The United States, with its cowboys and cattle and wide-open West, has always been considered a serious beef-eating nation. Then again, carnivorousness is relative -- our American siblings down south in Argentina, with their gauchos and cattle and wide-open pampas, consume twice as much red meat as we do. The cows dotting those plains look just like their American counterparts, but there are lifestyle differences: Our animals graze on grain and are injected with growth hormones; theirs are hormone-free and munch alfalfa, which makes the beef leaner and lower in cholesterol. The cows of Argentina also live longer (it takes more time to grow on grass, and without booster shots) -- they get slaughtered after about 40 months, as opposed to the average of 18 to 24 months in the United States, lending the meat a chewier texture and a more pronounced beef flavor. Cooking techniques likewise differ, Argentines prefer a slow roasting over glowing embers (a process that tenderizes the older meat), as opposed to the quicker flame-broiling (and nowadays, quicker-still über-hot searing) practiced in America.
Argentine steak houses in South Florida generally use American meat and technique, their product differing from gringo restaurants only in the cuts offered and dish of chimichurri sauce on the side. Las Brisas, on the Hollywood Broadwalk since 1992, is more strip house than steak house, but don't get excited -- I'm just referring to the fact that of the seven grilled meats served, five are renditions of New York strip. The menu here is strange that way.
You don't necessarily head to the Broadwalk for fine dining -- most restaurants are low-end party spots with patrons attired in swimsuits and sandals. Las Brisas is clearly one of the few class acts of the street. Two interior dining rooms, separated by a glass divider, boast comforting red brick walls, warm wood accessories, and tables formally dressed in white linen. The beachfront view dominates the space until night falls, at which point the glass windows facing the ocean turn black and a more romantic ambiance ensues; the scene dims for those sitting outdoors as well, though the balmy Atlantic winds continue to whisper. Las Brisas' business is as brisk as those breezes, an exuberant buzz building as tourists pack into the restaurant like, well, cattle.
The waiters are likewise dressed more formally than others on the block, and enough of them circulate the room to ensure attentive service. Crusty rolls were promptly brought to the table; water and wine poured in timely fashion; the large, laminated, quirkily composed menus placed before us. On my first visit, I ordered two cleanly fried empanadas filled with savory chopped beef and bits of hard-boiled egg; a plate of grilled chorizos with "criolla sauce" that translated to two nubby links reminiscent of supermarket kielbasa; and a dish of chimichurri.
On a second visit, I started with shrimp al ajillo, four big, fresh, snap-to-the-bite crustaceans in a stunningly delicious wine sauce studded with garlic, tomatoes, and a bright infusion of saffron -- the singular sensational dish on this menu.
Those variations on New York strip steak: plain; topped with shrimp; pizzaiolla-style with spicy red sauce; Black Angus with garlic and onions; and Argentino with garlic, peppers, and onions. I asked our waiter if the Argentino was also Black Angus. He said it was not, but unless the price of peppers has gone up appreciably, that seems unlikely -- both steaks cost the same at $26.95. Just to be sure, I ordered the Angus, which arrived thick and juicy with attractively charred exterior and a ruby center of firm-textured, mildly flavored beef. Entraña, or skirt steak, elicits a stronger, meatier taste on the tongue and was likewise cooked correctly, but it's odd that only two cuts of beef are served -- where's the porterhouse, whose popularity in Buenos Aires is second only to that of the pope?
Freezers are a rare commodity on the pampas, so, ironically, gauchos partake of less beef than most Argentines. They eat a lot of chickens instead. Brisas offers the bird four ways: a whole chicken cut up, roasted and served for two in a large, white, rectangular cazuela (casserole dish) with peppers, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes, and basil; breaded à la milanesa; "chicken nine," a breast with garlic and mushrooms; and "chicken ten," with brandy, chestnuts, and mushrooms (not an especially good seasonal selection). A culinary conundrum: Would a chicken breast with garlic and chestnuts be chicken nine-and-a-half?
Veal Siciliana was a ten, the tender, meaty cutlet capped with thin slices of eggplant, then lightly breaded, crisply fried, and finished with tantalizingly tangy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. Green, spinach-stuffed raviolini was a less successful take on Italian, the cheesy béchamel sauce bathing the pasta botched by too much salty parmesan.
Saltiness also sabotaged a side order of broccoli, the florets otherwise cooked to a soft consistency with garlic and olive oil. That's the only green vegetable available, but most main courses come with mashed potatoes -- which were also on the saline side.
I'm certain the fine flan was made from scratch. The fresh, springy, wedge-shaped serving stood tall like the front end of a ship, tugboated on either side by a fluff of hand-whipped cream and puff of dulce de leche. Tiramisu was also worthwhile, an airy mélange of ladyfingers, mascarpone, marsala, chocolate, and coffee.
A restaurant with an oceanfront vista doesn't need to serve passionate food. Las Brisas offers undeniably tasty moos to go with the pretty views.
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