“New Argentinean on the Block” for Pasadena Magazine

Malbec updates Argentinean cuisine and a once sparse Green Street space.

March 2009

While Argentinean cuisine may conjure images of churrasco—a South American barbecue style with countless rotisseries of meat so large they could put a field of cows to shame—every type of fare has its interpretations. Italian, French and Spanish cuisines also influence Argentinean food so it is common to see pasta offered alongside your lifetime supply of protein.

Malbec opened a year ago and dubs itself “New Argentinean”. Chef Pablo Alcorta, who studied in Buenos Aires for five years and served as sous chef at the Beverly Hills Il Fornaio and Malibu’s Allegria, puts a new spin on the old rotisserie while maintaining classic Argentinean dishes and vibrant flavors.

The space that houses Malbec was formerly Il Capo and is on an unexpected portion of Green Street mostly populated with non-restaurant businesses. Anyone who frequented Il Capo—a casual Argentinean eatery with a deli counter and uninspired interior—will notice that the atmosphere has also been delightfully updated.

Black and white photographs hang on brick reddish brown walls lined with elegant black booths. Tables are interspersed throughout and the vibe is warm and lively as opposed to the sparse previous incarnation. The wall at the back of the room is bright yellow and a small wooden bar with wooden rectangular bar stools adds more charm. While the walls were apparently already the current colors, the new booths, photos, furniture and something else indefinable makes it feel like a place where you actually want to linger, though it may be empty if you come early for dinner, but not for long.

A friendly, attractive server takes our drink order and I decide to try the Argentinean sangria. I am told it is not technically Argentinean and really just a Malbec creation. I would have preferred a traditional red wine sangria in this case. A tall glass of red wine mixed with Sprite, lemonade and a bit of orange arrives over crushed ice. No pieces of fruit are in the glass with the exception of a lemon slice. I’d recommend another drink unless you are particularly fond of red wine and Sprite.

The wine menu lists 17 Malbec selections, its namesake grape, as well as Cabernet, traditional Spanish Torrontes and other choices. A few pricey vintages—one aged 20 years for $115—also catch the eye.

Empanadas are a traditional appetizer that cannot be passed up and two for $5.95 is an especially good deal for these small, fried turnovers with a thick pastry crust. Choices abound like ham and cheese, beef and mushroom. The chicken empanada is filled with moist and flavorful chopped chicken and vegetables. The spinach and cheese is even better, especially for cheese lovers. The warm, savory combination makes it a small, heavenly treat to the last bite. A small mixed greens salad accompanies the two empanadas, in case you feel like having a healthy nibble, but I’d recommend saving as much room as possible for the upcoming culinary parade.

The main distinction between Malbec’s new Argentinean and the status quo is the absence of the churrascos—large rotisseries of meat being carved tableside. Meats are instead cooked on a grill in the kitchen for optimum freshness.

Main courses include a variety of fish and meat dishes with the most notably decadent and churrasco-inspired being the great Argentinean brochette with grill meats, veal sweetbreads, chicken and sausage over vegetables. Traditional dishes are on the menu like milanesa—a lightly fried thin breaded steak—and napolitana, which adds tomato sauce, ham and melted cheese to a steak or chicken milanesa. The Italian influence makes a cameo with dishes like spinach ravioli, chicken cannelloni, and seafood fettuccini.

For a walk on the lighter side, I order the roasted lemon-herb chicken. Simple but flavorful, the boneless chicken is moist, halved and quite large with browned skin and rosemary. Accompaniments include tender vegetables like carrots and broccoli and potatoes that are roasted to perfection, with a taste and texture that elevate the common roasted potato. Crispy and golden brown on the outside and soft on the inside, the potatoes have a bit of a meaty taste, possibly from chicken juices, that make them particularly addicting.

I share a fish dish in the form of the frito mixto, an entrée-sized appetizer of calamari and fried tiger shrimp amidst sautéed mushrooms. It is what you would expect from calamari: chewy, slightly crunchy and served with lemon, spicy tomato sauce and tartar sauce.

The dessert menu looked tauntingly delicious. It was difficult to decide on one, so I ordered the panqueques de manzana (apple crepes) and pastelitos de membrillo, a small pie. The crepes are perfect for sharing and the presentation is a magnificent prelude to the taste. A long, narrow dish arrives with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream in the middle and one folded crepe on either side. Each perfectly-textured, soft crepe is filled with tender, chopped apples and pastry cream, garnished with powdered sugar and sits atop sweet dulce de leche sauce. Resist the urge to lick the plate.

The pie is not as phenomenal but is a unique experience. Small and round with a thick crust, the pie is filled with quince jam and cream cheese. Quince is a fruit related to apple and pear, though the jam tastes more like sweet spices than any type of fruit. A bit more cream cheese could make the dessert more interesting, and the cream cheese itself is an addition to this traditional Argentinean dessert. An orange glaze is also a Malbec touch, though the taste goes unnoticed. The panqueques de manzana are a sure thing if you only want one dessert to share.

Sufficiently full and satisfied with a plethora of Argentinean delights, the check was also a pleasant surprise. For under $60 without tip, we had ample leftovers for at least one more meal each. If this is new Argentinean cuisine, the experience also won’t get old anytime soon.

Malbec. New Argentinean. 1001 E. Green St., Pasadena 91106. 626.683.0550. www.malbeccuisine.com. Lunch and dinner. Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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