Among the gastronomic highlights of my life is a streamside asado, or barbecue, along the Chimehuin River in Argentina. After a morning of fly-fishing, I enjoyed a charred sirloin, sliced summer tomatoes, and fried potatoes, all washed down with a bottle of dry Cabernet from the north-central province of Mendoza. No sooner had I finished one steak than I asked my fishing guide to grill me another, which I consumed as quickly as the first.
Until the recent opening of Chimichurri Grill (606 Ninth Avenue, at 43rd Street; 586-8655), New Yorkers have had to content themselves with Argentine restaurants that serve food as tired as a dime-a-dance tango partner on Sunday morning. Chimichurri Grill, though just two weeks old, has the snappy command of its staff, menu, and atmosphere that one expects in a restaurant thats had more time to hit its stride.
Credit this coordination to the vision and skill of owner and chef Jorge Rodriguez, a native of Buenos Aires who has worked with Gato Dumas, the Argentine Paul Bocuse. Rodriguez, who has the heart of a maître d beating underneath his chefs tunic, shares front-of-the-house responsibilities with his wife, Alicia, and works at the stove alongside Carlos Benavides, a former executive chef at the Italian favorite i Trulli.
An Argentine restaurant typically displays a lot of wood, equestrian prints, and enough spurs, crops, and whips to stock a leather bar. Chimichurri forgoes the gaucho incunabula but does have a pretty back wall composed of dovetailed hardwoods. Small black-and-white photos, circa late Evita, accent walls dominated by two gilt-edged mirrors. Venetian blinds with thick wooden slats lend a warm if slightly noirish feel to the room.
Rodriguez experiments with ingredients that add freshness and complexity of flavor to the fundamentally hearty Argentine menu. The matambre con rusa features thick slices of cold, rolled veal filled with herbs. The accompanying salad of potatoes, carrots, and peas is dressed with a fresh-tarragon mayonnaise and a squirt of white-truffle oil that transforms the often-uninspired appetizer into a flavor-infused arrangement of ingredients.
Many Argentine restaurants betray their countrys Italian heritage with menu offerings like tallarines, a fettuccine-like pasta. As his mother taught him to, Rodriguez rolls his with the leftover spinach-and-herb filling of his ravioli. The resulting green pasta is then served with a substantial tomato-and-chicken ragu. And the ravioli themselves? Quite nice, when filled with spinach and ricotta -- but not as good, I imagine, as the simmered-calf-brains-and-spinach ravioli Rodriguez tells me his mother prepares back in Buenos Aires.
The section marked de la parilla, or from the grill, is the heart of the menu, and no dish is more typical of Argentina than the asado de tira, or grilled ribs. This meat is one we Anglos distrust unless its boiled to the point of decomposition. I actually like it that way, but there is something more quintessentially meaty about this Argentine plate of three grilled short ribs, in their salty, chewy glory. For those who think all beef must be tender, this dish is an eye- (or at least a mouth-) opener.
The bife angosto is a perfectly done black-and-blue shell steak. The meatiness is nicely cut by chimichurri sauce, a purée of oregano, parsley, vinegar, garlic, olive oil, and, in this restaurants version, roasted sweet pepper. Any Argentine chef will be happy to turn over its exact proportions just as soon as hes been delivered the recipes for Coca-Cola and McDonalds special sauce.
Magret duck breast came medium-rare and was dressed with a perfumed infusion of thyme, a delicate combination brought back to earth by a side of mashed batata, the white sweet potato of Patagonia. The only false note among the entrées was a skirt steak that I found a bit liverish.
Among the desserts, I found a good mil hojas, essentially a mille-feuille only less delicately prepared. Even the French, however, cannot improve on the panqueques de manzana (apple pancakes), buttery caramelized crêpes with sweet apple slices.
Chimichurri is a new restaurant with promise. Dont keep your distance.
Chimichurri Grill is open Monday through Saturday. Lunch, noon to 3. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11, Friday and Saturday till 11:30. Wine and beer license pending. A.E., M.C., V.