Despite the odd setback in the south Atlantic, everywhere you look these days, Argentina is in the ascendant.
There's the new Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of course. Then there's Lionel Messi, who year after year is advancing his claim to be called the greatest footballer in history. And these guys – conquistadors of Catholicism and the world's favourite game, respectively – are as almost nothing compared with Sergio Martinez, the astonishing middleweight boxer who is being talked of as the best in the ring since Sugar Ray Robinson.
And if you don't worship Jesus of Nazareth, Barcelona or the kings of the ring, you can taste the winds of change another way, through the burgeoning Argentine presence on our food scene. Santa Maria del Sur in Battersea, Buen Ayre in Hackney, and De La Panza in Dalston are all terrific. Then there's the reliably good Gaucho chain, which, in the form of spin-off Cau, recently provided the most fun and delicious new restaurant in Cambridge for years.
But none have been so celebrated, so consistently talked of in urgent and gushing tones, as a place called Garufa in Highbury, north London. Naturally when I heard that it was opening a sister joint called Garufin, in Holborn, I got all excited and made a booking. So it's a shame it turned out to be such a letdown.
I'm not even talking about the décor here – though while we're on the subject, it really is a bit of a downstairs dungeon, and puts me in mind of nothing so much as the gimp's hideout in Pulp Fiction. Grey-brown wallpaper, dim lights, naked brickwork and chequered flooring I could usually live with. But the utterly unforgivable racket booming from the speakers, by turns techno, trance and acid house – in the sense of house music so bad, it sounds like acid tastes – just isn't on. Especially at this volume.
Argentine cuisine is distinguished by high-class beef, a reliance on corn, and a variety of Mediterranean and Italian influences. And all those are evident here – just not brilliantly so.
Of the small plates, the octopus with purple potato, almond and bread sauce (£7.50) is lifeless in every sense. The toasted white quinoa with pumpkin, mushroom and spring onion (£4.85), meanwhile, just doesn't work: the flavours don't co-operate. The creamed sweetcorn with sweet potato, goat's cheese and basil oil is fine, but only in the sense that teachers tell pupils their essay is "fine" when they're completely underwhelmed by it. Locro – pumpkin, white corn, pulled pork, beef and chorizo stewed together – is too cold, salted and oleaginous: George Osborne in a dish.
The sides are better. The cassava with spicy ketchup (£3.85) is particularly addictive, and a house salad (£3.50) is, well, fine again. Of the empanadas – Argentine pasties, basically – the Patagonica, with scallops, spring onions and olives is the most exciting.
The beef, presumably what most people will come for, is solid and sturdy: you can get rib-eye, sirloin and fillet. But you don't have to be Wolfgang Puck to think it's all a bit so what. One of my companions describes the rib-eye as boring. That isn't my problem: I just think it's over-salted, so that the natural flavour of the meat isn't given full expression. Charlie, my fiancée, says the fillet lacks moisture, and it certainly doesn't melt in the mouth.
But it's the sirloin I can't deal with. The little rubbery globules inside it don't taste like fat that, when melted, adds to the flavour; rather, they taste like elastin, which detracts from it. Meanwhile, my grilled monkfish with mussels and coriander (£9.95) is too charred at the edges, and too much like jellied eel in the middle.
Some of the desserts are plain bonkers. A quinoa coconut pudding with mango, passion fruit and sorbet (£4.85) tastes like it came from an overzealous Food Technology GCSE student, and the chocolate fondant with milk ice-cream and almonds (£5.50) is spoiled by an irrelevant kumquat sauce.
Wines are, as you might expect, over-priced because this is London. Malbecs range from £19.50 to £105, though the Avanti from San Juan (£25) is very good.
In time, Garufin may well introduce some of you to the delights of the New World. But they could do with the Hand of God in the kitchen.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Garufin 8b Lamb's Conduit Passage, London WC1, tel: 020 7430 9073 Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat. £160 for four including two bottles of wine
17 Royal Parade, London SE3, tel: 020 8318 5333
Amazing steaks and lovely wines please practically all at this friendly and packed-out Argentinean café
2a St Mary's Street, Manchester, tel: 0161 833 4333
London's steakhouse boom not yet having engulfed Manchester, this glitzy outpost of the Argentinean-themed chain still offers the best steaks hereabouts; killer prices, though, fully reflect the rarity value
9 Duke Street, London W1, tel: 020 7486 9699
This secret stand-by between Selfridges and the Wallace Collection offers a range of high-quality Argentinean small plates (and wines), and willing service too
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