There are two kinds of beef lovers in this world: those who desire the buttery richness and tender ease of a filet mignon, and those who crave the funk of meat with a gamy savor, bones, and gristle.
If the big cast-iron platter bearing the parrillada mixed grill at Malbec in Head House Square is any indicator, Argentines fall solidly in the latter group. And so do I.
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.
Even the organ-meat neophyte at my table conceded it was delicious. And while I've had excellent sweetbreads elsewhere in Philly (usually fried in some sort of breading), to have them grilled naked is a pleasure I haven't had since Pat Cancelliere closed our last serious Argentine restaurant, 943, in the Italian Market three years ago.
I suspect Tenderloin Nation has pretty much been scared away by this point. But Malbec, which also serves handmade empanadas and some surprising fresh pastas, as well as seafood and some more familiar steaks (including a filet mignon), should have a wider appeal than that.
This new restaurant, which replaced the short-lived Society Hill Society in the space better known for its long run as the Artful Dodger, has been revamped with whitewashed brick walls, white linen on the tables, a copper-topped central bar, and cozy nooks that give this old-time tavern space an intimate feel of classic romance. The fresh red roses in a tiny vase atop the black leather table runners at this intimate new steak house only added to the gaucho groove.
In a city brimming with predictable corporate chophouses, the arrival of this independent with a distinctive South American accent is an unexpected plus. It's owned by two Latin American couples from New York - Argentine chef Daniel Dominguez and his Cuban wife, Miriam, who own Madera Cuban Grill in Queens, and Walter Aragonez (also Argentine) and his Ecuadoran fiancée, Gisella Jara, who have adopted Society Hill as their new home and run Malbec day to day.
There's a personal warmth here that's both appealing and a little quirky - as evidenced by the enthusiastic but overeager service that occasionally got too chatty with unsolicited advice on the front end, then repeatedly kept trying to whisk away our plates prematurely toward the end.
Given the name, the restaurant's wine program can also be improved. True, there are more than 20 bottles of malbec to choose from, including an accessibly priced Renacer Punto Final, as well as more famous names like Catena, Kaiken, Gascon, and Balbo. But the triple-cost markups are a drag. And with only a handful of unexciting wines by the glass (each priced up to the restaurateur's cost of a bottle), your best options for something of quality are still the full bottle list, which also features Argentine torrontes, chardonnay, and cabernet, plus some West Coast pinots.
The traditional Argentine cooking is really the best reason to go, as it is considerably different from the all-you-can-eat churrasco meat-fests that draw crowds to places like Chima and Fogo de Chão.
Malbec, for example, makes some of the best empanadas in town, the flaky half-moon pastries with braided edges filled with tender and cuminy beef, oniony shreds of chicken, or ham with oozy mozzarella cheese. (Jezabel's, the little cafe formerly known as Gavin's beside the park at 26th and Pine, also makes nice empanadas and some excellent alfajores pastries - but does not cook dinner.)
What really distinguishes Argentina's cuisine from the rest of South America, among other things, is the influence of its large Italian population. And homemade pastas are highlights on Malbec's menu, especially the handmade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and the baked cannelloni whose crepes were filled with spinach and ricotta then glazed in a nutmeg-scented béchamel white sauce that was rich in a good way you just don't find often anymore. The handmade tallarines spaghetti, delicious even if not quite as al dente as classic Italian style, twirled inside a thick emerald pesto topped with shaved walnuts.
There were other classics here I enjoyed - the skillet of molten provoleta cheese was irresistible; and both the pickled eggplant and chilled matambre roulade of flank steak, rolled around vegetables and served with retro Rusa potato salad, evoked an Argentine picnic. A dessert of crepe-thin pancakes stuffed with sweet dulce de leche caramel was impossible to resist.
Some traditional dishes I found less exciting - especially the flavorful but chewy breaded Milanesa steak topped with boring cheese and pink tomatoes.
The seafood dishes also were a mixed bag. The trio of squid was tender and flavorful, served grilled, sautéed, and lightly fried. But the marinated shrimp were overshadowed by their dry bruschetta toasts. And though the Chilean sea bass (otherwise known as Patagonian toothfish) counts as somewhat local in Argentina, I couldn't help but think $31 was too much for what essentially reminded me, with its bland orange cream sauce, of a '90s banquet.
By contrast, Malbec delivers a fair value with its high-quality red meat, both with prime-grade cuts (New York strip and rib eye) and the rest, which are Angus, and range from $24 (for two short ribs) to $40 for an 18-ounce porterhouse. Soon to be cut in-house (Malbec just got its saw), all that's needed is a little Argentine sea salt and the steady hand of Malbec's cooks at the grill. As we cut into a juicy T-bone, perfectly cooked and hefty for $36, I took a savory bite of strip steak from one side of the bone and a tender hunk of filet from the other and realized: Malbec is, in fact, capable of satisfying both kinds of beef lovers at once.
MALBEC ARGENTINE STEAKHOUSE (two bells out of four)
400 S. Second St., 215-515-3899; malbecsteakhouse.com
A traditional Argentine steak house has landed in Head House Square, transforming the evocative old-time tavern space of the former Artful Dodger into a chimichurri-scented carnivore's corner. The service can be awkwardly overeager, and the drink list needs refining (beyond its signature grape). But with properly cooked, well-seasoned, and quality steaks, plus surprisingly good house pasta, empanadas, and a tango sound track, this is a romantic setting for a night of red meat and red wine.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Empanadas (beef, chicken, ham and cheese); matambre rolled steak; chorizo and morcilla; grilled sweetbread (molleja); provoleta a la parilla; calamari trio; parrillada Argentina mixed grill for two; short ribs; skirt steak; T-bone; house made pastas (cannelloni with spinach in white sauce; ravioli in fresh tomato sauce; tallarines spaghetti in pesto); dulce de leche pancakes; bread pudding.
DRINKS The glass selection of wines is slim and dominated by solid-but-unexciting values from the Argentine winery Elsa Bianchi. There are, however, more than 20 bottles of malbec at several price ranges (though with frequent triple-cost markups), from Renacer Punto Final (at $45 a fair value) to Norton Barrel Select ($52), Catena Zapata ($68), Kaiken Ultra ($73), and Balbo and Colome on the higher end. The cocktails are basic, and with a surprising number of sweet soda mixers, but try the herbal Tango made with Coke and Fernet-Branca.
WEEKEND NOISE A lively 84-decibel buzz, but decent table spacing allows for conversation. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrees, $15-$40.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
Not wheelchair accessible.