Last night, as part of the ongoing "T-fest", a series of drinks and dinners my chum T is having to commemorate her imminent departure from this Sceptred Isle back across the Atlantic to the Land of the Brave, a group of us went to The Gaucho Grill
, an upmarket Argentinian steak house in Piccadilly. I had been twice before, both at lunchtimes with a buddy, and both times I had eaten in the bar on the ground floor which still has pretensions to grandeur. The walls are covered in large gilt framed cow hides, the wall paper is very dark as are the floors, furnishings and tables. I think the desired effect is to make city banking types feel like they're somewhere special and perhaps a little naughty.
Last night we had a table in the main restaurant which makes the bar look tawdry. In addition to all the paraphernalia mentioned above there were large glass chandeliers and brass candle holders rounding out the overall effect of the apartment of a 1980s stockbroker who made his money trading in cattle and wished to celebrate this fact wherever possible. We were escorted to our table in a polite if not very friendly manner by one of a number of identikit generically pretty waitresses who seemed to hover in profusion without actually doing anything. They, however, would have been vastly preferable, due their bland inoffensiveness, to our actual waiter who I shall call Simon.
Simon would be difficult to age as he has spent so much time on the sunbeds that his skin has the quality of parched vellum. I will guess late 20s and leave it at that. Simon is possibly Spanish, possibly Argentinian and clearly thought, ten years ago, that he was going to make it big as a model when he came to London. He has that toned body that serves no practical use and is merely designed to serve as a fleshy coat hanger when prancing down a cat-walk. Unfortunately for Simon there are many, many much prettier, and these days far younger boys around who also want to make it big as a model, so Simon was not prancing down a runway, he was serving us dinner, in as rude and condescending a manner as he could muster. The permanently fixed rictus smile was ghastly enough but behind the eyes burned a cold loathing of everyone else that was frankly a little disturbing to behold. Had he been good at his job none of this would have mattered. Good service is an art-form. I have the utmost respect for waiting staff who are good at their job as it's bloody hard work and there is real skill to it. Sadly, whatever the knack, Simon doesn't have it.
He began by showing us the cuts of steak and telling us how we may have them cooked. This kind of thing annoys me. It is wonderful when waiters are knowledgeable and helpful if asked but I know what fillet, sirloin and rib-eye steaks look like thank you and I don't need some preening twit talking down to me as if I were five. In fairness to Simon all the staff do this, I assume it is company policy which perhaps begins to give you some idea of what kind of place The Gaucho Grill is. After this Simon really began to irritate. Firstly he insulted my friend AJ who had been chosen to pick the wine. Simon felt that the wine she had chosen wasn't of a "good enough quality" to go with the steak. Two things: one, if the wine is not good enough to go with steak, what is it doing on the wine list of a steak restaurant? Second, let's not kid ourselves, what he was actually saying was "I would like you to choose a more expensive wine so I make more money out of the compulsory service charge". This angered me immensely as it is rude, shows ignorance and tells you yet more about The Gaucho Grill's modus operandi. He followed up this exercise in charm and manners by asking at what temperature I would like my steak. I arched an eyebrow in confusion. Temperature? Well I'd like it cooked over a very high temperature and then have it served at a warm temperature. He clearly thought that you cook a blue steak by cooking it for the same amount of time as a well done steak but at a much lower temperature. Jesus H Christ. This really made me roll my eyes. Thankfully, aside from Simon's inability to get our order right, which we discovered when the side dishes arrived, that was his final contribution to spoiling my evening.
Onto the food. The food is expensive; a piece of steak is twenty quid. That's just for the meat; side dishes are extra, quite a lot extra in fact. I ordered grilled vegetables as my side order, priced at seven pounds and fifty pence. For nearly a tenner you get one slice of anonymous tasting aubergine, two slices of courgette, one piece of pepper and two fingers of out of season tasteless asparagus. These vegetables, I assume in order to save time in cooking, had clearly been boiled first and then just given thirty seconds on the grill at the end before being dumped on a plate. They were all bland and lacked flavour or texture. The steak itself was served medium rare. I opted for sirloin because it should be more flavoursome but was told I couldn't have it rare because the fat down the sides needed to be cooked to medium rare at minimum to be properly done. I could have pointed out that in places where they care about such things you cook the steak by holding it in a pair of tongs sideways so just the fat is touching the pan for a minute to cook it, then you can do the meat itself to whatever degree you like. But that takes effort and The Gaucho Grill doesn't do effort, it does lazy and rude indifference. My steak would have been fine had I bought it from a super market and it had cost about six quid. For more than three times the price I expected a lot better. My colleague who had fillet steak, of which I had a little taste, fared much better than I, for his steak was pretty good. However in a steak house, and especially one that takes itself as seriously as The Gaucho Grill clearly does I expect very good steak every time. Oh, and The Gaucho Grill doesn't even give you a steak knife to eat with. You have to hack your way through your disappointing meal with a regular dining knife.
Puddings were uninspired. Amongst the nonsense you could choose was a "carpaccio of fruit", I kid you not. All this was of course were a few thinly sliced pieces of raw fruit. Here, actually, is the dish which best sums up the restaurant and its attitude toward, and expectations of, its customers. "Carpaccio of fruit": let's take this apart. First can you have a carpaccio of fruit? No. Carpaccio is thinly sliced raw beef or tuna and it got its name from the Italian painter, Vittore Carpaccio, who was noted for his use of bloody red pigments in his paintings. The very etymology of the name itself implies rawness and blood, most emphatically not a couple of slices of apple. So it's an oxymoron and an oxymoron from an establishment whose sole aim, one would think, would be to understand at the deepest level the blood and the rawness: the very essence of the steak experience. Roland Barthes' essay, "Steak and Chips" in his book Mythologies takes pages to dismantle and analyse the deep relationship between us and steak, how we claim the strength of the bull from eating it, the ceremony of its acquisition, its preparation and its ingestion. Steak is a profoundly symbolic food with a massive history and mythology that gets right to the core of the human hunter gatherer turned sophisticated farmer turned connoisseur experience...
"Carpaccio of fruit".
That's what this place thinks of its customers. It sounds posh and fancy but it's a nonsense, a plain, poorly executed dish that has ideas and pretensions far beyond what it can deliver.
My pudding was an ordinary chocolate mousse cake served on a base of something that had the consistency of shoe insole and tasted little better. I paid forty five pounds for all this, including a compulsory service charge for some of the rudest and most ignorant service I have ever received. I haven't been so angry at a restaurant since this experience
nearly three years back.