When the main man who’s tended the flames at San Telmo’s La Brigada every day for the past 20 years moves on to pastures new, this is intel that needs to be taken seriously.
Parrillero Mauricio Ponce recently cut ties with La Brigada’s Hugo Echevarrieta to take over the grill at Hollywood’s latest steak offering Club El Don.
The top five big-hitting Buenos Aires steak houses are generally considered as Don Julio, La Cabrera, Cabaña Las Lilas, Le Grill and the aforementioned La Brigada, with La Cabaña and Nuestro Secreto thrown in for good measure.
And while El Don is nascent, it certainly has the making of an excellent pedigree ahead. Although this is charismatic co-owner Diego Lepera’s first foray into the restaurant business, the blueprint for El Don is based upon ingredient quality. Fortunate enough to own a pig and chicken farm in Lobos, Buenos Aires province, free-range meat makes it to the table, with Lepera saying he’s quickly learned what constitutes a porker ripe for the chop.
Before the provoleta arrives, let it be known that El Don’s owners have scoured the country for what they consider to be the best, keen to promote regional products: their melted cheese dish comes from a producer in Santa Rosa in La Pampa, for example.
As for the beef, Ponce takes care of producer selection, choosing grass-fed cattle across the board.
Team Don had the good fortune to take over the space previously occupied by La Carranzita, a nice enough steakhouse that unfortunately failed to stand out among the vast number of eateries in the hood. El Don will have no such problem in attracting attention, thanks to the illuminated images of godfather Corleone on the street. Personally I don’t get the Argentine obsession with gangster culture or how it relates to steak but a theme’s a theme, and you got to stand out from the crowd in oversubscribed Hollywood.
The black-and-white interior is more stylish than the Corleone homage lets on, thankfully. And comprising several areas within the restaurant — from ground floor patio, two main salons, a terrace to a very sexy private dining room for eight on the first floor — allowing for a certain amount of privacy.
Service is old school, AKA career waiters, attentive and friendly gentlemen but without the necessary knowhow to make them outstanding — opening wine incorrectly, for example. Given that I am nitpicking, overall however, it is efficient.
Kicking off with fried beef empanadas, hopes were high given all the love and attention that goes into ingredient selection, and perhaps I was under the illusion that we’d be biting in Mrs Corleone’s homemade recipe. In fact there wasn’t much flavour going on, not enough spices and the olive pieces were too large for my liking. But on the plus side, this was to be the weakest link of the meal.
Next came a heap of other starters, including beef kidneys (88 pesos), cow and goat’s cheese provoleta (78 and 82 pesos respectively) and a chorizo. That sausage was excellent, not overly fatty or too soft, but it was surpassed by a wild boar chorizo, an earthy savage number that made me wish all chorizos were as distinctive and luxurious as this one.
As for the goat’s cheese provoleta, crispy parts mixed with gooey melted cheese is heavenly at the best of times, and this one was perfectly grilled to bring out the best of both worlds.
The dishes kept coming, including beef sweetbreads and kid chitlins. The latter was reminiscent of La Brigada, whose menu includes a mix of offal, and it pays to be adventurous. I prefer my mollejas to be crispy on the outside and soft within rather than soft all over but that latter texture was ideal for the kid chinchulines.
Then, a strange sensation came over me, which I read as time to get some foliage inside. The arugula and parmesan combo (68 pesos) was pristine and fresh, the cheese not as overwhelming or orange as the same salad at La Cabrera.
Throw in some pork belly (150 pesos) then eight meaty dishes later — and I know I’ve missed some out — it’s show time. Three cuts, three mouths and it’s time to tackle tapa de ojo de bife also known as ribeye cap, ribeye and bife El Don.
A man once said that when a bar or restaurant names a dish after itself, it’s because they are so proud of it that they’ll name it after the establishment. A handy rule of thumb, you’ll agree. And while that evening’s eponymous steak was a right treat, it was utterly eclipsed by the former two.
Each cut came out medium rare on Lepera’s command, unusual for the average porteño steakhouse, which often crisps beef dry. Not so at El Don. (Ah, the penny drops, perhaps all that bloody juice is where The Godfather reference applies.)
The rib-eye was tender, beefy buttery, easy to cut despite the enormous prerequisite knife, beefy. But the ribeye cap surpassed all that to be tender-er, beefier, buttery-er, in every way. I’d never even heard of this cut before let alone seen it on a menu and suddenly I’m eating the best thing since sliced bread.
Bleeding gold, it was.
The question is, does Buenos Aires need another steak house?
A premium one perhaps not, but once word gets out that some of El Don’s dishes are the bull’s testicles — the goat’s cheese provoleta, kid chitlins, the ribeye and that magical tapa de ojo de bife, for example — then El Don will start cleaning up in Palermo.
Club El Don
Buenos Aires Herald, September 21, 2014