Argentina: the land of silver, known worldwide for its mercurial economy, iconic footballers, enormous grasses, sexy dances, silky Malbecs and cattle, and best known in Britain for a minor territorial dispute and a musical exhortation for it not to shed any tears for its former first lady.
As world cuisines go, Argentine hadn’t really registered as something I had to try; being famous for beef landed it somewhere near Texan on my radar, and while I like a good steak as much as the next part-time vegetarian, a steak is a steak. Argentina is a surprisingly big country (eighth in the world, no less) and given the wildly erratic geography and climate – from balmy tropics in the north and lofty, dry mountains in the west to penguin territory in the far south – it is difficult to imagine a coherent national cuisine. Indeed the country is best known, much as its southern hemisphere rugby cousins are, for barbecued meat, that staple of countries with better climates than ours.
So it was perhaps an unusual choice for a recent meal out when my wife and I descended upon an Argentine restaurant in the lovely town of Guildford, a short commute from London. We were in the area to complete the takeover of a new enterprise: an online jewellery retailer, which my wife will run, having departed the teaching profession before Easter (and therefore having been able to enjoy the Easter holidays fully for the first time in four years). The takeover activities taking a full day to complete, we needed no further excuse to get some time away from the kids, and stayed locally before and after.
Guildford is one of those preposterously affluent places that cause northerners to tut and shake their heads in disbelief, that short commute from London combining with its aesthetic qualities to make it exceedingly desirable. Our hotel was only a five minute walk from the restaurant, in which time we walked past no less than half a dozen estate agents, one in particular populated by young men who looked like City traders, braces and Bluetooth headsets presumably worn primarily to create rapport with their target audience. We noticed a solitary retail property that was not currently tenanted in the whole of the town centre, with no sign of a Wilkinson’s or a Peacocks or a Primark; a modest breakfast for two each morning returned us shrapnel from £20 in two different cafés, both of which were distinctly average. We might then have been expecting to pay through the nose for a decent meal, but a quick survey of the town centre restaurants before our visit had suggested the contrary, and having given up trying to book at a Thai due to a distinctly annoying website we instead rocked up at Cau.
Cau have a small chain of restaurants across the south east (five in total, with an additional venue in Amsterdam), and this might once have put me off, but I am gaining the opinion that a small chain can actually be a very positive sign. A successful one-off can be replicated a few times before it hits a critical mass, and you start to dilute the personality of the founders in the committee necessary to run an enterprise of significant size. I don’t yet know what that number is, but it’s more than three (I am very fond of Tom Brown’s and siblings) and less than 27 (I loved Brown’s in Oxford when I first came across it, and although the branches in Cambridge and Nottingham are reasonable, it has somewhat lost that edge for me).
Walking into the Guildford chapter, you get an immediate sense of a clean, modern eatery; I am no themed diner, it whispers, I am here to give you serious food. The décor is possibly stark to some sensibilities but I very much liked the simple black and silver design, and the staff were immediately attentive and friendly but without being either over-familiar or overly pressing. We went on a Sunday evening and the ground floor (twenty or so tables) was pretty full; they also had a mezzanine level that looked as big again, although that was not open. Even the staff T-shirts proclaiming them to be Cauboys and Caugirls were somehow classy rather than twee.
And so to the food: it is rare that I can read through a menu and be tempted by over half of it; even at Tom Brown’s I normally immediately dismiss a third and then narrow down my choice to a couple of dishes in each course fairly quickly. At Cau, however, there was only one dish on the whole menu I would not have happily eaten. My innate indecisiveness would generally cause this to have presented an enormous problem, as I dither and worry until the waitress bullies me into a decision that I immediately regret, and suffer inevitable envy as someone else’s dinner turns out to have been far more appealing than my own. However, as I’ve touched upon more than once in the past, there is a simple but brilliant answer to this: tapas. Cau actively encourage you to take several of their lighter plates, tapa-style, and we happily ceded to their professional judgment.
Argentina’s specialty being steak, a goodly chunk of the menu was devoted to beef dishes. What I was most surprised at however was the range of options available to vege- and pescetarians. For such a meat-based cuisine, it was pleasing that the alternatives didn’t feel like just alternatives; non-meat options weren’t just there as something to ensure those accompanying the carnivores didn’t go hungry, as I’ve found in more down-market venues basing themselves on cuisine from the Americas or Antipodes.
I only actually had a single meat dish, and it had to be beef: Yebra-smoked, with soy and wasabi (not sure how authentically Argentine either of those ingredients are, but who cares as long as they work). This was joined by salt and pepper squid (not rubbery at all), a creamy-soft aubergine lasagne (no pasta), salmon and haddock fishcakes with a lemo mayo so moreish I was eating it off the knife after the fishcakes were gone, a mini swordfish kebab with more soy and wasabi, a rocket and parmesan salad and a plate of the most delicious peas I have ever eaten, cooked with shallot, the merest hint of mint and a dab of chilli.
My only regret was not being able to enjoy a lovely, smooth Malbec, given the importance of the following day’s work; I shall look forward to rectifying that on another occasion as I will certainly be coming back if I return to Guildford in the future.