Gaucho, Manchester



 This was the first time I'd been to Gaucho and apart from the fact that they served good Argentine beef and gouged your wallet, especially on the wine list, didn't really know much about them. This was the Manchester restaurant, though it seems from their website that they're all pretty similar.

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly dark it was, then how blingy it was (should suit Mancs) and then the bright cheery woman on the door who efficiently took our coats and passed us onto someone else to take us through to our table. Fortunately, once you've gone through the gloom of the bar area, the restaurant area is lit by natural light through a large glass roof. Presumably in the evening it's much gloomier. The room is an old chapel, dominated at one end by the pipes of the old organ. All the black leather, chrome and and cowhides really gives a 1970s feel. The first and until yesterday last time I sat on a black and white cowhide dining chair was in the early 1970s in a restaurant in the basement of the Kennedy Hotel next to Euston, which is also the first time I heard anyone (a pair of young American women) ordering bottled water. It's all a bit Peter Stringfellow meets Texas bordello. Not that I've any experience of either.

Some restaurants have unwieldy menu structures that take a while to get your head round, others simply have unwieldy menus. Gaucho has both. The tall concertina menu reminded me a bit of reading broadsheet newspapers in a crowded northern line carriage. The menu is divided into Ceviches, Tiraditos, Causitas, Starters, Argentine Beef, Grill and Specialities. Curiously for an Argentine steakhouse, "Specialities" are anything other than you'd expect to be specialities: fish, pasta, risotto etc. Weird.

The key thing is the beef of course. This is brought round on a board and the various cuts explained. Along with some lamb chops, which were particularly recommended. Whether it's because the beef has to come half way round the world, so they think the lamb should to, but it seemed a bit odd to me to be making such a big deal of New Zealand lamb chops.

Given the in-depth explanation of the beef and lamb, it's odd that the customer is pretty much left to flounder over the starters. As both were described on the menu as with onion, chilli and lime, I asked what the difference was between the scallop ceviche and the scallop tiraditos, and was told there wasn't any really, just that one used queenies and one used ordinary scallops. As my companion was pushing, I didn't get chance to ask what on earth causitas are, though google has subsequently told me that potatoes come into it somehow.

I don't usually get too worked up about restaurant markups, as I understand you're paying for a great deal more than just the raw ingredients, but £12.75 for one scallop in the scallop tiraditos sliced thinly seemed even to me to be pushing it a bit.

For what's essentially a steakhouse, the starters are pretty much firmly on the fishy side. There's a chicken liver salad, a sausage platter (saw this on the next table: three sausages on a plank for £19!) and a plate of chorizo (presumably sausage, not bife de chorizo, which is the name for sirloin steak on the menu).

My eyes watered at the wine list. Initially I couldn't see anything under about £60, and only one white for £70something. But then I realised I was looking at a Fine and Rare list, and there was an ordinary list underneath. Praiseworthy for the focus on Argentinian wines, and with some interesting stuff, though even here there are more than a few three figure prices. I thought it a little odd, given that so many of their customers are unlikely to be at all familiar with any of the wines, that there were not any even brief notes on the wines on the wine list.

Service broke down a little here, as such was the speed that the kitchen for some unfathomable reason was going, our starters came just as I was ordering the wine. I ordered a 2005/6 Carlos Pulenta Vistalba Corte B. As all restaurants now have laser printers, I really don't think there's any excuse for not knowing which vintage of a wine you've got in stock. And there were quite a few with this x/x+1 vintage listing. Of course it makes no difference whatsoever to 99.9% of their customers - and I have to admit that my knowledge of Argentinian vintages would have been insufficient for me to reject one over the other - but it's something I find irritating.

Then the next service failure came when they brought the wrong wine. Same producer, but a straight cab (I think he said) rather than the much more interesting blend of cabernet, malbec, bonarda and merlot that I'd ordered. Quickly replaced, and quickly decanted without quibble so that my companion at least managed to get a quick slurp before he finished his starter completely. Nice glasses, by the way. Not Riedel, but very similar.

My scallop tiraditos was good - nicely balanced marinade, though it was a shredded green mango salad in the centre of the plate that really sang out.

Chicken liver salad to my right had accurately cooked chicken livers, but wasn't anything particularly interesting or special.

Bread wasn't bad, and came with both butter and a small bowl of oil with (I think) herbs and chillies in it.

Lamb chops were fine - tender lamb, accurately cooked, but not as good as a good Lakeland or Welsh lamb. Why an Argentine restaurant would make such a big deal out of serving New Zealand lamb was beyond us.

Although the rib eye looked a superb piece of meat (notably superior to the other cuts we'd been presented with, in fact), I'd chosen a "Churrasco cut" of rump. I didn't really get a sensible answer as to what a churrasco cut is and what "spiral cut" meant, and indeed on the presentation platter, it looked like an ordinary steak, cut thinner than the others and marinated with herbs.

What I got was a very curious wave form piece of rump, which alternated thick and thin bits. Having ordered it rare, the thin sections of the steak were indeed rare, though of course that meant that the thick bits were blue. Fine by me, but would surely upset some. It must have been nicely rested, as there was no blood on the plate at all. Very tender meat with a good flavour. Though I'm not sure it was in any way superior to good British grass-fed beef, which to my mind raises questions - both environmental and economic - about why ship it across the globe?

There's a severe economy of plating here. You get a steak on a plate, chips in a separate bowl and that's it. No problem with that. But it looks quite naked in comparison to the usual "plates of food" that you get in restaurants these days. Vegetables are charged separately. Again, £6.25 for a side salad seems very steep. Makes Koffman's on Knightsbridge seem all the better value.

Like the steak, the cheeses are presented after your main course plates have been cleared. Not a bad idea and mutually beneficial if customers have wine to finish. Two odd things, however. Firstly, the selection (of five cheeses - you choose 3, 4 or 5) included Stichelton and Colston Bassett Stilton - both noble cheese, but why, effectively, two Stiltons? Even the waitress agreed this was weird. It's all the more strange since even in the popular mind, Stilton is associate with port, not a dry red. Some here might even think of a sweet white with most blue cheeses. Only one of us wanted cheese, and despite ordering it from the waitress who'd presented the cheeses, it didn't arrive until after about five minutes when another waiter came to ask if we wanted desserts. When it came, it was just a little on the chilly side, though thankfully nowhere near as cold as in some restaurants.
A banana and macadamia cake, served with dulce de leche ice cream was a good dessert, though more moistness in the sponge would not have spoiled it.

Coffee was notably good.

Don't get me wrong, this was not by any means a disappointing meal, and I wouldn't object to going again. It failed, however, to thrill me. Perhaps that's the downside of having access to an excellent butcher who can sell me meat the equal if not superior to Gaucho's meat. I've yet to go to Goodman or Hawksmoor in London: it would be interesting to see whether it is the fact that it's so easy to apply heat to excellent meat at home, or whether it's just Gaucho that didn't convince me of the need to eat there. Would be interested to hear what others make of the London (or other) Gaucho restaurants.

If someone asks me where to get a good steak in Manchester, I'd have no hesitation in recommending Gaucho. If they asked for a recommendation for the best food in Manchester, I'd say Abode, but point out that Aumbry is just 10 minutes north of the city centre.

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Last updated: 27 April 2011