“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo
Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo”
– opening lyrics to The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music
Buenos Aires – I’m going to trash a myth or two here and at the same time, try to preserve that which is good and true. There are a couple of parrillas here in town that get a huge amount of play in the tourism columns, the guidebooks, and anywhere else that caters to the world of travelers. Parrillas, or steakhouses, as we know, are one of the prime draws for people from around the world to head down to the far reaches of Argentina and our little city here. That’s always mystified me – there are certainly dishes of one culinary canon or another that I would gladly hop on a plane for, but a grilled steak isn’t one of them. True, Argentine beef is different – between breed, and a majority that is grass fed, free range (not all of it anymore, that’s changed over the 6-7 years, and, as I’m led to understand it, some 25-30% is now feedlot rasied or “finished”). True, Argentines are handy with a grill. And, better yet, they’ve come to accept that not everyone on the planet likes their steaks cooked to somewhere between medium well and well done, it is possible indeed to get something with a bit of color left to it.
The places I’m thinking of, however, deserve a bit of attention – I haven’t given them much because for most locals they’re simply designated as “tourist traps”, and I tend to avoid them, or, simply not write about them. Perhaps it’s time to writeup a few of them, and since one of them appears on the list of parrillas that I’m working my way through, I’ll start there. La Cabrera (the “goatherd”), J.A. Cabrera 5099, in Palermo, 4831-7002 shall be today’s… target. So let’s start with the simple stuff – this is not an “Argentine institution” nor a “porteño classic” as I hear from one tourist after another. It’s not the “bastion of traditional steakhouses” as someone recently stated to me. It was opened less than seven years ago, in response to the wave of tourism that washed over this city after the economic crisis, and its sister restaurant, La Cabrera Norte, which I mentioned awhile back, has only been open for four years. Sure, the place is done up to look like an old dive, but it’s not, it’s just interior decorating.
La Cabrera has a gimmick. And it’s a good one. It’s what keep getting referred to as “all the side dishes”, i.e., the things that accompany the steaks. Most parrillas here bring the steak, unadorned, with, perhaps, chimichurri sauce on the side and maybe some salsa criolla as well. La Cabrera brings lots of dishes of things to go with your steaks. But I’m going to categorically deny that they are side dishes. They are condiments. A large array of them true, but they’re not side dishes – these aren’t plates of creamed spinach or souffleed potatoes or even a salad, to be passed around and shared by those at the table – they’re small ramekins, arrayed on platters or alongside the steak, each of which holds a sauce, or puree or something of that sort, to nibble on with your steak. And, to be honest, I don’t care for most of them. There, I said it. Neither, by the way did my dining companion, nor did a group of five foodie friends who were in for the week. I think it’s just the shock value of having something, anything, served with a steak that catches the attention – as I said, it’s a gimmick.
Bread and breadsticks arrive with the first of these – a trio of: mayonnaise, roasted red pepper puree, and a head of roasted garlic. This, by the way, is the best of it all as far as we were concerned – the red pepper puree was delicious and what’s not to like about roasted garlic?
I was, unfortunately, taking a phone call at the moment the waiter arrived with our provoleta, and he cut it in half and whipped it onto plates before I could get a photo of it in its cute little service pan – but if you see the link to La Cabrera Norte above, it’s the same. A really quite good provoleta I must say, though at nearly 30 pesos for a slice of cheese, it’s a bit outrageous – tourist trap, remember?
I happen to love stuffed and fried olives. My companion hadn’t tried them before – he, it turns out, doesn’t. These were good – not the best I’ve had, the stuffing was pretty much non-existent, but I still ate my way through the plate of them. The tomato sauce accompanying was little more than pureed tomato, pretty much unseasoned.
Having had the experience at their other restaurant, I knew the steaks were pretty big, so we took the waiter’s recommendation for the ojo de bife, or rib-eye, as their best cut. It was very good – cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was unseasoned. Not even salt. Enter the condiments and the saltshaker I suppose. Here’s why I say they aren’t side dishes – at the far end of the photo you have a trio: a single canned and brined artichoke heart, an herb mayonnaise, and a sweet tomato sauce, kind of like a homemade ketchup; at the close end, another trio: some white beans in herbs, a mustard mayonnaise, and a single sun-dried tomato with a cooked onion.
Ah, but it didn’t stop there. A pastry tray topped with a septet of ramekins arrived – clockwise from the lower left: cold mashed potatoes with mustard seeds, chopped red bell peppers in barbecue sauce, cold pureed squash, cocktail onions in a sweet vinegary sauce, roasted garlic cloves in a different barbecue sauce, cooked (but cold) eggplant and onion compote, and, in the center, applesauce. Not only are these not side dishes, but half of them don’t even particularly go well with steak – and most of them were sweet. We went back to the plain roasted garlic cloves and the really good red pepper puree that had come with the bread – both worked better with the steak than anything else served. Oh, and no chimichurri, nor salsa criolla.
So hmm, overall… very touristy – with the exception of two businessmen at the table next to us and ourselves, everyone in the restaurant was a tourist (and the place was close to full) – our waiter was actually surprised to find out that we weren’t, and expressed that. The steak – really quite good, no question, and given the size, not badly priced at 57 pesos – it was easily enough for the two of us and we couldn’t even finish it. The whole “side dish” thing – a waste of time – it’s cute, but it’s insubstantial and most of the condiments would have been better left in the jars they came out of. The wine list, decent, a little pricey but not too bad. Overall, it’s just fine, as long as you know what you’re in for – I wouldn’t make a beeline to go back, but I wouldn’t say no if someone invited me to join them there. I have to admit, I’m surprised it made Dereck Foster’s list of favorite parrillas, I wish I had the article still so I could see what his reasoning was….