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04.12.2006

Restaurant Review: Cabaña Las Lilas, Buenos Aires

lilas_card.jpgIf there's not already a saying, there should be one, and it would go something like this: "You can eat incredibly well in Argentina. As long as you like meat." Judging from the listings in the phone book and the signs on the street, every other restaurant must be a steakhouse. OK, so I exaggerate a bit, but seriously, these people eat a lot of meat, and when they do, they consume it in mass quantities. At the lower-end places, they sometimes put pictures of their steaks in the windows, and some of the slabs of meat are so monstrous that even the most stalwart carnivore would think twice before ordering.

I don't recommend going to any of those low-end steak restaurants, however. In fact I don't recommend going to any other steakhouse in Argentina except for Cabaña Las Lilas. I've gone to a bunch of them now. Not just random restaurants, mind you, but several of the ones that are touted by locals and international press and people whose opinions I trust implicitly as "the best."

None of them can compare.

Of course, steaks in Argentina are like pizza in New York, or sushi in San Francisco -- everyone lays claim to "the best" spot which they evangelize without much thought to what else is out there. I haven't gone to EVERY major steakhouse, so this recommendation can't be made with complete authority. Take it for what its worth to you.

Cabañ Las Lilas is located in the neighborhood of Puerto Madero, which is basically the international business 'hood of the city. Puerto Madero is the modern skyline of Buenos Aires, where jet-setting businessmen room.jpgcan stay at big name hotels, walk to their metal-and-glass office buildings, and not have to interact with any of the dirty streets of Buenos Aires. It's not really a part of the city as much as it is literally an add-on that replaced decaying and disused docklands with something more useful. Where there is international business there is money, of course, and where there is money, neighborhoods like the Madero tend to spring up. We can't fault it for obeying the laws of economics, and thanks to the installation of restaurants like Cabana Las Lilas it manages to inch its way out of the category of tourist trap.

Las Lilas, as it is known, cannot be mistaken for anything other than a big-budget commercial restaurant, but to dismiss it as a result would be a grave mistake. The restaurant is as well subscribed by the local Buenos Aires residents (Porteños) as it is by the tourist crowd. Apart from their language, the two types of customers can be distinguished by the hour of their meal and the number of vegetables on the table. Argentineans, and Porteños in particular, don't particularly care for vegetables and salads, and almost without exception are late eaters. The reservation policies of steakhouses, more so than any other sort of restaurant, many of which were happy to take a reservation at the gruesomely early hour of 8:30 PM, seem to reflect the tendency to ignore thoughts about dinner until after 10:00 PM. Las Lilas takes reservations only up until 9:00 PM, and then after that, it's an Argentine free for all. Luckily the restaurant has an ample bar where residents can lounge around the polished burl wood seats and counter with mixed drinks until the electronic pagers provided by the staff jingle a little tune.

Every diner walks by the dark wine cellar , with its racks of bottles, on the way to their table, and then the glassed-in grill. This area, with its polished wood cutting station and knife racks and massive angled grill that is scrubbed spotless every night is the heart of the kitchen, and the place where the only cooking that most people care about takes place. As you pass by, you can hear, see, and smell what other diners eagerly await at their tables: meat. And lots of it.

The dining room is an open area with exposed brick walls, metal I-beams painted gray, and chestnut colored hardwood floors. The tables themselves are a dark chocolate brown, paired with similarly-colored leather clad seats of wrought iron. The atmosphere is boisterous and urban, and frankly might be New York, Chicago, or San Francisco were one to judge only by the decor, the sharp dress and poised bustle of the staff, and the range from appetizers.jpgcasual to formal attire of the diners. But then you're likely to notice a table of gentlemen in polo shirts and sportcoats smoking cigars, four open bottles on the table, and the third order of meat arriving.

Reviewing a steak restaurant is at once both easier and more difficult than any other formal dining experience. There can be little commentary on cooking techniques, just the barest mention of presentation, and certainly no lengthy poetic musings on remarkable pairings of flavors and textures. For me a steak restaurant can only be distinguished by three things: the quality of the meat, the wine list, and the service, and above all, it is the former that is most important.

If you're gonna eat beef, the way that meat tastes has a lot more to do with how it's raised than how it's cooked. Don't get me wrong, there's quite a range of grilling talent out there, but at the end of the day, as long as the meat is seasoned and not overcooked, the factor which will weigh most heavily on my enjoyment of a steak will be the cut, quality, and ageing of the beef.

To those who pay attention to ingredients, top-quality Argentinean beef is a relatively famous commodity. It differs from high-end American (and Japanese) beef in several important ways, not the least of which are that it is nearly salad.jpgall free-range and entirely devoid of hormones. For all intents and purposes, it is organic, but perhaps most important to the diner, it is also grass-fed rather than grain-fed. As a result, the attentive diner will find that it has a distinctly different flavor. Specifically, it is a lot more lean than the heavily marbled beef we are used to in the States, and it has, to my taste, a slightly coarser grain to it. The resulting steak tastes slightly earthier, and while just as juicy when cooked well, lacks the buttery texture of high quality American beef. The Argentines rarely dry-age their beef, which may add to this more muscular quality to the meat.

When it comes to quality of meat, I really can't say enough about Las Lilas. The beef comes from the farm of owner Octavio Caraballo, and arrives at the restaurant half butchered and fresh, which doesn't sound like a big deal, but many of the restaurants in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the country get frozen, pre-butchered meat. Anyone familiar with the results of intimate ties between restaurants and purveyors of their ingredients will understand the benefit of Las Lilas' beef connection and how it translates into the highest quality meat available in Buenos Aires. After being butchered in house, the meat is slapped on the grill and minutes later, onto your plate. Direct from the farm, as it were.

Our meal last week began with the appetizer plate and bread selection that arrives at every table moments after the diners are seated. This selection includes a far-too-tasty ball of herbed butter surrounded by small bites to keep hunger at bay as you peruse the meal. We wolfed down the bresaola (cured beef sausage, sliced thinly), olives, and roasted peppers and eggplant. The fresh mozzarella was less than stellar, but we've learned not to expect much when it comes to cheese in Argentina.

We opted to begin with a salad of arugula and endives, and were quite suprised to have it be tossed fresh at our tableside with our choice of dressings, as long as we wanted either olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or both. The greens were excellent and a good harbinger of the quality of the meal to come. In addition to this selection, the restaurant has a variety of salads and appetizers available to diners whose appetites can accommodate large quantities of food.steak.jpg Like any good parilla, Las Lilas has various sausages and grilled sweetbreads on offer, along with the ubiquitous empanadas and other small bites.

If you're like us, however, you'll opt for only the smallest of hurdles before you tackle the main event. Ruth and I both opted to get the rib eye steak, or ojo de bife, as they call it in Argentina. This is the cut that we most often cook at home and order out in the States, and we figured we could get the best sense of the restaurant by ordering something familiar.

The steaks arrived with little pretense -- char grilled and seasoned with salt and pepper only. Perfectly cooked to medium-rare and lacking any garnish. I have no idea what the little red cow-shaped sign stuck in the beef meant, but I fantasized that like the cowhide covered menus it offered the briefest reminders that we were eating another animal. I secretly hoped it signified an underground campaign to ensure that consumers acknowledge where their meat comes from, instead of letting us all be lulled into the complacency of shrink wrapped steaks on Styrofoam.

The steaks were excellent, as were the french fries that we ordered with them. Like some other steakhouses, Las Lilas offers chimichurri sauce (a tangy red wine vinegar, olive oil, herbs and chili pepper mixture) for the steaks, along with a tomato, sweet onions and red bell pepper sauce which Ruth couldn't get enough of.

It's difficult to offer much qualitative evaluation of a grilled slab of meat other than those factors which I've described, so perhaps it will suffice to say that it was among the better steaks that I've had in my life. Certainly not the best, but undoubtedly excellent and worth the effort to seek out should you find yourself in the City of Beef.

The restaurant's service is better than most places in Buenos Aires, but that isn't saying a whole lot. The restaurant is absolutely crawling with servers of all varieties, making it easy to get what you need in half an instant, but while friendly, I wouldn't call the service attentive. Once you've had your conversation with one of the very knowledgeable sommeliers on staff, you'll be left to pour your own wine as well as your own water, and our requests for the check required several repetitions before one stuck. In particular the restaurant operates like every other steakhouse we've eaten at in Argentina. It has no sense of pacing for a meal. The food comes out when it comes out no matter what you're doing or what you've eaten. I was halfway through my salad when our steaks arrived and the server simply motioned for me to move my salad over to the side of the plate to make room for the flan.jpgsteak and fries. This was a bit of a shock the first time it happened, but we quickly got used to it. You simply shouldn't go to a steakhouse expecting a leisurely meal. The pacing is up to the house.

Las Lilas does not have the best wine list in the city, but it does have one of the best. It has been described as encyclopedic, which it certainly is if you consider its breadth of coverage of Argentine wine. It however lacks significant depth -- we found several other restaurants in the city who offered far more older vintages of wine than did Las Lilas -- an oversight that seems strange considering the restaurants aspirations. My conversation with the sommelier (despite my broken Spanish) was really helpful, and the folks at the restaurant really do know their wines well. Diners unfamiliar with Argentine wines will find themselves in good hands.

Ruth and I concluded our meal with an order of the house's signature flan. Several days later, I am still hearing from Ruth about how few bites of it she got, despite her protestations that she didn't really want dessert. It was excellent. And huge. Which doesn't give me much leverage in my defense.

I expect to get a lot of comments and e-mails suggesting alternatives to the top spot for steak in Buenos Aires. I've been to some of them, and wish I had time to try them all, but I suspect even then I might come up with the same conclusion. Life's too short to eat lousy beef. I'm going back to Las Lilas.

How Much?: Dinner for two without wine will run about $50 US. I know. It's nearly criminal, isn't it?


Cabaña Las Lilas
Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 516 (Pureto Madero)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
54 (0) 11 4313-1336

Open for lunch, Noon to 3:00 PM, for dinner 7:30 PM to Midnight, daily.

Reservations accepted 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM, first-come-first-serve after that. Dress is casual.

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