebaut chocolate, for $5.95.
Low prices, solid eats, amiable faces, and a relaxed, kicked-back setting prove that Baires Grill is ultimately a leader, not a follower. If you've never dined here, the sporty new crib presents a convenient excuse to give it a try.
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