Restaurant Review

Gaucho Steak

montclair
FOOD: Argentine grilled meats, empanadas, seviches
AMBIENCE: Relaxed, warm. Crimson walls, salsa and tango in the air
SERVICE: Friendly, unrushed
WINE LIST: BYO

DINNer for two: $80

Restaurant concepts often migrate to the suburbs after establishing themselves in the city. Gaucho Steak is an unusual example of the process operating in reverse.

In November, veteran New York chefs Jorge Rodriguez and Alex Garcia debuted their Argentine-style steak house on the eclectic Restaurant Row that is Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. The food smartly combines two bankable trends: steak houses and Latin. Now they are about to open two satellites: Gaucho Steak Quick Grill in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, and Gaucho Steak Latin Bistro in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Rodriguez, once an aspiring percussionist, left his native Buenos Aires for Woodstock in 1969 and stayed in the U.S., becoming a chef and exchanging his wooden drumsticks for the edible kind. Garcia, who was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. Along with Cuban-American celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez (no relation), the duo kick-started the Nuevo Latino craze at Douglas’s Yuca in Miami and Patria in Manhattan. More recently, Jorge and Garcia collaborated on Calle Ocho, a trendy Havana-esque haunt on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The pair first came to Montclair as consultants a few years ago to help develop the menu for Cuban Pete’s, a joint that has proven immensely popular (if continuingly notorious for its owner’s arrests for serving wine without a license). They were taken with Montclair, and when the original home of Indigo Smoke became available for rent, the two created Gaucho Steak.

Meat is the main event, but fried calamari, hardly an Argentinean staple, makes an irresistible appetizer. Winkingly called chicharron (which are fried pork rinds), the crisp rings are coated in a caressing honey sauce enhanced with black sesame, ginger, and Szechuan five-spice pepper.

The chefs have a sweet tooth, but they apply it judiciously. Fall-apart-tender costillas (short ribs) are lavished with an apricot glaze that’s a sort of grown-up’s duck sauce. Flash-grilled camarones, hefty shrimp, are swabbed with a tantalizing nectar of honey, soy, and tingling Peruvian peppers. A sweet corn tamal is drizzled with an earthy pumpkin-basil paste, and oxtail empanadas perch in an agreeably syrupy, rosemary-tinged Malbec wine reduction.

Gaucho Steak’s name and brawny entrées pay homage to South American cowboys and their traditional mixed-grill barbecue, asado. The beef is free-range and grass-fed from Uruguay (Argentinean meat is currently banned from importation into the U.S.). Grass-fed beef is redder, leaner, and more intensely flavored than corn-fed. Grilling produces a charry, campfire taste that’s especially pronounced in the restaurant’s marvelously tender sweetbreads and thick, lightly marbled ribeye, served off the bone.

Should native Porteños (Buenos Aireans) drop by, they would likely order entraña. Called skirt steak in the U.S. (or “Philadelphia steak” in South Jersey), entraña is the classic Argentinean cut. Gaucho Steak’s ruby-juiced, profoundly meaty version is dusted with coarse Argentinean sal parrillera (grilling salt) and grilled over gas heat, not open flame. An optional flick of table salt and a splash of chimichurri—the parsley-garlic paste as ubiquitous in Argentina as ketchup is here—is all you need to complete a classic steak-eating experience. Well, that and a side dish called gaucho potatoes—French fries tossed with chopped garlic, sea salt, and parsley.

There is more to Gaucho Steak than asado. Delicious braised pork shank, slow-roasted like osso buco, is served in a pool of white wine sauce with a purée of corn and hominy. The paella is no Ironbound-style battered crockpot, but a dainty, ceramic-topped metal platter. Lift the lid and behold succulent seafood, chicken, and chorizo, which are cooked separately, then placed on a bed of firm Valencian Cebolla rice in garlic butter. However, a salmon fillet, requested “sushi inside,” was overcooked and overwhelmed with Cajun blackening powder.

For dessert, the runaway winner is Porteño panqueques, buttery crêpes bursting with dulce de leche, the tongue-caressing Argentinean milk caramel that has become a trendy upmarket ice cream flavor. Dulce de leche also subtly flavors a good crème brûlée, but, personally, I don’t want just a hint of this compulsively edible flavor. I want heaps of the real thing.

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