A Night of Meat and Wine at El Nacional

Arriving just in time for our Saturday night reservation at El Nacional, I was already quite certain I’d be in for a great piece of meat – an entraña, a vacio or costilleras imported from Argentina or Uruguay, some chimichurri tapped gently on, nothing on the side. I had heard rumors that they serve Salta-style beef empanadas and my beloved mollejas (veal sweetbreads), too. So I was already pretty excited to sit and crack that menu open.

First, the wine. Their list comprises some 200 references, out of which more than half are Argentine – everything from Alamos to Catena Zapata Reservada in Mendoza, and the Stars of Salta, Colome Torrontes and Michael Rolland’s beloved Yacochuya (this is still a Bordeaux restaurant, after all). There’s also a bunch of local boring Medoc Cru Classés on there, but who the hell cares about those really? As my eyes scanned the collection, they stopped periodically at the familiar names – Zuccardi, Trapiche, Bianchi, Rutini… I ended up ordering a Clos de los Siete 2014, with 57% Malbec dominating an otherwise “Bordeaux-style” blend of CabSauv, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah, aged 11 months in oak and bearing the signature of Argentina’s favorite Bordelais grand-daddy, Mr. Rolland. With its violet, blackberry and blackcurrant aromas it promised to be the perfect bride to whatever parrilla piece I ended up taking. I must note that both the wine and food service were flawless throughout the meal with no uncomfortable wait for the menu, wine or first course, no attitude from our waitress and a genuine smile throughout. So without further ado, the food.

On the menu, the mollajas are listed as being “escalopé, croustillant et parfumé au citron,” a description that caused a minor and just barely noticeable panic attack to erupt inside me. Why? Because, “escalopé.” I’m aware that most French recipes for ris de veau tend to be either coated with breadcrumbs, or drenched in a creamy sauce, or both – far from the simple grilled and smoky little morsels I got used to in BsAs. I feared that this version would be the same. But no. The sweetbreads were only very lightly breaded, almost barely so. Actually, I don’t even think breadcrumbs were involved at all, maybe just flour to form a patch of slightly smoky, crunchy crust on either side. On the interior, the plump little glands were beautifully moist, creamy and smooth, with a very mild, clean flavor. The sweetbreads sat in a shallow pool of veal jus, whose tremendous flavor was enhanced even further by burnt parrilla-stickings from the surface of the meat, and the juice of a lemon, which likewise seemed grilled and slightly caramelized. For the quality and treatment of this rare ingredient, I’m calling El Nacional’s mollejas a definite must-order.

And when my entrée arrived to the table a very audible love affair ensued. It was a surprisingly generous Ojo de Bife, kind of like a boneless rib eye of Argentine beef with chimichurri and a lightly dressed, fresh salad on the side. “Saignant?” the waitress had asked. “Oui,” I had answered, basically short for “Whatever the chef thinks best.” It came fully browned with a gorgeous matrix of blackened grill marks on the exterior, and sprinkled with the perfect amount of coarse salt to further amplify the beautiful natural flavors of the meat. Below the surface, a thin ring of browned beef wrapped around a tremendously juicy, beautiful pink-purple center. It was a pleasure to carve off plump, bite-sized morsels, as the knife practically glided through the supple flesh without obstacle. El Nacional’s signature chimichurri was the perfect accompaniment, with the parsley, garlic and oregano adding the perfect herby kick to round out each bite. And as a side I went with a very simple salad, perfectly dressed (as always, in France) and adding a bit of freshness whenever I wanted it.

My boyfriend got the Onglet de Veau (or hanger steak), which is a pretty popular cut in France. This is the very tender and flavorful bit of meat serving the cow as the legs of its diaphragm. It came sliced into several smaller pieces, very fine and elegant bits of beef with a very juicy, almost elastic bite, perfect for those who put quality before quantity. He also got a side of El Nacional’s house mashed potatoes, sticky and creamy, served in a miniature cast iron casserole that came piping hot to the table.

The wine lasted us throughout the dinner, opening tremendously and reaching the perfect peak to match the last few bites of a perfectly cooked steak. A smooth meal that left us feeling nothing short of giddy, meat about which we’d rave nostalgically for days after.

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