El Gaucho

Last night, Rusty and I had a meal without the wives at El Gaucho. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a fancy meal with just Rusty, but there we were, sitting, just the two of us, in the opulent, but cozy, dining room of one of Portland’s high-end steak houses.

Cozy doesn’t quite capture it. It felt cramped, like there were just too many tables for the space, and too many diners around each of the tables and too many servers and helpers moving throughout the entire room.

Although there was some lovely live Latin guitar music playing in the background, it tended to get drowned out by the chatter of the other diners. The room was packed and I was quite glad we had reservations…on a Thursday night (hint, hint, hint).

We were placed in the back, near the kitchen, which was just fine by me, as we had a front-row view of the open kitchen. There was this massive grill, buried with steaks, tended lovingly by the grill master. We watched in awe as he poured the salt on the beautiful pieces of meat…for it was quite a lot of salt…more than I would have thought to use.

Our server appeared and took our drink order, which then gave us time to plan out what we would be feasting upon that night. Rusty chose to start with the Caesar Salad (because, according to Rusty, "it’s what El Gaucho is known for"). For his steak selection, he went with the 12-ounce baseball cut top sirloin.

Salad just didn’t sound so good to me, so I opted for the French Onion soup, followed by a 12-ounce New York and a side of the Bourbon Sweet Mashed Potatoes.

By this time, we had been at our table for about 15 minutes. It was at that moment that we began to notice exactly how attentive the wait staff at El Gaucho truly is. Rusty has this thing for liquids, especially water. He drinks it like it was going out of style. But, try as he might, he could not empty his glass for long. It would seem that each time he emptied his cup, a person would be by to fill it up again, which pleased Rusty to no end. In fact, water refilling is one of his little tests for service in a restaurant.

Meanwhile, it was time for the grill master to stoke the coals of his grill. El Gaucho has this tall chimney, which houses coals to get them to operating temperature. He scraped his grill, pushed in some new glowing coals, and proceeded to layout another round of meat.

My soup arrived, hot and steamy. Rusty’s salad was prepared tableside. He adored his salad. The soup, although quite good (and very heavy on the cheese, which was a PLUS to me) was not the best French Onion Soup to pass these lips. That honor falls to another local restaurant, which I shan’t mention in the review. But, it was really very good.

Not long after the plates were cleared, the focus of our attention arrived, steaming hot and pungent with the smell of good cooking. I cut into my New York to find that it was perfectly cooked…medium rare. Sadly, it’s not often that a restaurant hits the mark dead on (even a high-end steak house...I've had problems in the past at a number of them). The steak was clearly a superior piece of cow, but I was mildly disappointed. It tasted great, but it lacked something, of which I can’t quite put my finger upon. Rusty concurred. His sirloin wasn’t a home run either.

Now, those Bourbon Sweet Mashed Potatoes were nothing less then spectacular. I would have licked the bowl if I could have gotten away with it.

Just before we finished our steaks and mashed potatoes, a most amazing thing occurred. Neither of us has ever seen its equal. One of the young ladies that had been filling our water glasses all night walked passed our table. Without stopping, she switched out Rusty’s glass of ice (for the ice nearly filled the glass, given the number of times they brought him water) with a new glass of water that had far less ice and far more water. Amazing!

To end the meal, El Gaucho provides a selection of fruits and nuts and a platter of cheese and dates; a very nice touch. Given all that we had consumed, we accepted the these plates of goodies, but opted not to have a more formal dessert.

I also indulged in single espresso. That was a mistake. It had an acid finish, which might have been cured with sugar and cream…but…I shouldn’t have to do that.

All in all, magnificent. The service was some of the best I’ve had, but the steak just didn't quite do it for me. Given the price, I think it fair to expect magnificence in every aspect of the meal, and especially in the main course. El Gaucho did not crack my top five, but it is certainly a very fine place.

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