Although the concept of eating dry-aged beef is relatively new in Argentina, it’s a phenomenon that should certainly be on the radar. Thousands of heads of cattle are sent to Liniers Market four days a week, ready for auction before being sent to the slaughterhouse, and come the festive Christmas period, those daily numbers top five figures.
Some, selected as the Hilton quota, are sent abroad to beef-hungry Russians and Europeans eager to slice into a prime Argentine steak. Other cuts, such as the classic short rib, stay in the country for local
Aged beef as a concept has been popular for quite some time in the UK, for example, and especially when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver gave his seal of approval to 21-day mature steaks for a leading supermarket almost 10 years ago.
Hung for quite some time in order to obtain more flavour, either as half a carcass or in strips — and rather like keeping wine in oak of a certain age to improve its quality — in temperatures that are close to freezing, one Argentine company hangs its beef for a minimum of four weeks. Essentially a scientific measure, Dry Aged Argentina also controls air temperature levels, all with the aim of ensuring a natural yet chemical effect takes place. And that means a dry-aged steak is more tender and tastier than one from an average parrilla.
Lining up beef of different ages side by side, the difference is noticeable. A 63-day carpaccio of fillet tastes rather lighter than the 103-day one, yet they both have quite the beefy taste, brimming with the essences of the countryside. They both also pair up perfectly with a Pinot Noir, bringing out those mushroom flavours I inevitably pick up on in that grape.
As delightful as a wafer-thin sliver of carpaccio is, however, there’s no beating that traditional Argentine cut, the bife de chorizo. Best classified as a sirloin although it’s not quite the same, a rare slice of 65-day dry-aged bife de chorizo, with a back-up team of roasted cherry tomatoes really is meaty perfection personified: tender, flavourful, juicy, and as soft as butter.
Obviously as such care, so much so it is almost an art form, goes into the preparation of dry-aged beef thereby it comes at a price, and for the time being Dry Aged Argentina is the Four Seasons hotel’s provider of these luxury cuts. However, the menu at La Cabaña in Puerto Madero features aged Aberdeen Angus, so while the offerings are few for the time being, dry-aged beef should become increasing popular. Think of it like this: if you look to sip aged wine, maybe you could look at beef in the same way.
Now, another meaty revelation or two, and something else not often seen on Buenos Aires menus. The T-bone. And I’m not referring to the conscious/inspirational Christian rapper. (He exists. Google him.) Before dining at Palermo’s Parrilla Donca this week, I could name you two BA restaurants serving T-bones: the high-end yet utterly delicious in so many ways Cabaña Las Lilas, and T-Bone. Well I’m working on the assumption that the latter does, otherwise it needs a different identity…
Donca is run by Carlos Santillan, and is located on Godoy Cruz, a street previously renowned for good times at transvestite bar Kim y Novak, Donca, as the owner and the restaurant are both known as, brought in new chef Chapa, who’s been around the restaurant block, to vamp up the menu. It’s quite the local joint, and they are quite the comedy duo — a larger-than-life chef and the hospitable, super-friendly manager with an enormous smile.
And it’s quite deceptive looking. First glance promises any old parrilla, but get down to the nitty-gritty and there’s quite the intriguingly well-thought-out menu going on, among the hand-painted penguin wine jugs and empty green bottles a small boy would love to take aim up at.
The first sign that something is up comes with the dips’ arrival. Handmade chicken liver paté, hummus and pickled aubergine. A creamy dream, I had to remember that Mr T and a sweetbread salad were en route.
Although 19 provolone kisses (39 pesos) sound cheesy, (well, they were) and made for perfect bite-size chunks of melting cheese to poke a fork into. Those earthenware dishes designed for slippery snails aren’t often available at restaurants, and most of the time it’s fun to share a course.
Up next was a rocket and sweetbread salad (50 pesos). An unusual combo, you’ll agree, but throw in those mollejas marinaded in port and figs, and that is some salad. Put simply, it was unexpected. Grant and I ordered it to come with our steak, but it was original and tempting, and we devoured every last soft little piece before remembering Mr T was lingering on the table. Note to reader. That dish wasn’t fun to share.
Most regular cuts — entraña, ribs — are on Donca’s menu so it was a genuine surprise to see a T-bone (85 pesos) nestling among the local faves and accompanied by a jacket potato. I forgot my ruler, but in the US the tenderloin on such a cut at its widest point must be at least 13mm in width. A 450-grammer, Mr T was grilled, over quebracho coal and wood, medium-rare as requested. Tasty, juicy, I needed a private moment to get my hands on that bone. Grant granted me it. Good man.
Chapa took some time to hang out with us, and lamented that we hadn’t had the house special, the ojo de bife. He also lamented those restaurants that don’t fill their stuffed pastas sufficiently (he named names). But there’ll definitely be a next time, Chapa.
Wining On verdict: An unexpected little gem on an unexpected Palermo corner. Lots of lovely surprises: great condiments including chutney, Mr T-bone, a menu bulging with creativity plus they buy wine from Bodega El Desierto, which makes my favourite 25/5 Cabernet Franc. Surprisingly good. Surprisingly good value.
Charcas 4799, Palermo
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on December 9, 2012
Photos courtesy of Mass Media, Donca