Much like Pope Francis I, Gaucho is a South American export, revered by many and poised to command a fresh take on things. His Holiness has Catholics, Gaucho has investment bankers and Ladies Who Lunch. His Holiness is supposed to be a forward-thinking Pope with a fresh take on faith – and likewise, trust me, you have never been to a steakhouse like Gaucho before.
Actually, Gaucho is not strictly Argentinean, rather the brainchild of Dutchman Zeev Godik who spotted a gap in the market for a Argentinean beef-house in Piccadilly in 1994. One has become fifteen, and Gaucho are are flung as far as Dubai. And Manchester. And Leeds. But mainly London, and they sure do fit in with the more pretentious corners of the ‘Smoke.
Like a designer drug, Gaucho commands top dollar (a recent report placed the average spend-per-head at an eye-watering £sixty-five), yet business is burgeoning. Word of mouth is rife – a couple of recent comments within my earshot included “The best sirloin in town” and “Those little cheesy balls are better than sex”
And cheesy sex-balls is where the Gaucho experience begins. Officially called pão de queijo, they constitute part of the bread course, possibly the best free bread in town (Francis I should canonise these statim), served with cracked salt, oils and butter. Starters are less successful. On a recent visit to the O2 restaurant, a selection of empanadas were sadly described by our waitress as “little Cornish pasties”. The chicken ones were too spicy, the beef ones were too bland, but the cheese and onions ones were just right. On a recent visit to Canary Wharf we disregarded everything and simply ordered a supplementary round of sex-balls.
Never fear though, because a place like Gaucho is all about the meat. All beef is Argentinean-reared British breeds (insert Falklands joke here) and we ordered a brace of half-kilo spiral-cut chorizo (sirloin) at Canary Wharf. Sumptuously tender and with a blackened crust, it was bang on, but somehow Goodman and the JW Steakhouse across town get their meat, well, more bang on. With steaks coming in at anything from £twenty to £hundred-and-twenty, Gaucho needs to consistently deliver nothing but the best.
The menu is hedged with burgers (thankfully still at burger prices). These were risked at the O2 and were under-seasoned to such a catastrophic degree they may as well have been coloured beige. The patties made ‘with four kinds of beef’ were dwarfed with a dry brioche bun, making the entire dish resemble a toadstool. Great chips though. Gaucho does deliver when it comes to spuds – the chorizo was accompanied with the creamiest mash – albeit ten minutes after the meat arrived.
Desserts – not usually the forte of a macho steakhouse – are hugely successful, the highlights being a Salted Dulce de Leche and Macadamia Cheesecake, a startling yet balanced sugar hit of pure whimsy. The cheesecake edged a cream cheese panna cotta with sweet potato into second, though this delivered sugar in a brave new way and I will definitely be coming back for more.
Gaucho’s food is too inconsistent and therefore difficult to like. The staff should be the glue that hold things together and justify the astronomical prices but – with a few exceptions – the team are frankly pretentious and scripted, lending all my Gaucho nights an aura of isolation (though it has to be said that the hostess at the O2 is amazing, along with a waiter who brought us a free round of bubbly, but remember kids – bribery is wrong). Gaucho’s general managers (stylised as ‘managing partners’) need a unique selling point – and they have one.
Gaucho is the chain that Callum Best built. Step into any of their restaurants and you are greeted with yawning spaces rained into comfort with plush walls of black and white cow-hide and cream banquettes, set against black carpets, drapes and uniforms (you can’t see the staff half the time, which is both a blessing and a curse). The decor is slightly illuminated with chandeliers the size of Transit Vans, carried along with the lounge-y, lethargic sounds of Groove Armada. Things are so stylish, it kind of says it all that the only photo I have of a Gaucho is of their bathroom sinks.
Each restaurant offers a little independent take on looks; the O2 has stadium-style seating, where diners on the upper tiers look down into the ‘stalls’ – or beyond, to the megalithic glass lift – where they can pass judgement on those ascending from the well-appointed bar to the tables. Canary Wharf has a sweeping terrace overlooking the Shard, the City and an absolute mother of a sunset.
So it’s a tough one! Gaucho is totally saved by the one thing that should not save a restaurant – pretentiousness and style over substance. Clearly, the cuddly, clubby internals are funded by premium pricing and if that’s what you are into then you’ll go back for more (these are excellent venues for Date Night by the way). However, if you’re anything like me and for some bizarre reason visit restaurants in search of great food, this fresh take on steak is somehow not quite enough – not even if we place our faith in sex-balls and cheesecake.
gauchorestaurants.co.uk (well worth a look – they have a yacht, for god’s sake) | @gauchogroup
You’re going to be looking at £fifty per head without even breaking a sweat. Chuck in wines, the larger cuts of meat etcetera and expect to nudge £eighty, at which point you may as well shout “f**k it” and start counting cards like Jim Sturgess in 21