The primal appeal of a flawlessly cooked steak has been expounded upon at length by writers and gourmands alike, and I will not attempt to outdo them here. I will only ask, as John Cleese did, that if God didn't intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?
I love eating steak straight off the coals, almost still smoking; fire crusted and dripping fat, with rusty red juices escaping at the first touch of the knife. I also like it pan fried; seared in nutty butter; caramelised, and drizzled with the deglazed pan residues. I have enjoyed it rare, bloody and marbled with fat – and pink, tender and topped with a freshly fried egg. No meal, perfectly done, is so satisfying; or poorly executed, as disappointing as a simple steak. As Anthony Bourdain reminds us - when you eat meat, something did die, and you have an obligation to value it.
Because of my preference for perfect porterhouse, I view steakhouses with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Too often the steak is served well done when you demanded medium rare, or the natural flavour of the meat is hidden under cheap sauces or ill-conceived garnishes. Sometimes the meat is cold, occasionally it is tough and generally it falls short of expectations, leaving one feeling disappointed and cheated.
For these reasons, it was with a tremble in my step that I approached Bar Ba Coa in Umhlanga on a recent Friday night. Bar Ba Coa calls itself an Argentinian grill and bar – good start. The Argentinians are famous for enjoying one of the highest per capita consumption rates of red meat in the world; and the vast herds of cattle ranging on the open pampas form part of their national psyche.
Interestingly, barbacoa from which the term 'barbecue' derives is actually a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean – Argentinians rather refer to their national dish as 'Asado', which is used to refer to both the method of cooking meat on an open fire, as well as the social occasion surrounding it (much like 'braai' is used in South Africa).
Bar Ba Coa is one of our higher-end steakhouse, and is priced accordingly. Starters go for around R50 to R60 and steaks range from R115 to R180. Their Facebook page features tables of smiling Sharks rugby players and local minor celebrities, so it’s the kind of restaurant that you go to spoil yourself a little.
The place is attractively decorated in a masculine style, with wooden floors, more wood on the tables, plenty of leather, red walls and elegant lighting. There’s an inside area, which is more formal, and an enclosed outdoor area that is a little lower key (large screen TV screening sports), and which is where we were seated. It’s a popular venue, so be sure to book in advance.
We kicked our meal off with a portion of empanadas as well as the ‘dedos de carne’. The empanadas (basically little Cornish pasties) were filled with chorizo, corn and cheese and served with the restaurant’s signature chimichurri sauce (parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil and vinegar). Torn apart and dipped in the sauce, they were delicious, and the serving of four is probably enough to share as a starter. The dedos de carne were somewhat less satisfying – described as 'beef strips fried in a red wine jus' the carne itself was pretty good, but the tortillas it was served with were a little thin and uninspiring, and the garnish of a pile of limp shredded lettuce might have felt more at home in a roadside burger house.
Obviously, though, we were there for the steaks, so we scanned the menu carefully and weighed up our various options for the main course. We wanted to maximise on the South American flavour, so we avoided the game options and the monkey gland sauce (too South African), and settled on the carne Argentina (naturally) and the carne Mexicana. Both are 300g sirloin steaks which come topped either with streaky bacon, grated cheddar and ‘drizzled with chimichurri butter' (Argentina) or nacho chips, melted cheddar, guacamole salsa, jalapenos and sour cream (Mexicana). Yes, the Mexicana is basically a steak topped with a portion of nachos – what’s not to like?
Sadly, like too many other restaurants, the fine print at the bottom of the menu stated: '*All mains are served with a choice of chips, baked potato, rice, mash or salad'. Is it just me, or is that getting old? I don't come to a restaurant to design my own dish – this was not supposed to be a choose your own adventure. To my mind, sides should enhance the dish that they are paired with, the flavours, textures and colours carefully chosen to complement the main feature, not simply tacked on as an afterthought. I ended up going with chips, but honestly – one can get chips with a steak at Spur. Here, in an upmarket establishment, it would be nice to see something a little more thought through, perhaps a portion of verdurajo, the Argentinian grilled vegetable dish made up of potatoes, eggplant, corn and onion cooked on the grill.
The meat at Bar Ba Coa is advertised as ‘grilled on charcoal to bring out the natural flavours'. Unfortunately, to me it tasted a bit like the natural flavours of the charcoal, rather than the meat. It certainly wasn’t overpowering, but the first taste that hit me as I started on the steak was not the smoky, dark, woody flavour of an open fire under a starlit sky, but rather the dusty taste you might find at the bottom of the charcoal bag. Honestly, I couldn't quite work out what was going on here. The restaurant features a large kitchen with a viewing area, and I could see the staff flipping meat over a stack of coals, so it should have been great – but there was this insistent raw charcoal taste hanging on the outer edges of the meat. Kind of like the taste that results when you lose control of your Weber and resort to throwing water over the flames, kicking up ash.
Inside, both steaks were lovely and juicy (almost verging on underdone for a medium rare, with pink blood pooling on the plate) but I felt that they were under seasoned, simply not enough salt or pepper. Now I understand that Argentinians do not traditionally apply anything beyond the basics to their meat, but I think a slightly heavier hand with the seasoning would have helped to bring out the flavour of the meat.
The toppings were alright, but also not very inspiring – the chimichurri was probably the best part, and the chips were very standard, I might have preferred a more rustic, thick cut, skin on chip to better match the big slab of beef.
Desserts consisted of a rather familiar looking line up: crème brûlée; ice cream and chocolate sauce; an Argentinian take on tiramisu. Something I did enjoy was the option of two scoops of Mozart’s ice cream served in a sugar cone. A good way to end off the meal and you can even walk out with it if you choose to – pudding to go!
All in all, Bar Ba Coa is not really a bad steakhouse – it’s just that it falls prey to what bothers me about most steakhouses, with the added issues that at their prices, I expect a lot more. Next time I’ll stick to my Weber.