When Malbec Argentine Steakhouse opened last year, it brought new life to the space that once held Society Hill Society, and before that, for many years, the Artful Dodger. The corner spot was recharged with romantic wall art, white table cloths, a bar radiating blue, and a beefy menu of Argentine goodies. Today, Craig LaBan released his two-bell review of the Headhouse steakhouse, and from the way it reads, Malbec found a way to capture the critic's carnivorous spirit and let it go to town:
The short rib, which looks less like a steak than a string of poker-chip-size bones strung together with a thick strap of undulating flesh, is not for those afraid to bare their teeth. In fact, the true pleasure is in the gnawing. And, as my incisors sank deep into those little pockets of meat between the bones, they found a rhythm that moved in syncopation with the bandoneon tango from Astor Piazzolla that pulsed overhead. The richly marbled meat was not tough so much as it had its own special spring, releasing its deeply beefy resonance when bitten with swagger. A piquant salsa criolla on top of sweet peppers in olive oil gave it an added boost.
The skirt steak also on the platter was boneless, of course, but the long-grained meat had its own earthy, grass-fed charms, which lit up even more when swabbed through a tangy green squiggle of herby chimichurri. The platter's other cuts spoke to an even more adventurous spirit - not so much the garlicky chorizo made at Madera, Malbec's Cuban sister restaurant in Queens, but definitely that dark link of morcilla blood sausage, its puddinglike black center rich with bits of onion and a hint of cinnamon spice. And especially the molleja sweetbread. Marinated for two days in a zesty chimichurri of parsley, garlic, and lemon, it comes off the grill as an offal lover's dream - its creamy center framed with the crispy char of fire-roasted edges.
Earlier this week, Tod Wentz's Italian spin-off A Mano received its Philly Mag review: three stars from Jason Sheehan, who seemed entranced by the "dance" of Fairmount's high-brow BYOB. Every dish, from beginning to end, seemed to impress the critic. Even the lowly tripe dish, which chef Michael Millon stews with chickpeas and crispy bits of pig jowl, got some good attention, it being "more artful and considered" than any tripe he's had before.
There's a part of me that believes Italian food never should have risen to the level of fine dining—that the messy plate of spaghetti and meatballs on a red-and-white-checked tablecloth is the finest expression of what Italian cuisine ought to be. In the moment, though—sitting in that plain room, with every sense focused intently on the food in front of me—I love it all. A Mano's food is intelligent and restrained, delicious (obviously), gorgeous (obviously), cultured and fastidious almost (but not quite) to the point of fussiness. These are plates that show off every skill present in the kitchen, packed with deeply complex flavors and curated ingredients. But there's also (with the exception of that cavatelli with escargots) a hollowness at the center of many of them. An empty space where the comfort and joy of spaghetti and meatballs ought to go. I love A Mano while I'm there, but as I walk out the door, I immediately begin to question myself. Did I really like it that much?, that soft voice inside me asks.
To which a much louder (and maybe smarter) voice answers, Of course you did, dummy, then beats up that traditionalist part of me and steals its lunch money.
Sheehan also made mention of "food hipsters", which at this point, is a tired reference that should be put to bed. And down in the comment section, "Rodrigo" exacerbates the hipster-hate with a face-palm inducing comment:
In this day in age, if a solid Yelp rating, a three-bell LaBan review, a four-star Courier-Post review, and a three star Philly Mag review get trumped by the very idea of "hipsters" taking photos, then maybe it's time to reconsider dining out.