Dining Review: A dip into Argentine culture
The ojo de bife al ajo is an Argentinean style rib eye steak served with roasted garlic-demiglase, roasted potato and grilled asparagus. Malbec Argentinean Cuisine and Bistro has been open in Toluca for three years. They also have another location in Pasadena and will be opening up their third location in Santa Monica next month. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)
Toluca Lake's Malbec celebrates that sophisticated urban culture, as well as the wines that have made viticulture vastly more profitable than raising cattle. The restaurant is dark and somewhat formal, with white tablecloths and stylishly dressed servers, a marked contrast with the party-oriented neighbors. The menu shows the strong Italian influence in this cuisine — gnocchi, pastas and a variant on Milanese veal are all available. We began with a rustic item called Pintxo Criollo, skewered chorizo and morcilla sausages served with white bean salad and Argentine salsa.
While we waited for it, we had to resist the temptation of bread with chimichurri sauce, Argentina's best known culinary export. Every chef has their own formula of herbs, vinegar, and garlic in olive oil, and this one was particularly tasty — it took discipline not to eat the whole basket of bread.
The grilled sausages with white beans were a robust and interesting appetizer. Morcilla is a blood sausage — beef blood mixed with meat in a sausage casing — and many blood sausages have a slight metallic taste. This one didn't. It had a soft texture and organ meat richness, but was richly meaty. The chorizo was Spanish style, tasting of pork and garlic like a smoky bratwurst instead of the paprika-laced Mexican version. It was excellent with the salsa criolla, which had no discernible chili hotness, just olive oil with onion, herbs and roasted bell pepper. The white bean salad reminded me of Greek bean preparations, a hearty and nicely balanced mix of beans, herbs and arugula.
Of course, in a restaurant named Malbec, we had to try Argentine wines from that grape, a Finca Domingo 2010 and Navarro Correas 2009. The Domingo had promise but was strongly tannic, a wine that might benefit from aging, while the Correas was a much more pleasant sip right now.
We were tempted by pastas and seafood, but decided to indulge in some serious beef — short ribs with roasted vegetables and a ribeye steak with roasted potatoes and asparagus. The short ribs had been braised to buttery softness in a fragrant wine sauce that showed its Tuscan roots, with braised carrots and leeks on the side. Braising short ribs are no novelty in L.A., but this was done uncommonly well, and at $19 it was a bargain, as well as a taste treat.
Our server rhapsodized about the ribeye steak so effusively that I decided to try it. It was an outstanding cut of beef grilled to the medium-rare I requested and coated in a roasted garlic demi-glace that seemed to have a touch of citrus. At $26 including roasted potato and vegetable, it was one of the more expensive items on the menu, but was well worth it.
Desserts were offered, but we weren't even able to finish our main courses — gauchos presumably work off these big meals out on the range, city dwellers in the tango halls, but we Angelenos were stuffed. Dinner for two with wine was $96, reasonable for fine food in high style. Malbec offers a rare window on a sophisticated and cosmopolitan South America cuisine, and is worth the splurge.
RICHARD FOSS is a veteran dining critic and culture writer.
Malbec, 10151 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake. Open daily for lunch and dinner, valet or street parking, wine and beer served. Contact: (818) 762-4860 and www.malbeccuisine.com.