When meals involve chefs summoning hunks of spitting meat from towering curtains of flame, they summon all sorts of pleasurable primeval associations: the sun setting over the field where your enemies lie vanquished, your horse is tied panting to a post, and you're wiping gore from your blades in anticipation of the spoils you've killed for.
For whatever reason, over the past year or two, chefs all over the city are recognizing, if not the fantastic allure of open-hearth cooking, then at least the very tactile pleasures of flame-kissed food. If this return to open flame isn't a countermovement to the scientific precision that characterizes the modernist laboratory work that's dominated kitchens for a decade, it's certainly been pushed and embraced at a half-dozen prominent openings over the last year or two, including the Promontory, Band of Bohemia, Roister, Leña Brava, Steadfast, and now El Che Bar, from La Sirena Clandestina jefe John Manion, where flaming hardwood sparks and charred woodsmoke are a rousing backdrop for the chef's take on Argentine food.
Within the olive-brick erstwhile Checker Taxi HQ in the West Loop, the flames burn bright in an open kitchen at the rear of a long dining room. Pity the handful of diners who, shunted into a claustrophobic alcove to the side, won't see the show. But nearly everything on this menu passes through those flames, under the eye of chef de cuisine Mark Steuer, late of the Bedford and the defunct Carriage House. While this is no one-dimensional steak house, it does feature a meaty menu that also offers no shortage of plant life. And with no bread, one pasta dish, and a few potato sides, it's a menu the carb averse can feel quite comfortable with.
You know a chef is talented when he makes the most overplayed item ever recorded by man—a beet-and-cheese salad—taste exciting. The blistered char on a disk of scamorza cheese and a bitter gremolata made from the beet’s greenery play counterpoint to the powerfully sweet roots. Wee pickled shrimp dance with cubes of sweet honeydew grounded by cucumber and fatty pureed avocado. Cooking and overdressing oysters always risks compromising the integrity of the delicate bivalve, but a light kiss of smoke from charred corn husks preserves the briny plumpness that plays well with bright cilantro, earthy corn, garlic, and brown butter.
Second courses will appeal to more hardcore carnivores. Compressed veal sweetbreads in a pickly house giardiniera are a bit stiff, the breast implant of sweetbread dishes. Meanwhile a loosely bound, lightly seasoned blood sausage plays second fiddle to a succotash made with corn and white beans.
If you're not getting that already meaty dishes are significantly brightened by the season's current bounty, check out the juicy prawns, fairly exploding from their exoskeletons, luxuriating with charred sweet peppers, garbanzo bean puree, and a red-pepper-and-tomato salsa criolla. (Here's where some bread would come in handy.) Lamb riblets with an almost pastrami-like quality are showered in shaved fennel and come plated with a minty yogurt.
Barbecued quail with escarole and peaches may be the most confoundingly tender and juicy version of the bird I've come across. A 24-ounce boneless rib eye, one of three steaks on the menu, is probably the archetype for carnivorous longing: served flayed across the platter, it comes drizzled in a lily-gilding splash of rich marrow butter and escorted by tubs of brilliant red and green chimichurri.
In the hype leading up to El Che Bar's opening, Manion made much of the old-school thin-cut pork chops he'd be serving. He's definitely on to something. Nothing like the dino-size concrete pork slabs you're used to seeing, the pair of chops, fatty yet slender and crisp, are served simply with spicy Coleman's mustard, plums, herbs, and peanuts.
About the only savory item I ate at El Che Bar that wasn't transformed into something beautiful by the flames was a hard, undercooked potato topped with sweet caramelized onion mash draped in a blanket of melted Gruyere.
Pastry chef Marianna Reynolds makes a strong showing with some fairly innovative desserts: an "Argentine float" of Coke, lightly herbaceous fernet ice cream, berries, peaches, and candied almond; a dense, rolled tamarind cake with warmly spiced horchata ice cream drizzled with hot goat's milk caramel; and a chocolate-coated mousse cake topped with marshmallows spiced with piri piri and set aflame at the table. In addition to the usual new- and old-world regions, the wine list features a healthy representation of Argentine reds, while seven cocktails sport some sort of Latin American element (yerba mate gin sour, mezcal negroni).
Manion's been drawing on his South American upbringing since his days at the late, great Nuevo Latino spot Mas, and each time he returns to his roots feels more right. El Che Bar is thus far the chef's most elemental expression of where he comes from. v