Politically speaking, this may not be the best arena in which to establish an Argentine steak house, where the smoky, blood-sausage smells from the grill clash with the odor of horse flesh, blown over from neighboring Gulfstream Race Park.
Politically speaking, this may not be the best climate for serving help-yourself food, where the salad bars and parrillada buffet are open to contamination by anything from salmonella to SARS (and we won't even bring up foot-and-mouth disease).
But who cares about politics, whether they concern global relations or merely an acceptable brand of domestic etiquette?
Certainly not the patrons of four-month-old The Knife, who willingly dally for hours at this Hallandale Beach steak house's bars and buffets. On a recent Saturday evening, despite the roomy accommodations in this T.G.I. Friday's-style eatery, the wait for a table was a good 60 minutes. But because management was passing out freshly baked empanadas, rife with roughly chopped egg, to idling patrons, we were encouraged to stay. And then the host was just rude enough, telling us ever so bluntly to "move out of the way" after we gave him our party's name. Given these factors, in a region of southern Broward County that has been suddenly inundated with Argentine steak houses, I was sure, if even for only a minute or two at the outset, that the mixture of attitude we encountered -- lovely to have the opportunity to take your all-inclusive fee so you can bust out of your pants, now make room for somebody else -- was testimony to the quality of wood-fired goods to be had here.
So much for propaganda.
The blue-jeaned wait staff may be simultaneously slender and curvy in a way that makes the typical American woman fear for her marriage, but they were, as a singular entity, one of the most incompetent I've encountered (Footy's included). The drink list, for example, offers everything from sultry, Sex and the City-inspired cosmopolitans to wet T-shirt-induced shots of "Slippery Nipples" (Sambuca and Bailey's Irish Cream). But you can't hold out hope for such exotics. The restaurant doesn't even stock mint for the mojitos, which are billed as being "made to your request with choices of rums." Our request for one was denied. As for our second choice, a "classic bloody Mary," the bartender, a central character in this murder-comedy, had to ask for assistance in its preparation. We couldn't help but wince when she promptly -- or actually after a ten-minute delay -- poured bottled lemon juice over the rocks before uncapping the Smirnoff, but at the same time we were grateful that she wasn't working on our "Bikini Line" (strawberry, orange Curaçao, and raspberry liqueur).
In general, the staff is both overwhelmed and under-trained. We dallied for a good 30 minutes at the bar, sipping from an extremely mediocre bottle of Rincon Famoso "Blanco" for $18, before we were even informed that the restaurant was not only a buffet but that one bottle of vino (per table) was included with the price ($20.50 per person on a weekend evening). And of course we could dine at the bar rather than wait for a table, and hey, there was even a gymnastics championship on the low-slung TV to boot. Meet, meet meat.
Menus? Nah. When you're under the knife, ask for Percocet. When you're in The Knife, do as the Argentines do. That is, get up and help yourself to salad -- then ask for Percocet. I enjoyed the fresh assortment of lettuces, but I was a bit dismayed by the bottled salad dressings and the canned quality of the garnishes: soggy peas, tinny corn, commercially processed beets, and the like. Even the obviously just-picked vegetables, such as the cherry tomatoes, weren't very enticing, as they were uniformly underripe.
A better, or at least more interesting, bet is the "cold salads" bar. This is where you can score everything from vegetables marinated in buckets of olive oil to pinwheels of tuna salad sandwiches. I was happily surprised to see matambre, beef rolled around a variety of vegetables, roasted, and sliced, as it can be a labor-intensive dish. But a large problem exists here, and the management would do themselves a service to take note: The "cold salads" bar is positioned far too close to the open kitchen with its extensive grills, and the warming trend we experienced of these comestibles doesn't bode well for public health.
On to the main course: All-you-can-eat-meat. The large open kitchen features a counter stocked with a variety of metal plates and a few bowls of sauces, including an oddly flavorless chimichurri and a chili pepper vinaigrette that lived up to its hand-lettered sign billing it as "HOT!" Grab a plate, dump a few ladlefuls of chimichurri on it, then point to the cuts of meat you'd like. The range of choices is fairly opulent -- skirt steak, sirloin strip, chicken breasts and thighs, pork chops, sweetbreads, a host of sausages of all sizes and compositions -- and the grills have so many items on them that one might assume an Ironman contest for Pollo Tropical cooks is underway. You can even sup on traditional dishes such as grilled provolone cheese garnished with oregano, and vegetarian options like eggplant slices and bell peppers (with or without cheese interiors).
The problems stem not from lack of assortment or care of preparation -- the grill chefs are whizzes at picking out the pieces of meat at the exact temperature you request -- but from a lack of quality and flavor. The skirt steak, for instance, is not the elegant, floppy, marinated version you find in higher-end parrillas, but chunks of flank steak with the fleshy layers interspersed with fat. The sirloin was tough, the chicken bland, the pork chewy and dry. The provolone cheese was so substandard it tasted more like a vague attempt at mozzarella, and the oregano that flavored it -- and I use that word lightly -- was old enough to have disintegrated into dust. The more intriguing items, such as the sweetbreads and blood sausages, were the best of the lot, with crisp edges and moist, savory interiors.
The Knife also needs to bone up on service. Customers help themselves to most of the meal, so waiting twenty minutes for a drink, a side dish of mashed potatoes, or flan for dessert, all of which are brought to the tables by waiters who actually expect a tip, is inexcusable. I can't even imagine why the rice pilaf we had asked for never showed up, and why our bill was presented before an order for flan was even taken -- a dessert which, I should note, joined the rice in some kind of gastronomic purgatory. We also thought it par for the course when, as we were getting ready to leave sans sweets, the host finally tapped us for a table.
Under the right circumstances, with an exhibition of prime meats and fresh ingredients (and, hey, how 'bout a bartending course or two?), I can see how supper at this undeniably popular place could be, at the very least, kind of fun. But at the moment I'd sooner shoot myself in the foot than take another stab at The Knife.