The butcher of Soho

A Scotsman, an Irishman and a Colombian walk into a Argentine steak house, and one says to the other: “Let’s teach these Argies how to grill.”

That's just a massive photo of an abattoir.
That’s just a massive photo of an abattoir.

Okay, the gag doesn’t exactly go like that, indeed I don’t think there is even a gag about the Scots, the Irish and the Colombians being in the same room together.

But what I do know is that BA’s latest culinary movements involve these three nationalities.

A Glaswegian is now leading the kitchen at San Telmo’s L’Atelier de Céline while the not terribly Irish-sounding Edward Holloway, formerly of Bariloche’s Butterfly, has taken over affairs at Palermo Hollywood’s Fierro Hotel, turned it upside down and spat it out to create Uco.

As for the Colombian, well, if Pedro Peña isn’t about to teach an Argentine how to grill steak, he’s certainly leading the charge to enhance matters of meat.

Arriving in Buenos Aires nine years ago with the intention of starting culinary school, Pedro dropped out of three education establishments. But he did make use of the contacts available and he started working almost immediately, honing skills with Hernán Gipponi at his Martínez restaurant, then at the Fierro’s HG (before it became Uco, strangely enough), then moving on to lead the culinary team at Retiro’s award-winning Florería Atlántico.

Hard not to fall in love
It’s hard not to fall in love with a lomo fillet steak or asado de tira ribs, and Pedro is no different. His love for beef, indeed meat, began here and while his first solo venture’s original aim was to dry-age, smoke or cure every last morsel, the issue of space was greater than the intention.

Taking over the grottiest of dives, a parrilla called Palermo Viejo, and opening 10 days ago, La Carnicería can cater to around 24 diners in one hit. But it’s not just the intimate setting that is fast making this the hottest place to bag a table in town. This Colombian is raising the bar for all local steakhouses with his forward-thinking approach to meat.

While there will always be demand for the classics, it is refreshing, however, to walk into a meatery like La Carnicería, aesthetically speaking. Entire carcasses hang from the wall in a vast photographic tribute to meat-packers, with actual hooks dangling from the ceiling to give a realistic image of hung meat. (Or maybe they are for coats…)

The restaurant’s logo, featuring classic typography hand-painted by a specialized sign-maker, is emblazoned across wooden slats, another reference to the old-school meat locker look. And for those who need their protein on the run, the small bar houses several stools, perfect for a ringside view of the grill.

But the main difference, in comparison with other steak houses, boils down to technique. While big guns such as the Four Seasons’ Elena and Puerto Madero’s Le Grill have the facilities to dry-age meat — at a price — Pedro isn’t interested in offering fine dining but rather creating an accessible eatery with ace products.

Tricks of the trade
And he’s keeping his word. The fact Pedro’s charcuterie, including chorizo, morcilla, tongue and kidney, is made in house isn’t just because of his superb culinary skills but also due to the fact he spent a week in Tucumán learning the tricks of the trade with a cold cuts specialist. In addition, his meat provider is tried and tested, a reliable source in an unreliable country, while his smoker was made to spec by a fellow from Córdoba. The scene is set.

Drool over the corte parrilla of the day.
Drool over the corte parrilla of the day.

The bread basket has a new twist, given that the focus is hard salami, backed up delectable olive bread and sourdough, lightly painted with olive oil and toasty warm. A small kerfuffle ensues over the last slice.

Starters have also been given a good kick up the backside, classics revamped and modernised. Goat’s cheese provoleta sports peach, green leaves and salsa criolla (80 pesos), tongue includes pear and goat’s cheese (60 pesos) while the blood sausage features apple, bell pepper and fennel (70 pesos).

We went for sweetbreads (98 pesos), honey-glazed to bring an unusual sugary tone to these glands, on a bed of corn that started life on the grill. Chunky, tender, plenty of flavour both smoky and sweet, an excellent marker of meat to come. No kernel was left unturned in the wooden bowl.

With regards to mains, La Carnicería isn’t serving up a sizzling grill stuffed with cuts as is the traditional way; in fact there are fewer mains than starters. Short is sweet, and that allows the kitchen to make a smattering of really great dishes.

What is innovative is that the main comes complete with sides such as grilled pumpkin or roast potatoes. No need to add on fries or a simple salad— your dish comes with sufficient backup.

The five mains either cost 120 or 130 pesos, and includes the catch of the day, pork and lamb. Flexibility lies within the two Cortes (Parrilla and Ahumado), which can change up on a daily basis — and once you’ve devoured one, you’ll want to try the rest.

It was at this point, when the Corte Ahumado — smoked flank or vacío on that day — came out on a bespoke wooden platter that La Carnicería is in fact selling food porn. One smoky bite, and my dinner date turned into a drooling fool.

The magic happens while the meat is smoked for five hours at 80ºC with cherry wood. Not too overpowering, the meat’s flavour came through with the smoky undertone matching it beat for beat, tender and juicy like a medium rare steak with a crispy skin. The drooler came back to earth about 20 minutes later.

My bife de chorizo was a perfect 10. Good-looking, a massive fatty side giving it its classic flavour, at least 300 grams of pure flesh, perfectly seared, so much flavour, equal to any of the Big Five’s offerings. And I love the fact that tomorrow’s cut of the day will be something different, a reason to return.

Book ahead. This is a small space, and it was packed last Sunday evening. Its also open every day for lunch and dinner for the time being while they suss out which schedules work best.

The Colombian butcher might not be teaching the Argentines how to grill meat, but he’s certainly paving the way for techniques and flavours new to the local steakhouse scene.

La Carnicería
Thames 2319, Palermo Soho
Tel: 011 2071-7199

Buenos Aires Herald, December 7, 2014
Ph: me

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