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First, let me explain that I went through a period of my life where I considered myself a vegetarian (fish and chicken were exceptions, thus the "considered myself" part of that description). At any rate, I did not eat red meat for several years.
Lately, through a variety of protein diets I have found myself to be a steak fan. But not just any steak. I've managed to narrow my requirements down to beautiful cuts of New York steak.
This preface is to explain that I don't really understand the bewildering variety of ways that you can get your steak prepared for you at El Gaucho in Seattle, but I know what I like. The great thing about El Gaucho is that they are prepared to serve it to you however it is that you like your steak prepared, or explain the menu to you if you (like many people I know) are rediscovering red meat and unfamiliar with some of the more archaic terms - "Baseball Cut," "Porterhouse," "Frenched," etc.
El Gaucho's menu has some familiar things from my years of avoiding "reds": Cornish Game Hen, Alaskan Sea Scallops Brochette, Magnificent Northwest Bouillabaisse, or several varieties of Northwest oysters. And it has several things that I might only try after I've worked my way through the enticing beef menu: Ostrich Fillet, Double Thick Venison Chops, or Tuna Tartar. But its real specialty is steak, and not just any steak. This is "custom 28-day-dry-aged Certified Angus Beef Prime; per the menu (not being too familiar with the world of beef, I'm not entirely sure what that means; "old beef" doesn't sound too appetizing to me). But more importantly, and perhaps more understandable to a world of too many restaurant choices, Zagat's rates El Gaucho as a "don't miss", and Playboy Magazine ranked it as one of the top steakhouses in the nation. In addition, Wine Spectator gave it their Award of Excellence three years running "for having one of the most outstanding restaurant wine lists in the world."
In addition to all this brouhaha, you can rent private dining rooms, have receptions, or just do the scene in the bar or the more secluded (and er - smokier) cigar room. I've even gone to private film screenings in the smallish venue next to the Pampas Room downstairs. (I can't say I liked the film.)
Now, on to what is more interesting to me, a discussion of my dinner at El Gaucho. Despite a late evening (for Seattle) reservation of 8 p.m., we arrived to find a packed restaurant and a brief wait for our table. The receptionist explained that too many people were having way too much fun tonight. No problem. We decided to wait in the bar. No wait, the bar is packed, too. Ah well, we'll just breathe in the aroma of wonderful cooking smells coming from the kitchen and dream about what we'll order. A live pianist (accompanied by taped backup musicians) serenaded us while someone took our coats.
We were seated with a minimal wait, and launched into orders of Oysters Rockefeller and Fresh Northwest Oysters ½ Shell. The latter was a sampler plate of two types of oyster, while the former was the more old-fashioned "baked with spinach and parmesan" dish. All were excellent.
If you haven't tried Northwest oysters, then you're truly missing out. I remember one restaurant in Vancouver that had at least 10 varieties of Northwest oysters on its menu. The server will be able to tell you which ones to expect on the evening that you are at the restaurant and explain what subtle flavor differences to expect as well.
So the real questions for most people I know: should we still go if we have vegetarians in the group or people who don't eat red meat? That's a bit harder to answer. I did think the smell of cooking meat was a bit pervasive. That worked in favor of my meal, but I know some people who might be turned off by that. There were some yummy sounding vegetarian choices, including a Vegetarian Cannelloni and a Wild Mushroom Risotto. There were also a lot of seafood choices and lamb, ostrich, ribs, and lobster. Now, I can't swear that it will be the best lobster or vegetarian cannelloni you've ever had, but at least it's not pasta primavera or a Caesar salad, and the meat eaters in your group will thank you. And, if you're like me, you'll even have enough leftover for a tasty omelet the next morning.
For our entrée, we decided to split the Chateau of New York for Two (this is basically Chateaubriand, but somehow served or cut like New York Steak). Since we didn't really know the difference or what we were ordering, we asked the server to explain before we decided. He explained (in the somewhat noisy restaurant space, so I'm not 100% sure that this is correct) that Chateaubriand was a center cut of prime rib, i.e., the most tender, and that the Chateau of New York was served more like a NY Steak. Huh? We ordered it anyway. (To be fair to the server, I'm sure we could have pled ignorance once again and he would have been happy to tell us more. After all, this dish is $92.00, so he knows he's in for a nice sized tip when all is said and done.)
We also wanted to order salads and were curious about the side dish choices at the bottom of the menu. The server explained that our Chateau came with all the sides, Gaucho Baked Potato (which is sort of a double-baked potato but only baked once if you get what I mean - okay, I'll explain - they take a potato and bake it. Then they slice it open, scoop out the insides and whip this up with some cheese and butter to make a fluffy tableside delight for your enjoyment. The only thing different from a double-baked is that they just don't bake it again once they've added the cheese.) He also cautioned that we in no way would also have room for a salad, so we should probably just skip that.
After a longish wait (caution: don't go here if you're in a hurry or pre-theater or something like that) where we probably should have been sampling their excellent wine list, our meal arrived. They bring out the hunk o' meat to the table, and then take it away again to slice and prepare it. This strikes me as some sort of meat ritual that I'm unfamiliar with, but it seemed important to them. For me, it served to whet my appetite even more than the wait had. By this point, I was ready to jump the serving staff and just demand my meat, but um' I didn't.
So was it worth the wait and the show and tell? Definitely. Was it the best cut of meat and the best steak I've ever had? Most definitely. Would I go back even at those prices? I would beg borrow or steal to have that meal again. Should you visit if you're in Seattle? Put it at the top of your list, but go on a night when you have time to really enjoy it.
By Kevin Fansler, Seattle Correspondent. (Editors Note: El Gaucho is now in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon.)