You smell the aroma of grilled meat from 10 feet away. It’s more insistent as you walk in the door. More insistent still as you enter the enclave of fire-touched proteins, where at the back, past the bar, in a kingdom all their own, parrilleros tend to the grill and rake coals that fly up under grates in a shower of sparks.
Corrientes 348, the restaurant that replaced the former Stephan Pyles in this downtown spot, promises Argentine barbecue. Co-owner Sidiclei Demartini—hailing from Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, along its border with Argentina—worked for Fogo de Chão for 20 years and has opened 25 restaurants, culminating in this first U.S. location of Corrientes 348. (His business partners and the other five restaurants are in Brazil.)
Why here? We are a steak town and perhaps that was enough reason to think we were game. Corrientes 348 is a place to gather in large groups and feast on an obscene amount of meat, grilled as it would be in the land of gauchos. A college friend of mine did fieldwork in Argentina. She would take buses into Buenos Aires to watch movies, because the cinemas were heated and her village in the Andean hinterlands was not. In these great tundralike wilds, proteins were slung directly over flame. That was lunch. Vegetarians did not fare well.
The same holds for Corrientes 348. Even dedicated carnivores, however, may not be used to Argentine asado. A few lessons in terminology. Chorizo, for example, is not crumbly but a firm sausage. Matambre is flank steak; bife ancho is butterflied rib-eye. Asado de tira is a favored cut specific to Argentine asado that translates roughly to short ribs. The parrillada de carnes, a platter of four meats priced at $92, includes ojo de bife, center-cut rib-eye, and the Corte Especial 348—bottom sirloin, the other cherished cut in South America.
The decor at Corrientes 348 is nothing special: various sedated shades of beige, nondescript furniture. But it doesn’t need to be. The barbecued pork ribs smelled tantalizing the first evening I stopped by. Enticing smells, in general, are abundant. Besides the ribs, there is the morcilla, plump purple-black blimps, loosely packed with bits of fat and fragrant with that warm, complex smell of cooked blood. (You have to like blood sausage. I do. I love the way the creamy, rich flavor envelops you.) The bright and fresh chimichurri, lashed with garlic and herbs, is good to slather on everything. And the empanadas, bronzed because they’ve been brushed with egg white, arrive crimped and steaming hot, so when you cut into them the insides start oozing. (The leek and mozzarella are best.) These are good, savory moments.
The bartenders are very kind, and the caipirinhas are made with fresh fruit (except the lychees, which are canned). They will scoop a whole wrinkle-skinned passion fruit into your drink, plucked from a bowl on the bar. Don’t bother with the regular caipirinha, I’m advised; go for the one with the top-shelf cachaça. Bar leader Alejandro Perez has created other cocktails, including a play on a mojito with celery and a Moscow Mule with blueberry and açai. They make house horchata for a drink with coffee liqueur. And I got rather lost in the delights of the Fix 348, an incredibly appealing drink with kiwi-infused vodka, heavy cream, and an egg-white foam like a pisco sour.
But it does feel painfully corporate. A certain formality comes with tableside service. You get salads ceremoniously served from a boat laden with watercress, hearts of palm, and a good roasted shallot dressing (the Completa); or with diced dried apricot, candied almonds, and goat cheese (the Bariloche). They were good, but ordinary.
Farofa con huevo is yucca flour in a sort of grainy flurry with eggs, cooked as in fried rice, that clumps up with greens. There’s a little texture like a paella’s crisped rice on the bottom of the small casserole dish. It’s not something I would ever order again. Instead, I’d go for several helpings of the mashed potatoes smothered in Parmesan cheese.
Meanwhile, service can be odd, though always friendly. No single server is assigned to a table—a team model more common in South America. They mean well, but things can get lost in the mix. One evening, different servers swooped in at various times to take our order. When it arrived, we were missing a glass of Malbec, a $19 platter of grilled vegetables, and a plate of griddled cheese. (We were not missing the dry bacalao that we could have done without.) The missing cheese was the only real loss, I learned later. It is a thick firm-curd slab, like a meeting of mozzarella and paneer, torched so it’s deeply toasty and drizzled with honey that melts into a pool you dip up with a piece of bread.
The downtown crowd has clearly not caught on to the lunch yet, with its counterintuitive clash of expediency and more laid-back asado culture. Though a shared plate of the griddled cheese, bread smeared with chimichurri, and the deboned chicken—brined, basted, and thrown on the grill for a quick, juicy treatment—over a bed of arugula makes for a very good lunch. Each is something I wish I could transport to any outdoor grilling party.
As for dinner, when the crowning meat platter was wheeled to the table, no one was particularly impressed. New York strip was flavorless. Bottom sirloin was chewy, but had a lusty carnality, at least. Rib-eye was fine, but it’s easy to find a good rib-eye in this city, and this one was unevenly cooked, so slices ranged from rubicund to gray. The platter also held a mealy grilled tomato and crunchy charred onion.
Some people I know reported they spent a fine evening. They ordered very particular cuts and the griddled cheese without the honey, sin miel, because they prefer it that way. They opened a bottle of good Mendoza wine, basking in the glow of music from the golden age of tango. They had a very nice time, and I believe it.
Still, I wonder what my friend would say if I told her that I’d gone to the new Argentine place and my favorite things there were a half-order of morcilla, a leek empanada, and that bizarrely wonderful kiwi-infused vodka-and-cream drink. That in this temple to flesh and embers, the least compelling thing was the beef.