Notwithstanding great wine list and desserts, San Telmo is a transfusion rather than transplantation of Argentina.
In an increasingly fickle world, initially distinguishing oneself from the amorphous mass isn’t about the drawn-out process of natural selection. It’s about starting out with a big bang. Cool laneway location? Tick. Unassuming facade? Tick. An informally-set venue with bare tables, bistro chairs, low lighting and signature black black black? Tick. A buzz that rises to a raucous clamour both inside the venue itself and on the omnipresent 21st century Foucauldian Panopticon that is Twitter? Tick. Melbourne’s celebrity cuisine of 2011? Tick. The recently-opened Argentinean restaurant, San Telmo, has it all — a veritable magpie hoarding all the biggest trends in Melbourne dining. At first glance you wouldn’t realize its claimed Argentinean heritage and inspiration, apparently named after the oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. It’s decked-out very much as a Melbournian, though not your typical metrosexual in monochromatic minimalism. It’s more a grunting macho, overlaid with floor-to-ceiling cellars on burgundy carpets, buttoned leather chaises that intimately enclose dining threesomes, and plush cow hides, tanned saddles and buffed leathers hammered onto the black walls — a robust cocktail of gaucho ranch meets lusty matador meets Cuban cigar and whisky lounge. Instead, it’s inside the toilets (of all places!) wall-papered with Argentina’s famous and infamous porteños, that San Telmo’s culinary focus is more definitively alluded to. With regards to seating, one may choose to perch up at the window sill to stare down passserbys or at the now-mandatory open kitchen, distinguished here by heavily-tattooed chefs and one war machine of an imported parrilla grill. Otherwise, and arguably better for those who have not yet lost the art of a conversation longer than a Tweet, there’s a cluster of tables in the main seating area that’s generous for a group of three or more, but probably too-close-for-comfort for couples.
MoMo & Coco visisted for a weekend dinner. It’s San Telmo’s shared-plate-style a la carte menu that does the temporal hopscotch to Argentina rather than its interior decor. It gravitates towards a carnivore’s dream-meal, beginning with a fur- and leather-bound menu that folds out to introduce “starter and sides,” a central page that speaks many dialects of meat “from the parrilla” and a “dessert” epilogue. MoMo & Coco’s dining party set the scene with the Empanadas ($6), a plump crescent of beef, currant and almond that was solid, but couldn’t be said to surpass that available in suburban South American bakeries (eg Marciano’s) for half the price and twice the size. Next up, the Humita ($12), Argentinean version of wedges, comprised four symmetrically and precisely-cut rectangles of fried cornmeal, served piping warm, to be dipped in a chipotle mayonnaise that lacked the characteristic flamboyancy of its core ingredient. Although the Papas ($10) was lacklustre, an oily sliver of baked potatoes, the Ensalada of Palmheart ($16) stylised with pear halves, shaves of jamon and mounds of buffalo mozarella was a compelling interplay of sweet, salty, creamy, light. But one does not visit San Telmo for snacky things and caterpillar food — move over and on to the meats, please. Due to cultural prohibitions and general aversions, MoMo & Coco bypassed the porks, livers, sweetbreads, offal etc. The Tira de Asado ($26) arrived as a very large pan of beef short ribs of a commendably high meat ratio, but being bare in presentation as well as taste (one could smell, but not taste the smoky tendrils of the parrilla), it therefore required a liberal hand to douse it in the supplied chimichurri condiment (an addictive concoction of oregano, thyme, peppers in olive oil) and criollo (more peppers and tomatoes in red-wine vinegar). The Entrana ($40) of a hangar steak mimicked a similar story. With the greatest honesty, MoMo & Coco could not distinguish San Telmo’s signature parrilla meats from meats previously sampled at other fine carnivore-loving restaurants (eg Rockpool, Steer and Squires Loft). However, we write a dessert-blog, so take this comment with a grain of salt. 🙂 As a side-note, the encyclopaedic all-Argentinean wine list was an absolute stand-out, with almost all available by the glass at very reasonable prices.
To the desserts we go. San Telmo’s dessert menu was brief, four options of which MoMo & Coco selected three, bypassing therefore the ice-cream (helados) option that restaurants seem to think is necessary, but is in reality, hardly enticing for discerning sweet-tooths. However, if one is really craving for helados, MoMo & Coco would recommend that you finish up at San Telmo and take a walk to the recently-opened, albeit somewhat overpriced Helados Jauja. But back to San Telmo, the first irresistible sampled was the “Pera Borracha” ($14), a quartered pear poached to almost black in Malbec (an Argentinean red wine) and embedded like glistening dark chubby legs into a velvety custard cream raft atop a Malbec sea. It made for a very powerful debut.
The second irresistible was the “Flan de Dulce de Leche” ($14), equally memorable as the first if not more so. Radiating golds and browns, its sides were sun-damaged with mottled freckles, but this did not detract in any way from its best asset, well-endowed with a perfectly silky smooth and flavoursome mouthfeel. One of the best flans that MoMo & Coco have had. It wore a garland of caramelised nuts and toffee shards that dropped to an amber pendant of exquisitely rich and thick dulce de leche. Ahhh…if only it had been festooned by a choker entirely made of dulce de leche…although perhaps that would have overbalanced it to extreme sweetness for some (not MoMo & Coco, though)! Simply hmmmmm…irresistible… 🙂
Presented on an evocative plate with seared edges, the third irresistible were the “Alfajors” ($5 each), somewhat deflatingly small morsels of a shortbread texture, sandwiching a thin layer of dulce de leche, and flecked with desiccated coconut. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but in this day and age, it wasn’t value-for-money, regardless of the perceived exotic experience of eating an Argentinean cookie. One would be advised to visit one of Melbourne’s South American bakeries (eg Marciano’s) for an Alfajor five times the size, half the price and a more generous dulce de leche filling.
Service was…what service? On a full-house Saturday evening, three wait staff seemed inadequate. Our waitress handed us the menu, with no introduction nor explanation, waiting at our elbows to take our order. When asked for recommendations, she rattled off every second dish on the first page as “her favourite” and would have continued her passionless monotone punctuated with comments of “X dish is *read menu ingredients* and is good, Y dish is *read menu ingredients* and is *insert synonym of good*…etc etc” had we not interrupted her when she turned to the meat page. Every plate was placed in front of us without label or explanation, not even a word in fact — just an arm passing in front of us while we were talking. The dessert menu and the bill had to be requested twice. Although we give her due credit for refilling glasses without being summoned and timely dish delivery (though perhaps this should be attributed to an efficient kitchen), it was akin to being served by a ghost…a ghost who had become utterly bored of her haunt. Rather exciting indeed.
With all our reviews in this journal-blog, MoMo & Coco have used our travel and other experiences as a referential benchmark. It is important for our readers to note that with the exception of having sipped Caribbean-esque cocktails, studied its historical/political intrigues, and snuggled with tales by J. Ribeiro, G. Marquez, C. Zafon, and I. Allende etc, MoMo & Coco have neither set foot on the South American continent nor herald from that culture. Hence, we have negligible exposure to that region and its cuisine, and therefore are unable to comment on the authenticity of such offerings in Melbourne. Notwithstanding this qualification, it’s evident that the food (including the strapping desserts) at San Telmo comes generally well-rendered, staying very close to the no-frills agenda of a typical Argentinean parrilla. Perhaps it errs too close tough, because in its restrained flavours and pared-backed simplicity, there’s a sense of a repressed creativity that sparks in some dishes and would be welcome in more. The venue’s ambience likewise resonates with that same sense of cultural suppression, compounded by the blasé nature of the service, incongruous as it is to the warmth that one would normally associate with South American hospitality. There’s no denying that San Telmo is a mostly enjoyable, unpretentious place to dine-out in, but apart from its strong desserts, the all-Argentinean wine list and the Argentinean words peppering the menus, it’s more a transfusion rather than a transplantation of South America. In truth, it feels no more and no less than a more overtly masculine brother to existing Melbourne share-plate and/or meat-oriented restaurants. Indeed, it reminds MoMo & Coco very much of the recently-opened Aylesbury (a Spanish-accented pan-European that delivers more consistent service though). Nonetheless, San Telmo is welcome for broadening the diversity of Melbourne’s dining landscape, and for signalling its next evolutionary stage, that is bringing into mainstream awareness, the gastronomic culture of one previously-ignored region of the BRIC bloc. As the excitement of its initial big bang dissipates, as the drone of natural selection progresses, San Telmo will hopefully wear its Argentinean colours more confidently, daringly and proudly — in the aspects of food, service and ambience. MoMo & Coco do not want to cry for Melbourne’s Argentina, especially one with such promise.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: San Telmo Restaurant, 14 Meyers Place, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $$-$$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Neo-classical Argentinean/South-American.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Dulce de Leche Flan.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Notwithstanding great wine list and desserts, San Telmo is a transfusion rather than transplantation of Argentina.