at El Matador

It’s Awesome August in Wellington. Though we are in the depths of winter, there’s usually quite a bit going on: the Film Festival, for example, and in latter years the rather good Wellington on a Plate festival. We don’t typically overdo either event, choosing only the one or two most interesting looking things from each.

For this year’s food choice, we went for Cooking Over Fire, The Argentine Way, to be held at El Matador, a new “Café, Asador Grill & Bar” as yet unfinished at the time I made the booking (ever the risk-taker!).

Asador is the Argentine national dish, a way of slow-cooking whole animals over an open fire. This is supposed to result in a beautifully tender and juicy meat, with hints of smoke. The idea with the event was to show us how to setup and start barbequing a lamb in the morning, and then come back and eat it in the evening.

This sounded totally outstanding, so I decided to make a day of it and bail from work. That’s how R. and I, having dropped the kids off at school, ended up wandering along Cuba Street at 9am on a Monday morning.

Remember the old Münchener Burger just up from Logan Brown? No, me not so much either. It looked so dark and uninviting and I hadn’t ever been in there in 20 years of living in Wellington. That’s where El Matador now is; the interior has been gutted and extended, a false ceiling removed to make the place a bit airier and the walls stripped back to the old white with blue trim tilework left from when the place was a butchery back in the 1970s.

There, along with 10 or so others, we met local restauranteur Mike Marsland (who used to own Ernesto, and is brother of Havana first comrade Geoff) and his asador chef Conor.

Mike was full of interesting stories about the work, investment, and yes, regulatory compliance required to get a restaurant set up. The food trade sounded like an astonishingly hard and risky business to me.

Then he talked about the concept for El Matador. While the grill and the asador are central to the experience, the idea is to show a little more of Argentine food, not just the meat dishes for which the country is justly famous. Even so, there’s a lot of meat on the menu.

And if we loved the food, Mike reckoned there was a couple of good books to get hold of if we wanted to try and replicate the experience at home. There’s this one:

Mike Marsland and a useful book for any aspiring Argentinean Asador cook: Seven Fires, by Francis Mallmann

… and the second was Al Brown’s Stoked.

This evening, the centrepiece of our meal would be a whole split lamb carcass cooked on an asador. Mike warned us that we should have only a very small lunch, and that there was the distinct possibility of there being leftovers to take home. This sounded very good indeed.

Meanwhile, Conor rubbed salt over the lamb, and then showed us how to attach the lamb to the frame that will be suspended over the fire.

Connor the asador wires up the lamb to the frame.

Apparently Mike and Conor spent the better part of a year in Mike’s back garden perfecting their asador technique. While this may not always have been the best experience for Mike’s neighbours, apparently local Argentine expats favourably rate the results, so they must be doing it pretty well.

In fact they take this sort of thing pretty seriously in Argentina. The night before, I had been speaking to my Dad, who told me about an Argentinean farmhand on a neighbour’s place who knew how to improvise an asador just as the gauchos do. He welded a couple of flat standards together into an X shape and used a some pieces of corrugated iron to shape his fire. Worked perfectly well by all accounts.

By now Conor had got the fire going nicely and he hung the lamb halves over the fire - not so close as to have the flame touch them, but close enough that when the fire burnt down the hot coals would provide a good steady slow heat:

The lamb, cooking over the open fire

And that was almost it for the morning session. After coffee and a cake we reluctantly left them at 11am.

The rest of the day couldn’t go fast enough. But at last evening rolled around, and with sitter sorted we headed back into town again.

At the restaurant, the lamb was now fully cooked. Conor took it off the fire:

The finished lamb, ready for resting

While it rested (covered), he grilled us up some quick starters: black pudding, kidneys, and sweetbreads. Like many New Zealanders - especially those off farms where we had plentiful meat - I haven’t eaten a lot of offal. I steered away from the kidneys (I’ve never liked the taste, even before Conor told us what he thought they tasted like); but the sweetbreads and the black pudding were delicious, especially smothered in fresh chimichurri salsa:

Grilled black pudding, sweetbreads, and kidneys

These disappeared pretty quickly while we watched Conor bone the meat. This didn’t look like too tricky a job, as mostly it was ready to fall off the bone in great juicy handfuls. He sliced the fillet and some of the larger leg pieces… and with that dinner was ready.

Asador is typically eaten with salad. I could describe the salads, which were all pretty good, but to be honest I’ve forgotten them. I was there for the meat, which was utterly delicious: moist, lightly smoked, and cooked to perfection.

At this point I stopped taking photos. There were more important matters at hand.

On the tables were several bottles of a respectable Argentine Malbec, the traditional variety to consume with asador. But nicer still was the other wine there: Tiwaiwaka Lucinda 2007 from Martinborough, a harmonious and savoury Cab Sauv / Merlot / Franc blend. It was just as well supplies of this wine ran out fairly quickly, as I had to work the next day.

In addition to the food and the wine was possibly the most unexpected pleasure of the day - some great talk over beautiful food with a bunch of interesting strangers.

Time sped by. Everyone had seconds. Next, Conor’s dessert, a lovely almond flan served with dulce de leche and a homemade icecream. That dispatched, everyone talked more.

Well, we didn’t want to rush away, but our sitter had school in the morning and our bus wouldn’t wait. We had to say some quick goodbyes.

And later at home: wood smoke in our clothes, full bellies, and a pile of smoky bones from Conor for stock. The happy feeling of a day well spent, and the prospect of one day returning to El Matador.

Gathadair @dubh
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