Photo: Eddie Jim
THE inconvenience of Australians knowing little about Latin American food having failed to prevent it becoming a trend, logic dictates that we finish the year on a Latino note. Just when we armed ourselves with a working knowledge of chipotle and elotes callejeros, mole and huitlacoche, the last gasp of 2011 has thrown a curve-ball in the form of San Telmo, an Argentinian grill that requires its own glossary of food terms.
Between the humita and the higado, however, the essence of Argentinian food can be distilled to one simple precept: the cow is king. And maybe it's easier to get a handle on the food of this South American republic thanks to its debt to Italy and Spain, seen in the love of cured meats, cheese and olives. Plus general ignorance that lets the crew at San Telmo throw in other continental influences: ceviche, for instance, which the Peruvians would fight to the last breath to claim as their own.
Named after their favourite neighbourhood in Buenos Aires - kind of the equivalent of Fitzroy, I'm told - newcomer San Telmo was opened by three gringos with no real Argentine connections, save an affection for the country and an entrepreneurial eye on a Melbourne market obsessed with the new.
If it veers ever so slightly into the theme-park realm, it's because of the faithfulness to the bovine theme of the vast, dimly lit space stretching back from its Meyers Place entrance. Decked out in more leather than a bondage parlour, it warms to the theme with the placemats and menu binders, cowhides tacked up on the wall and high-backed leather chairs, including curving chesterfields for two that add a layer of New York steakhouse. These prove more comfortable for pulling up close to one of the round, marble or wood-topped tables than you might think.
Anyway, you'd be a cold-hearted soul not to enjoy having your order taken by a man in a leather apron - especially when it transpires he's spent a fair bit of time in Buenos Aires and can talk with authority about the all-Argentine wine list.
The nation's formidable output has mostly bypassed Australia, so the guidance is welcome if you're not au fait beyond the archetypal varietals malbec and torrontes or have forgotten the finer points of Patagonian pinot noir.
For an understanding of what stokes the Argentinian appetite it's best to pull up one of the plush, padded barstools at the kitchen counter for the best view in the house of the parrilla. The mighty purpose-built grill burns mallee root in one section, with the coals shovelled across to fire the meat that sizzles on various levels above the embers.
A roll-call of grilled innards and flesh provides the menu ballast - chorizo, lamb's liver, the dark and cakey morcilla, calamari, beef short ribs and sweetbreads, the slightly charry little misshapen bits of goodness still creamy inside.
Bargain-hounds might want to note the flank steak ($26) outflanked the hanger ($40) in terms of taste and beefy, molar-utilising texture. Pasture-fed Angus, aged more than 30 months, had a salty, caramelised crust and smoky pink flesh.
Everything off the parrilla comes with the house chimichurri - the pounded mixture of parsley, oregano, olive oil, red-wine vinegar and chilli that's about as hot as the mild-loving Argentine palate gets - and the sharp and lively salsa criolla made with red and green capsicums, white onion, tomatoes and parsley. It's terribly easy to get lost in a world of meat but there is light to the shade - vegetable dishes that speak less of South American street food and more of head chef Michael Patrick's time at Ladro. It's rusticity as rarely performed by the peasantry: a salad of whole baby carrots with their feathery tops trimmed and chucked on the griller until they blacken, mixed with fluffy goat's curd and fresh thyme leaves; palm heart and preserved pear in an Italo-Spanish collaboration with jamon and buffalo mozzarella; or a bitey eggplant starter, astringent with vinegar and perfect for getting the palate revved up before launching into that ceviche - flappingly fresh kingfish with a well-modulated lime, chilli and ginger kick betrayed by cubes of sweet potato that seemed to have strayed over from another plate.
More faithfully Argentine are the empanadas, those oily little pastry turnovers filled with gutsily seasoned beef with currants and almond, and the toasty fried provolone, a nation's confident riposte to Greece's saganaki. The humita - fat, fall-apart sticks of fried cornmeal for dipping in chipotle-fired mayonnaise - are the pick of the limited carb offerings.
Potato galette - thin layers of potato baked with olive oil and plenty of cream - speaks a more general language, as does the malbec-poached pear dessert, a cheffy attempt to add regional flavour to a universally respected dish. It stretches the Argentinian dossier but teamed with a light custard cream it works very well indeed.
If it's regional legitimacy you're after, go for the flan, much like a creme catalana dressed up for the evening with a fat dollop of dulce de leche - the mother's milk of Argentina - crowning the top with caramel salted peanuts.
It's a modern twist on tradition, a bit like San Telmo is a Melbourne twist on a faraway country. It takes a few liberties here and there - why not? - but on the whole is a pretty authentic replica of the steakhouses of Buenos Aires.
Trends come and go but on this evidence we'll be talking Argentina for some time to come.
Where 14 Meyers Place, city
Phone 9650 5525
Cost Typical starter $12, main $36, dessert $14
Wine list All-Argentinian with the knowledge to back it up
Owners Jason and Renee McConnell, Dave and Micky Parker
Chef Michael Patrick
Vegetarian 10 smaller dishes
Dietary Plenty of gluten-free choices
Service Confident and informed
Noise Up there
Parking Street or paid
Cards AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Mon-Fri, 7am-1am; Sat, noon-1am
- 9650 5525
- Cuisine - South American
- Prices - Typical starter $12, main $36, dessert $14
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Michael Patrick
- Owners - Jason and Renee McConnell, Dave and Micky Parker
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 7am-1am; Sat, noon-1am
- Author - Larissa Dubecki