In the late 1800s hordes of randy young European males landed in Buenos Aires to seek their fortunes. As these desperate bachelors slouched through the seedier parts of the port city, a slinky mating dance developed between them and the working girls they sought to couple with. Meanwhile the swells in the upper classes looked down on the dance as it was practiced in milongas, the spots where the dancing went down.
The tango has come a long way since then, evolved, modernized, and danced in a million different directions, so much so that now there's an honest-to-God milonga/Argentine steak house plopped down on the stroller lanes of Lincoln Square. It comes from Ukrainian-born tango instructor Maria Alferov and her Argentine husband, Sebastian Casanova, who used to run the late Artango Bistro in Ravenswood, a place where you could get a rib eye, take a tango lesson, or host your wedding, but not anywhere you could buy a cocktail. Now the couple has installed themselves, as well as a bar and a dance floor, in the much larger space that once housed the late Trattoria Trullo.
From antique telephones to faux distressed paint and murals of accordions, it's intended to somehow evoke those Buenos Aires alleys with a roomy dance floor filled with slender tango students in form-fitting dancewear. You'd half expect a Borgesian knife fight to break out.
They've also installed virtually the same menu of vaguely Italian-influenced Argentine and pan-South American standards, from grilled steaks and ceviches to empanadas and paella to griddled Provoleta cheese. One would expect the kitchen to execute dishes like these with the same passion as the dancers execute their ganchos and lustradas.
But that's not apparent among a trio of ceviches bearing barely a note of the promised leche de tigre to distinguish the assortment of shrimp and corvina from undressed fish. Instead they're every bit as raw and unmanipulated as the cliche tuna tartare with avocado, soy, and sesame oil that accompanies them.
Certain aspects of the presentation at Artango can give the impression that not a lot of attention is being paid to the food by either the front or the back of the house. Ravioli filled with kale and ricotta on one occasion had a leathery texture that indicated they'd been sitting around too long on the pass. A salad of roasted vegetables was draped with a cold, congealed slab of melted cheese. A sampler of grilled meats featured short ribs overbraised to a gelatinous consistency, broken morcilla crumbling across the board, and grilled flank steak betraying no sign of seasoning, the bright spot being the chorizo, which had a welcome chile sting. An overcooked duck breast, marinated in annatto and aji mirasol chiles, is piled atop a mountain of mashed potatoes—a plating straight out of 1998. A lifeless watermelon-cucumber gazpacho special just seems childish this time of year.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment I faced during my visits to Artango was a seafood paella nearly overflowing with tepid, mushy rice, the often elusive crispy socarrat at its base a bitter, blackened atrocity.
Within narrow parameters you can put together an acceptable meal at Artango. There's a nicely charred tender octopus plated with kale and cherry tomatoes in a bracing chile oil. Tissue-thin beef carpaccio, showered with arugula and shaved Parmesan, is about as competent a version of this chestnut as you'll find. The steaks themselves, though not of extraordinary quality, can serve as budget fixes for anyone wanting to avoid downtown prices.
But between the watery, over-iced cocktails and desserts overdependent on cream and bruleed meringue, the food at Artango seems stuck in a stagnant and unevolved cliche of what South American cuisine is supposed to be, left in the dust of culinary history by the dancers on the floor. v