Shall We Dance?
I've been having an argument with a chef friend of mine. He was incensed because a reviewer had left his restaurant without eating dessert. Would I ever do such a thing? he wanted to know.
Yup. I would, I have, and I will. I try not to make a practice of it, because I believe sweets make a meal as much as a pair of false eyelashes make a drag queen. But there are times when a dessert menu is so exceptionally dull that I have no desire to sample anything. I mean, how much key lime pie, New York cheesecake, or crème brûlée can one woman consume? Indeed, in the mid-1990s, I became so overburdened with the number of restaurants offering tiramisu that I publicly swore off the stuff as a New Year's resolution. Oddly enough, unlike those about exercising, smoking, and drinking far too much wine, that's the only one I've been able to keep -- for about eight years now, I'd estimate.
Then there's the exhaustion factor, which struck most recently at Argentango Grill, a funky Argentine-Italian restaurant located on Young Circle in Hollywood. After waiting for a sidewalk table at this phenomenally popular joint, which opened about six months ago, then sitting through two courses that took so long to serve the temperature dropped from 80 to 50 degrees and we were forced to move inside, we couldn't keep our heads off the table. And the pair of representative bottles of Argentine Malbec had nothing to do with our leaving without a serving of homemade caramel flan or apple crêpes with flambé berries, I swear. We just didn't have the energy to wait for the fire to go out.
Along with the incredibly leisurely service -- it's not unusual to count 45 minutes between appetizers and entrées -- Argentango, which might have been more appropriately named Argenslowdance, suffers from Multiple Décor Disorder. The two dining rooms are a combination of separate storefront restaurants: In one, cozy brick walls bring a traditional parrillada to mind; in the other, a giant video screen that looks more like a bedsheet than a piece of technology, playing music videos, recalls a discotheque in Buenos Aires -- and that would be on the seedier side of town, my friends.
Fortunately, neither flaw really detracts from Argentango's charm, which relies equally on its cognoscentic buzz and its well-prepared fare. The crowd here is very Hollywood, and by that I mean the hip, (somewhat) young things that Harrison Street keeps trying -- and failing -- to attract. The lure is a balanced equation: Location plus reasonable prices plus authentic but varied menu equals success, plain and simple.
Much of the menu is similarly basic and hearty. Appetizers juxtapose a familiar selection of South American classics such as grilled provolone cheese or hearts of palm with golf sauce (Thousand Island dressing) against their Italian equivalents, fried mozzarella and caprese (tomato-mozzarella) salad. We found a trio of empanadas -- beef, chicken, and ham-and-cheese -- to be ample if bland, the flaky turnovers encasing an adequate amount of strictly interpreted filling.
More dazzling was the "gnocchi del 29" that we decided to share as a starter. The menu's description, "potato dumplings with red tomato sauce and cheese fondue," doesn't do it justice. Fluffy, light dumplings were smothered with a smooth, pink tomato-cheese sauce so fully incorporated that it was difficult to distinguish separate ingredients. So we didn't bother to analyze it but, like a good trashy novel, simply savored the whole. The gastronomic pleasure was repeated with a dinner order of fettuccine boscaiola, which combined shallots, onions, bacon, and green peas in a luscious white sauce barely touched with cream. For the prices, $9 and $10 respectively, and for the portion sizes, large enough to divide but not conquer, these dishes are comparative bargains -- particularly if you add soup or salad to a pasta dish, which will run you only an extra buck. The mixed green salad, laden with commercial-tasting dressings, is fresh but nothing exciting. Soup, on the other hand, may be somewhat surprising: We scored an unexpectedly delicate cream of celery concoction.
Aside from pastas, main courses come with a choice of two side dishes. Salad is also an option as one of them, but more interesting collections of vegetables can be ordered from a separate section. And at these prices, it's not much of a bill padder. Remolacha salad, for example, a chopped assortment of beets, eggs, and carrots, was enjoyable not only for its earthy flavors and five-buck price tag but also because it spoke of the little-known Russian and Eastern European influences that affected the development of Argentine cuisine.
Expend at least one of your sides on a starch: Corn, yellow rice, mashed potatoes, and baked sweet potatoes with butter, sour cream, and cinnamon are just a few of the tasty options. Perhaps the "Provenzal" French fries are the most robust. Sautéed in olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, and white wine, these zesty fries are capable of attracting attention away from what Argentine restaurants, of which 'Tango is no exception, pride themselves on most: their grilled beef. And rightly so. The skirt steak here is a massive yet tender thing, folded and curled in on itself on the plate like a cat in a small, sunny space. Add a little of an unusually vibrant chimichurri and the rich meaty flavors combining with the sharpness of vinegar and garlic are capable of converting a vegetarian.
True carnivores won't be able to resist the mixed grill, a conglomeration of meats including skirt steak, New York strip, beef tips called "tri tips," a butterflied steak known as vacio or "flap meat," chicken, blood sausage, and sweetbreads and entrails. The staff is happy to leave off the last two items, but adventurous diners will want to note that every piece of meat, chicken, and innards was perfectly grilled to best emphasize individual flavors.
A greater variety of dishes, spurred by international cultures, is listed under a misleadingly labeled "summer specials," which are still available despite the current season. Note that prices are higher here: Something like the shrimp Santorini, shrimp and mussels sautéed with lemon sauce and topped with feta cheese, or the lamb Madeira, three grilled chops served with the signature wine sauce and baked stuffed potatoes, can top out at $29. Still, the chicken saltimbocca listed here, a hefty breast wrapped with prosciutto and glazed with Marsala, cost only $14. Fish can also be a more reasonable way to go, since red snapper franaise or grilled tuna fit the post-holiday bill as well as a shoe sale does the foot. We were particularly wowed by the breadth and quality of a salmon "burger," which was a large fillet of freshly grilled, tenderly flaking fish on a toasty bun, accompanied by lettuce, tomato, onion, and French fries.
In the end, portion size could also be blamed for our failure to complete our dining mission. But as I tell my chef pal, skipping dessert isn't necessarily a negative comment. It could simply mean that, judging by the excellent previous courses, we'll have inducement to return. And next time, we'll know to save room in our stomachs -- and in our hectic schedules -- for a leisurely, lingering final course.
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