Authentic decor: A bit of cowhide goes a long way at San Telmo.
I can’t believe I forgot about the fried cheese. On my debut visit to smokin’ San Telmo in Meyers Place, the provoleta was the standout sensation of the night. So, naturally, when I returned and saw it there on the menu, the bliss came flooding back and I couldn’t understand why this blessed cheese hadn’t occupied every waking thought between visits. Self-preservation, most likely.
The menu lists only “Provoleta – grilled Provolone cheese”, which does nothing to prepare the diner for the sizzling ingot that arrives. It is piping hot with a toasted crust cooked to a deep golden-brown. It’s like the most satisfying cheese-on-toast ever, but minus the toast: Crunchy on the outside, melty on the inside and with an unexpected sweetness that soothes the salt hit of the pulled curd.
Given the porteño residents of Buenos Aires love fried, salty and sweet foods, this is the perfect introduction to Melbourne’s newest Argentinean eatery. The San Telmo experience is as good as anything you will find in Buenos Aires and almost as authentic. Interiors feature salvaged timber, neatly carpentered into tactile walls, and niches stocked with old soda siphons – a nod to the working-class parilla restaurants of La Boca and San Telmo. Walls are adorned with cowhide panels and a vertical wine cellar. Glossy buttoned-leather banquettes curve around macho wood-topped tables.
Tempting: Broccoli with salted ricotta.
The carpet is drab and red. I thought it must be left over from the building’s previous life as a State Library annex but a waiter assures me it is new. It’s about the only misstep in a cleverly reconfigured porteño diner.
Service is smooth – I reckon they’ve got one of Melbourne’s best waiters – and staff seem well-versed in the all-Argentine winelist. This is a godsend, given most of us might struggle to tell a torrontes from a tannat.
The menu also tries hard to capture the Latino feeling. Among the starters and sides there are, of course, empanadas but I can’t understand the popularity of the cauliflower ones. The beef version, with plump currants and crunchy almonds, is much better.
Ceviche, the citrus-cured fish dish from Peru, is re-created here with supple kingfish seasoned with chilli and ginger and padded out – bizarrely – with cubes of sweet potato. Surf and turf? Maybe the kitchen just thought the flavours went well together.
A salad of palm hearts with buffalo mozzarella, jamón and preserved pear is more main course than side dish and utterly enjoyable. Humitas are fat sticks of cornmeal fried until darkest brown, almost black in parts, crusted with salt and then dipped in a creamy (but too timid) chipotle mayo. Obesity on a plate, in other words, and totally worth the muffin tops.
Ensalada of palm hearts
Argentina, as you know, is mad about meat. The average Argentine eats 60 kilograms of beef a year and preparation tends to be simple so as not to distract focus from the beast. Barbecued, by preference, hence San Telmo’s 2.5-metre parrilla, made to order and imported from a master craftsman in BA. It dominates the open kitchen and dining room and is used to cook a commendable range of animals and their organs.
Waiters deposit pots on the table of chimichurri sauce – thyme, oregano, parsley, olive oil and chilli – and criollo, with its red and green capsicums and tomatoes and red-wine vinegar, and then diners choose their flesh. For us, the meat feast starts with ox tongue and cheeks (lenguas en mejillas, or “tongue in cheek”), both slow-cooked at first, finished on the parilla and served simply with some lemon and your choice of sauce.
The tongue has that familiar rough texture and earthy taste that some of us find irresistible. The cheeky chunks almost melt on the tongue, but so does the warm fat that still clings to them. The kitchen could have trimmed the cheeks more rigorously.
Sliced hanger steak is both chewy and tasty, as expected, but probably too much effort for too little reward. Snacky beef short ribs are more satisfying, particularly when slathered in chimichurri. Best of all are creamy mollejas – knobbly calf glands whose insides are warmed and softly creamy. They’re definitely the pick of the parrilla offerings we eat but there’s still blood sausage and lamb’s liver and pork neck to try yet, so it’s too early to nominate a champion. Unless we include the cheese, in which case the winner is cut and fried.
Short ribs of beef
14 Meyers Place, city
Cuisine \ Argentinean
Chef \ Michael Patrick
Hip pocket \ $70 a head for a good spread, with wine
Open \ Mon-Fri 7am-1am, Sat noon-1am
Highlights \ Ay carumba! Fried cheese!
Lowlights \ The carpet, the sweet potato
Bookings \ Yes
Phone \ 9650 5525
We rate it 7 out of 10