“Er, not really,” I replied, fighting back the tears as I sipped cautiously at the Bloody Mary devised by Gaucho’s cocktail powerhouse Tato Giovannoni, a man wreathed with the honour of Argentina’s ‘Bartender of the Decade’, whatever that means. The drink was spiked with chipotle and it wasn’t shy.
I was at Gaucho for an evening in celebration of the chilli, hosted by Tom Parker-Bowles and Matthew Fort, and I was apprehensive. I enjoy spicy food but would never consider myself a fiend, not buying into the whole macho vindaloo who-can-eat-the-hottest-chilli willy-waving. The problem was we’d been told that the dishes would get progressively spicier, and I was struggling with the cocktail.
After a steadying beer we sat down and Matthew and Tom gave us a brief history of the chilli. They’re an excellent double act, with ‘Professor’ Fort providing the blustery schoolmaster shtick whilst P-B played the trendy teacher role. It soon became apparent that – thank God – this evening was not designed to reduce the diners to a pool of sweaty tears (though that option was there), but instead to celebrate, as Tom put it, “the greatest fruit on earth”. We tasted various chillies (in paste form) and were talked through the Scoville scale. Tom had a bottle of something called ‘Da Bomb’ which measured 15 million on the scale. Apparently that means you’d need 15 million parts water to one part ‘bomb’ to neutralise the chilli. A tip of a cocktail stick on the tongue poleaxed me for 5 minutes.
Things mellowed after that. The menu had been designed by Gaucho head chef Fernando Trocca, along with input from the boys. We started with a trio of ceviches/tiraditos (buggered if I know the difference but sure there is one); very delicate pieces of tuna with various citrus and chilli cures. These were paired with a really delicious Torrontes – “the next big thing” according to Phil Crozier, Gaucho’s wine director.
Next up were three wedges of steak cooked to a medium juiciness. I like a fillet every now and then but I’m a firm believer that a good steak ought to be chewed and these were dead on. There were three because we had three sauces of varying heat – chimichurri (mild), pasilla (more punchy, t’riffic), and habanero (hot, but not hothothot). Good chips and pretty tomato salad accompanied, but the real revelation was a corn puree – smoky and rich, it was summin’ else. And steak and Malbec – little more needs saying. Perfection, almost without the ‘p’ and the ‘f’.
Pudding was a chilli and chocolate wedge; somewhere between brownie and mousse. It was a fundamentally successful dessert, but the chilli heat didn’t come through, the capsicum offering up only the merest whiff of fruit and smoke. One of our table-mates plucked a cocktail stick and bowl of chilli paste from the nearest table and started sending chilli depth charges into her pud, before delighting in the cruel practice of offering mouthfuls to her oblivious neighbour. Poor Rob struggled.
A different kind of night out, then, and a hugely enjoyable one at that. Gaucho is dead fancy, the food is subtle and loved, the staff friendly and attractive, and the lighting so low that when – as promised by MF – those “chilli-induced endorphins” started flowing, who knows what kind of indiscretions might have happened in a crepuscular corner.
It is time for this writer to perform his toilette. Wish him luck.