Santa Maria del Buen Ayre is an amazing success story, so how about the sequel?
I first met Alberto Abbate, manager and co-owner of Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, in December 2004, a week before he was due to open his first restaurant in Hackney's Broadway Market. He was buzzing with excitement, yet, to me, seemed completely unprepared for the size of the task he was taking on. I wished him well while trying not to betray the shock at what I was hearing and absolute certainty that he would be lucky to stay in business six months.
Thankfully for him – and somewhat worryingly for my sense of judgement – my prediction could not have been further off.
Buen Ayre was an instant success, has won rave reviews and remained full almost every night. Two years on, a larger branch has opened on Queenstown Road in Battersea, south London.
Abbate and his partner, fellow Argentinian and chef John Rattagan, approached the business with the gung-ho attitude that typifies so many start-ups: they did much of the physical labour of conversion themselves and employed friends and casual builders to do the rest. "I even painted the sign myself,"
says Abbate proudly.
But what separated them from so many first-timers was a clear vision of the establishment they wanted to create, as well as of their product and market. Their idea was to open the first authentic Argentinian parrilla (grill) in the country, selling huge cuts of succulent steak fresh from the pampas of South America. They were also certain that London's Argentinian community in London would provide an enthusiastic core market (they still make up around 20 per cent of the restaurant's customers).
Buen Ayre's menu is dominated by four cuts of steak – fillet, sirloin, rib-eye and rump – shipped from Buenos Aires and served in eight, 10 or even 14oz slabs, which, as well as having a deeper purple texture and more flavour than an average British steak, are also much larger.
The owners have also been rewarded by keeping faith in a predominantly Argentinian wine list. "Argentinian wine is undervalued," says Abbate, "so a bottle is cheaper than an Australian or even Chilean equivalent. We added a couple of riojas because they are familiar here, but it is the Argentinian reds [predominantly Malbecs from Mendoza, the country's premier wine-growing region] that customers go for."
Yet what really gives Buen Ayre the stamp of authenticity is the parrilla itself, the huge metal grill custom-designed and imported from Argentina, which is lowered by a crude chain mechanism on to glowing charcoal in the open-plan kitchen.
The sight and smell of a grill full of meats and choripán sausages sizzling away is enough to transport a homesick Argentinian back to Buenos Aires.
In the new Battersea restaurant, which opened last month, the owners have adhered to their ‘keep it simple' formula, the only changes to the menu being the removal of all non- Argentinian wine and the addition of a 12oz Tuna Steak served with Mustard Butter. But the restaurant itself (formerly Krakow, which closed in August 2005) is more ambitious than the no-frills Hackney original. It's larger (75 covers compared to 45) and smarter with a high ceiling and walls of exposed brick painted deep red. There is also a separate bar, and while the smells of the parrilla still permeate the place, the kitchen is off to the side. Rather than placing it in the middle of the restaurant, à la Hackney, the masterstroke here is placing the grill in the window in an attempt to entice every nonvegetarian passer-by on Queenstown Road inside.
It's surely a winning formula… but then, having called the fortunes of the first Buen Ayre so wrongly, I wouldn't take my word for it.
The gaucho club
On the menu? Jamón con Palmitos y Salsa Golf (Serrano Ham with Palm Hearts and Mayo Sauce); Bife de Chorizo con Morrones y Guarnición (14oz prime Argentine Sirloin Steak with Chargrilled Peppers and Garnish); Vacío de Ternera con Guarnición (Grilled Veal Flank with Garnish); Flan Casero con Crema o Dulce de Leche (Home-Made Crème Caramel with Cream or Milk Toffee).
Size? 75 Covers.
Where? Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, 129 Queenstown Road, Battersea, London SW8. 020 7622 2088, buenayre.co.uk