Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Your Friendly Neighborhood Argentinian Restaurant - Malbec

Sometimes it's easy to take for granted the multi-cultural diversity we have in Southern California. Sure we may hear outsiders calling L.A. a "melting pot" for cultures, but growing up in L.A., you almost expect to find a local Sushi restaurant, French bakery, or a Vietnamese Pho joint, etc. But sometimes we're reminded of just how lucky we have it - chatting with a dear friend (who lives outside of California) and learning that they have to drive over an hour just to *find* a Japanese restaurant to eat at(!) - it really makes one appreciate the convenience and accessibility we have to so many cuisines from around the world. And so it is with Malbec, a charming, neighborhood Argentinian restaurant, located along a quiet stretch of Green Street in Pasadena.

I recently found myself traveling along Colorado Boulevard, visiting one of my Pasadena Hounds, and hoping to find some Chow-worthy food, when I remembered some positive recommendations from Jack Flash, ipsedixit and The Oracle, about a new Argentinian restaurant in the area called Malbec. We look up the address and head out for an early dinner, and after 3 visits, I have to say I'm envious of my Pasadena Hounds for having a convenient neighborhood eatery like this. :)

Stepping into Malbec during my first visit, I feel immediately at ease: The decor and ambiance with warm colors throughout is disarming and charming at the same time. The menu is the creation of Chef Pablo Alcorta, a native of the southern Patagonia region of Argentina, who then learned and honed his cooking skills in Buenos Aires.

When one thinks of "Argentinian cuisine," Pasta may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but Malbec serves up some surprisingly tasty Italian-style Pasta dishes (due to the influence of a large portion of Argentina's population being of Italian descent) along with the cuisine's more famous red meat dishes.

After placing our order, bread service begins with a simple white bread, but it's the absolutely wonderful homemade Chimichurri Sauce that's served with it that makes this completely addicting. :) Malbec's version is a light, fragrant condiment with Chopped Parsley, Garlic, Olive Oil, Vinegar adding a nice herbal lusciousness to each bite of the bread.

The first dish to arrive sets the tone for the rest of the evening and embodies much of the culinary philosophy behind Chef Alcorta's cooking: Sopa de Arvejas (Split Pea Soup).

While Split-Pea Soup normally wouldn't engender too much reaction one way or another, Malbec's version is a marvel because not only is it so light, earthy, fragrant and soul-warming, it's *Vegan* as well(!). Malbec isn't a Vegan restaurant, but for their Sopa del Dia (Soup of the Day), it seems Chef Alcorta wants to create a variety of light, healthy and flavorful soups, without the use of heavy cream, cheeses or meat - just a celebration of the vegetables - and this Sopa de Arvejas has to be the best Vegan Split Pea Soup I've ever had. Excellent! :)

Their Ensalada de Remolacha turns out to be a tasty Salad of Golden and Red Beets, Roasted Pears, Toasted Walnuts, Baby Wild Arugula, Blue Cheese and Red Wine Vinaigrette Dressing.

It's lightly dressed, and the Red and Yellow Beets have a nice firmness to play off of the texture of the Arugula and Roasted Pears. The only misstep in this Salad would be the unripened Cherry Tomatoes, which fall short of the beautiful ripe Tomato goodness you come to expect from our local Farmer's Markets. But otherwise, this is another healthy, light course.

Of course all of the initial light dishes are in preparation for their Gran Brochette Argentina, a platter of the famous Argentinian style Asado preparation for various grilled meats, served with 3 different sauces and grilled vegetables.

Malbec uses a wood fired grill and it shines through with their grilled meats. The Lomo (Beef Tenderloin) has a wonderful smokiness, nice char and good, honest beefiness about the meat. There's a bit too much gristle unfortunately, but otherwise it's tasty.

The Chorizo Sausage is surprisingly mild, only lightly salty and lightly spicy compared to some Chorizo around town where it's the extreme opposite (fiery hot and really salty).

Their Veal Sweetbread from the Thymus Gland is a standout: Having Veal Sweetbreads cooked over a wood fired grill provides a nice dimension to this dish. The fragrant smokiness is there again, but after the slightly crisped exterior, the interior remains creamy, soft and succulent. My guest proclaims it to be almost like Sesos (Cow Brain) and is happy to have something to remind them of the now rarer offering around town. :)

Surprisingly, out of all the meats on this platter, my favorite would have to be the Morcilla (Blood Sausage). I'm not usually the type to seek out Blood-based dishes, but Malbec's Morcilla is an excellent preparation: Perfectly cooked with a good char and smokiness, then the interior is a mellifluous blend of Clove, Nutmeg, Cinnamon and Beef Blood. It sounds odd, but it works beautifully.

The 3 different Sauces served with this plate also help to add another dimension to each meat: There's the delightful Chimichurri Sauce (same as the one served with their Bread), a fresh-made Tartar Sauce, and a Criolla Sauce (Roasted Sweet Peppers, Shallots, Oregano, Olive Oil).

On another visit, I'm delighted and eager to try out their newest Soup of the Day, Sopa de Brocoli (Broccoli Soup).

Similar to their Sopa de Arvejas, Chef Alcorta's Broccoli Soup is so *pure* and clean in its celebration of Broccoli, a light and flavorful soup that's made with Broccoli, Celery, Onions some Extra Virgin Olive Oil and other herbs. Once again, I can't believe it's Vegan, but I've now become addicted to trying out their Soup of the Day whenever I visit. :)

One of their daily specials arrives soon after: Fettuccine con Salsa de Langosta (Spinach Fettuccine Pasta with Red Lobster Sauce, Asparagus, Shrimp and Fresh Lobster).

This pasta dish turns out to be a solid execution of something you might find in a good neighborhood Italian eatery: The Spinach Fettuccine Pasta is cooked just through, still supple with a good bite, and the Lobster Cream Sauce shines with a good focus and purity. The Shrimp are good-sized, meaty and not overcooked.

The Tallarines Golfo Nuevo (Fettuccine Pasta with Clams, Mussels, Scallops, Calamari and Shrimp in a Light Tomato Sauce with White Wine and Garlic) is another surprisingly decent pasta dish.

The homemade Fettuccine Pasta is a nice touch, but it's slightly undercooked (a bit chalky in the center), but the Tomato-White Wine-Garlic Sauce is a good version of the classic. And the Mussels are a bit too briny for my tastes, but my guest loves them. The Calamari and Clams are very good, though, and helps save this dish.

On my 3rd visit, my guests want to try some of Argentina's Malbec Wines, so our server prepares a simple Wine Flight for us, with 3 basic, representative wines of the country according to our server. We begin with a 2007 Humberto Canale Estate Malbec from Patagonia, Argentina. It has a light body, with an intense, fruity and heavy finish.

Next up is my favorite of the three, a 2006 Navarro Correas Malbec Coleccion Privada from Mendoza, Argentina. Surprisingly well-balanced, with a bit of oak, low acidity and a fruity palate. It's a bit straightforward, but it was the easiest to drink of the three.

Finally, the 2006 Finca Domingo Malbec from the Salta region of Argentina (nearly 6,000 feet above sea level), provides a big, full-bodied wine, with notes of blackberry, but it's a bit too jammy for me, with a long, lingering finish.

For starters, we try their Costa Patagonia (Flat Grilled Shrimp, Scallops and Calamari served with Paprika-Garlic Sauce).

Taking the first bite reveals a gorgeous, flavorful sauce that's light on the salt, but so full of wonderful goodness: An enticing Paprika core with facets of Shallots, Parsley and Pimiento. It's a fresh-tasting, good spiciness (not heat-spicy) that really lifts up the various seafood. The Shrimp holds up really well with this sauce, and the Calamari is a standout in how tender it turns out. Excellent! :)

Next up is the Matambre con Rusa (Traditional Argentinian Meat Roll filled Vegetables and Herbs, served with Potato Salad).

This chilled, compressed roll of Beef embedded with a variety of herbs turns out to taste a little like a very refined version of luncheon meat, but in a good way. :) The accompanying Potato Salad tastes freshly prepared as well, and not too heavy on the mayo. It's decent, but not something I'd order again.

Malbec's Asado con Vegetales (Grilled Short Ribs served with Special Roasted Peppers, Tomato and Shallot Sauce, served with Grilled Vegetables) is an extremely generous portion of meat (looking like something from Claim Jumper, but much better :).

The Grilled Short Ribs are wonderfully delicious! :) There's a good, clean beefiness, intense and fatty without being overwhelming. The Criolla Sauce (Roasted Peppers, Shallots, Oregano, Olive Oil) adds a nice angle to this dish as well, but I enjoyed the Asado with and without the sauce.

The Sorrentinos (Traditional Argentinian Ravioli stuffed with imported Italian Ham, Smoked Mozzarella and Asparagus, served in a light Pink Sauce with Mushrooms) is another delightful surprise.

The homemade Ravioli is so tender and pliable without being overcooked, and the Italian Ham combined with the Mushroom Sauce is very good; so buttery and creamy without tasting too heavy. On paper it sounds mundane, but Chef Alcorta's execution of this dish is what makes it stand out.

Our final entree of the evening is their Ojo de Bife al Ajo (Grilled Ribeye Steak in a Roasted Garlic Demi-Glace served with Roasted Potatoes and Sauteed Spinach).

Like the Asado, their Ribeye is a huge, generous cut of meat with a nice clean beefiness, but not as intense and pungent (in a good way) as the Short Ribs. But like the Short Ribs, this Ribeye benefits from their wood fired grill, with a nice, light smokiness. I'm not as enamored with steaks and big cuts of meat as I used to be, but the Ribeye here is good, especially for not being a pure steakhouse specialist.

The two sides deserve special mention as well: Usually sides to a big meat dish are throwaway items, but here, the Roasted Potatoes and Sauteed Spinach really shine. The Potatoes are happily crispy on the outside, but so fluffy and airy on the inside, and the Sauteed Spinach (notoriously average in so many restaurants) is simply *excellent*! The Spinach is light and garlicky and cooked just right so that they're tender and easy to chew through without being too mushy, or too stringy.

Malbec also offers a nice variety of desserts. We decide to try the Pastelitos de Membrillo (Homemade Pie lightly fried with Imported Argentinian Quince Jam, Mascarpone Cheese in a Bitter Orange Sauce, served with Artisan French Vanilla Bean Ice Cream).

The Pastelitos has a nice thick crust, with the Quince Jam being more mellow than I was expecting, adding a nice fruitiness to the pie, but without being overly sweet. The Vanilla Bean Ice Cream is a classic and fitting complement to this dish.

Our final dessert is the Budin de Pan (Homemade Bread Pudding with a Custard of Figs, Raisins and Caramel). The Bread Pudding is thick, but still very moist, and only lightly sweet. The Dulce de Leche Sauce on the side works nicely with the rest of the dessert as well.

Service is one of the key aspects that has made all 3 of my visits to Malbec so enjoyable: Our servers have been really amiable, warm and hospitable. Prices range from $6 - $29 for most dishes, with desserts ranging from $5 - $8. We averaged about ~$35 per person (including tax and tip).

Malbec embodies many endearing qualities: Good, focused cooking, featuring a not-as-commonly-found cuisine from another country, and the casual, relaxing ambiance of a quintessential "neighborhood eatery." Malbec's location on a quiet stretch of Green Street adds a charming, humble quality about the place, and the restaurant happily serves a full range of clientele from a couple in athletic gear who were out walking their dog and stopping for a quick bite to eat, to families celebrating a birthday, to groups of people just out to have a good time without the fuss. Malbec isn't a destination restaurant, but if you happen to be in the area and feel like having a casual, enjoyable meal, this is one restaurant worth a visit.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

1001 E. Green Street
Pasadena, CA 91106
Tel: (626) 683-0550

Hours: Sun - Tues, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Wed - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.


weezermonkey said...

I had no idea this place even existed! I've always thought Pasadena was devoid of *great* food.

This looks promising. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

It was enjoyable, but I would say to temper your enthusiasm with a note that it's not really a destination restaurant. (^_^;; If you happen to be in the area, it's a nice little neighborhood establishment; one that I'm happy to stop by the next time I'm visiting friends in the area.

Let me know how your visit goes. :)

Pinkfoodie said...

I'm glad you had some good visits to Malbec. The next time I am in Pasadena, I might have to step in and give this place a try. The pasta dishes intrigue me the most as I've never had pasta at an Argentinian restaurant. Wonderfully well written as always. Thank you.

glutster said...

I always pass by this place in my frenzied vespa rush to school (it's called green st. for a reason; most green lights! ha, ha)

Anyways, are you by any chance going to this years taste of nation?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Thank you. :) Let me know if you end up trying Malbec; I hope you enjoy it! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Wow, you pass by Malbec every day? You're lucky to have a place like this on the way to school :). It's not "totally amazing" but it's pretty enjoyable; let me know what you think of it if you go. :)

This year's Taste? I want to go, but prior commitments may prevent me from going. :( I'll mail you if I can make it.

Anonymous said...

Love reading your posts as always. We just went last night, and I'm sorry to report that we had an overall poor experience! Ribeye was so fatty I couldn't finish it. Service was slow and we felt ignored. They didn't bring out all the dishes we ordered, and barely apologized for it. Unfortunately not a great experience!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the report back. I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience there! :( I guess I've been lucky with my 3 visits (that we got some good waiters who were really nice and attentive). I wish all restaurants could have the same level of service from all their waiters / waitresses, but sadly it's not the case.

Cafe Pasadena said...

It may not be a destination restaurant, but the details in your review say otherwise!

I enjoyed this recap of your experiences at Malbec. I've been only once here and I thought it was just Ok.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Cafe Pasadena,

Thanks. :) Yah, if my review sounds more excited than I make it out to be, it may be that I'd like to stay positive and hope for the best in a restaurant. (^_^) It's not something I'd drive out of my way for, but if I was in the area, it's not bad at all.

Rumela said...

Malbec is another Argentinian restaurant that I've visited with pretty good results. Their Split Pea Soup are simply awesome. I could eat the beef and chicken versions as an entire meal. The beef tenderloin plate was OK, I preferred the chorizo to the softer black pudding 'morcilla.' For beef we had a rib-eye and an entrana. I'm partial to entrana in Latin restaurants as the quality of beef doesn't seem as good for ribeyes compared to American style steakhouses. Both steaks were juicy but I ended up preferring the thinner cut of the entrana. thank you for shearing your post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Rumela,

Thanks for your thoughts. Isn't their Split Pea Soup wonderful? :) I'm even more amazed it's Vegan; it tastes so flavorful and lush.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writing and photographs. This post almost (read "almost"!) made us want to give Malbec a second try... We found the meat to be horrible and the vegetables greased up to the point that they were inedible. You are correct that the seafood and pasta were done well.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi two,

Thanks, and no worries. :) I'm sorry to hear you had some bad dishes at Malbec (I guess I got lucky). Perhaps they have more than 1 chef in the kitchen (which might explain the inconsistencies)? Thanks for your thoughts.

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