Meat Me by the River
The last time I ate in a Steak House was in the early 1970s in Winchmore Hill, North London, when I was a teenager. Back then my mother had just founded her later very successful antiques business based in Germany. She started it, with minimal initial investment, from a basement flat in Hannover. Every six weeks or so, she would rent a van, take a ferry to Harwich and drive around the UK on a buying spree. During my school holidays I would accompany her on her tour mainly around the Midlands and then into London. To begin with, she was intimidated by the London traffic, so we’d stay well away from the centre of town and mooch around the dealers in Islington, Barnet, Archway and Winchmore Hill to buy antique mahogany furniture and silver to take back to her shop in Germany. I suppose you could say that, as von Haefen & Daughter, we were a hopefully classier and more attractive version of the rag and bone team, Steptoe and Son!
In time, she established a great rapport with her favourite suppliers, and, inimitable diplomat that she was, she would occasionally take them out for a meal, cleverly figuring out that in the long term this would secure her worthwhile friendly discounts. It paid off. Soon my mother had three smart outlets and became a minor celebrity in the area where we lived. During the buying process I learnt all about English antiques and how to restore and transport them, knowledge which stood me in good stead for my art history degree at university in Hamburg and my subsequent work at Christie’s Auction House in St. James’s.
The Winchmore Hill Steakhouse was all red leatherette banquettes and red tomato shaped plastic containers for ketchup. Prawn cocktail was a popular starter to any meal, and cheap, sweet and nasty German wine, which was purely for export as no German would ever have dreamt of drinking it, was on the menu. Black Forest Gateau for dessert was a thing, and coffee was instant, weak and watery. What we would turn our nose up at nowadays was perfectly acceptable then. Oh, how times have changed!
I am not a great red meat eater. For many years I was purely vegetarian, even vegan for a while, and still, on the meat front, my preference is usually for fish, very occasionally fowl, lamb or venison, never beef or pork. What’s more, I also don’t much like starchy potatoes, unless they are sweet potatoes. It was all the more surprising, therefore, that last week I was suddenly overcome by an intense craving for steak, baked potatoes and sour cream. When I say intense, I am talking about an all consuming need, a carnivorous desire, a wild and wanton urge that would allow no other thought to enter my head. My teeth wanted to rip into meat, my soul cried out for the comfort of a baked tuber, my tastebuds screeched for it like a heroin addict’s for a fix. The Lovely Husband, as ever my favourite partner in crime and dining, had soon answered my helpless call and booked a table at Gaucho’s, right on the riverside path in Richmond, a place I had heard good things about but had never had any inclination to visit in the past, for obvious reasons.
Well, whaddya know, at Gaucho’s there’s no red leatherette in sight, nor are there any plastic ketchup bottles! Astoundingly, it’s all rather chic and sleek, modern, cool and very much smarter than I had expected from an Argentinian steak house. On an early autumn Wednesday, it is also surprisingly full, and it is by no means a small restaurant. Its location on the actual towpath of the river means that you have to park somewhere around Richmond Hill (Good Luck!) and walk for a few minutes to get there, but then you are rewarded by the sight of an enormous old plane tree at the centre of the large terrace in front of a building which looks just like a boat house. Nice! As I arrive, I see two shiny black Mini Mokes parked at the side. I imagine they are used to collect guests from their cars and later to return them, although on the evening we are there, we are told that they are both out of order.
Inside, it’s warm and lively. Furniture is predominantly white, with black and white cowhides on the walls. We are shown to a very nice table for two by the picture window, so we can eat while watching the gentle ripples of Father Thames. I am immediately impressed by the friendly, helpful staff, who go out of their way to look after us well, but without being at all intrusive. The menu is a meat eaters dream come true. I, of course, don’t have the faintest idea of the difference between the various cuts of meat. Our waitress appears with a selection of steaks and kindly explains their different tastes and textures. I am at a complete loss, and while the Lovely Husband suggests we try the Tasting Plate of Chorizo (no, not the sausage but top loin), Vacio (flank) and Entraña Fina (marbled skirt), all that sounds far too terrifyingly specialist to me, so we settle on sharing a rare 400g Churrasco de Lomo, which is, in effect, a spiral cut fillet steak, marinated in garlic, parsley and olive oil. At least I know exactly what all those ingredients are. I’m taking no chances! Sadly, they don’t do baked potatoes with sour cream here at Gaucho. Perhaps Argentinians don’t eat that sort of thing? But Gaucho do do, among other things, Fat Chips, and with a Béarnaise Sauce on the side, that should hit the spot. We also order a Rocket and Kale Salad to balance all that meat with something green and healthy.
It’s not long before an enormous slab of meat arrives on an elevated wooden board and is sliced into strips by our waitress. I have to admit, it looks good! And it tastes even better! So tender, so juicy, so perfectly done, it virtually melts in the mouth. For a non-meat-eater, I’m very close to turning my coat! Yum! The fat chips are pretty gorgeous too, twice cooked, they are crispy and unexpectedly flavoursome in a potatoey kind of way. The Béarnaise is light but tasty, the salad nicely crunchily green, though I’d have preferred a sharper twang to grace its crenellations, rather than just the smidgen of olive oil, maybe some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.
So far, so fabulous! Food, ambience and service far outshine my expectations. I thought one or two bites of red meat would serve to satisfy my overwhelming protein craving and certainly didn’t imagine I’d eat it in such a smart environment, but here I am, enjoying every moment. This is all quite outstanding quality! Who knew?!
We purposely haven’t ordered a starter because we want to save some space for pudding. Blessedly, there’s no Black Forest Gateau here! We choose the Special of the Day, a Bread and Butter Pudding with Crème Anglaise. While it might look beige and boring on the photo, it was actually delicious and just right to finish off our excellent meal, no complaints there at all. Except….it had a sting in its tail: The three inch square cost a staggering £9.50 (listed as cheesecake on the bill)!! “Madre de Dios!” as, no doubt, an Argentinian would exclaim.
Our total bill comes to £107.16, including a carafe of wine, which here they call a ‘pot’, a coffee and service charge. “Meat is expensive”, the Lovely Husband tells me, and by Jove, you can say that again! But I can accept the high price for the steak because it was mighty fine and 400g is a big portion, though I think that for that kind of money the sauce on the side, in our case the Béarnaise, should be thrown in to the deal. Charging £3 for it seems a bit money grabbing. The chips and salad are not cheap, but fair enough. The dessert of essentially bread, milk and eggs at almost £10, is simply ridiculous!
Our rare (excuse the pun) excursion to the world of committed carnivores has been fun and hugely enjoyable, and I completely get why Gaucho is so popular. I’d almost be tempted to go back some time but one thing’s for sure, if I do, I’ll be going elsewhere for dessert.
Gaucho have 12 restaurants in London and one each in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Dubai, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires.
What I wore
Electric blue M&S V-neck cashmere jumperm blue and white Topshop skinny jeans, sky blue French Sole ballerinas, pink Marc Jacobs clutch, pink Oasis leather jacket (not shown).
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