Getting the horn at El Matador
Aerolíneas Argentinas is the only national airline I know of that’s upholstered in full leather. Argentina has a lot of cattle, so I guess they have to do something with the leftovers. Just like New Zealanders, they’re big on beef and big on the barbecue: in their case the traditional wood-fired asado. Historically this was an ‘iron cross’ on which whole animals were cooked.
The asado has arrived in Wellington, courtesy of El Matador. Located in the old Münchener Burger, next door to Logan Brown, it’s owned by Mike and Wendy Marsland – ex Ernesto. You may recall that Ernesto had to quit Crazy Rick’s corner after being red-stickered out of the earthquake-prone building.
The whiff of sauerkraut has been exorcised by the aroma of woodsmoke. In fact the place is completely unrecognisable.
Transforming a no-frills wurst-shop into an ‘old-world Buenos Aires style eatery’ is ambitious, but fortunately they had an old hand on deck. Chris Johnson is pretty much part of the furniture around Te Aro, having co-designed Midnight Espresso waaaaaay back in the day, and Havana Coffeeworks on Tory of more recently.
The interior design is an artful rendition of new-old. Having chain-sawed their way to the back of the building and added an annex, Chris and co. have stripped the place back to its bare bones. The original butchery tiling is now exposed, as is a swathe of structural concrete summarily chipped, plastered and daubed to create a mosaic at once so chaotic and masterly it’s hard to work out what’s fake and what’s not.
Hanging from Chris’s handcrafted ceiling roses are huge chandeliers laden with cut-glass pineapples. Cattlehide banquettes line the room, alongside a long-bar topped with marble and wrapped in pressed tin.
Decorative details feature bullhorns and toreadors, tango and a faded portrait of Che Guevara. It’s flamboyance pulled through a hedge backwards, and it’s romantic as hell. I can’t wait to see how the courtyard shapes up, come spring.
El Matador is open all day. Served until 3pm, breakfast can be be muesli, fruit, eggs, etc, but you could also go crazy and have pancakes with dulce de leche (milky caramel) and almond brittle ice-cream. On our first visit Lee hoofed it to the full brekky which featured chorizo and morcilla (Harrington’s black pudding), cooked on the wood-fired parilla (grill). I skipped breakfast in favour of the chivito: a terrific sandwich of steak, ham, egg and provolone cheese, with a side of crunchy fries.
Another day, other visit – for dinner. Sadly, a flock of early birds had cleared out the asado of its signature dish, the slow-roasted lamb. We consoled ourselves with empanadas, velvety chicken liver pinchitos (skewers), followed by flank steak with garlic & black olives served in their standard fashion with zingy chimichurri and chapa bread.
This is barbecue as it should be: good cuts and tasty offal, perfectly cooked with appropriate char. We like El Matador’s simplicity, and price – around $20 for a decent meal with a little room left for dessert. I can heartily recommend the ‘cinnamon and vanilla fried milk’ – much like a crème caramel – that went down a treat with a late-night coffee after a night at the pub. If El Matador stays up late enough, Midnight might have some competition.
When I visited El Matador I was shown Francis Mallman’s book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. A quote lept out: ‘every creature that walks ends up roasting on the iron cross.’
Photos by Miriam Ramos