“Effing spectacular,” said my husband, who usually just comes right out and swears. I’m not sure if it was the romantic vibe El Gaucho‘s dark dining room has going or reverence for the Yukon River salmon we were eating that made him hold his tongue, but I appreciated it.
And he was right – the salmon was spectacular. I don’t mean good in a they-sure-did-cook-this-up-nice kind of way. That was part of it (it was cooked perfectly, still translucent in the center), but the salmon itself was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. See, Yukon River salmon has up to 30 percent fat, which is roughly double what Copper River salmon, the leading cause of outrageous expenditure at the Whole Foods fish counter, usually has. Double. We’re talking about butter, made out of fish. It was slippery in my mouth; the flesh didn’t so much collapse between my teeth as disassociate, the individual sheaths of muscle slipping past each other. It tasted sexy. Like satin sheets in my mouth, I’d say, if I’d ever slept on satin sheets. I chewed each bite so much longer than I usually do, trying to hold on to that rich silkiness.
“I feel like a kid from the East Coast skiing western powder for the first time,” said my husband. He kept staring at his plate, as if willing his 12-ounce portion to grow even larger.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We went to El Gaucho in the first place because we’d heard they were serving Yukon River salmon there. (Paul Mackay, the owner of Mackay Restaurants, of which El Gaucho is a part, worked a deal with the Yu’pik folks native to that area of Alaska, the only people who are legally allowed to fish the river. He buys the fish directly from the fishermen. No middleman, fair prices, the chef actually flies up there to pick the fish out himself, etc.)
Anyway, we’d stayed at the Inn upstairs, but I’d never actually eaten at El Gaucho. It’s basically a super high-end steak house, with a cigar room, waiters in tuxes, a schmancy bar, and lots of flaming food. I’d seen how dimly lit the dining room is, and labeled it a cocoon for men who either really love meat or really want to get someone into bed. (There. I said it.) Not really my thing. Right?
Wrong. I loved it. At least, I loved it as soon as my eyes adjusted to the man-cave’s darkness and I got over feeling like I’d walked in on a mob meeting. It served as a surprising, instant cure for the grouchiness I’d slipped into that day.
El Gaucho made me wish I hosted more (read: any) serious business dinners. The restaurant is a giant space that oozes masculinity (formerly a seaman’s union hall), with lots of dark red and black tones. Tables set up on multiple levels cascade down toward the kitchen, so that the people on the highest floor have a stadium view of the action down below.
And action there is: El Gaucho is known for steak, of course, but mostly for their “flaming swords”: Tuxedoed servers with serious faces walk around with fireproof gloves on, ladling flammable liquid over giant meat-laden swords (think Three Musketeers), pouring fire from one vessel to another, and setting still-flaming platefuls of food in front of gaping guests. As long as you’re not a vegetarian, this place impresses. And being seated up top, like we were, makes you feel important, even if you don’t order anything that needs to be set ablaze.
But like I said, I didn’t think I’d be into it. I never was a big circus fan. My husband and I ordered a Caesar salad, slightly annoyed that we’d have to undergo the pomp and circumstance of having someone prepare it tableside. I know what goes in a Caesar salad. But by the time we’d been plied with cocktails and started in on our bottle of wine, I forgot that I’d been in a rush, and edged closer to him in the little treetop nest our V-shaped booth was becoming.
The salad et. al. arrived, and I felt a little thrill seeing that our server had all the proper ingredients lined up on the rolling cart she’d be using to prepare our food. She even mashed the anchovies and garlic there in front of us. And when the salad hit our plates, I tasted it, that luscious texture great Caesars get from a coddled egg yolk, along with the deep (never fishy) flavor the anchovies lend. I decided I could get used to tableside service. Or, at least, food prepared just the way I like it.
In addition to the salmon, we ordered sauteed spinach, which came with an exuberant squeeze of lemon, plenty of garlic, and a hint of spice from red pepper flakes, and also a mushroom risotto. The salmon came surprisingly plain on the plate, next to just a few thin slices of cucumber topped with a dollop of sour cream. (Sounds strange, yes, but it worked.) Though the side dishes made the meal complete, I was so overwhelmed by the salmon’s flavor that I had trouble mentally processing anything else.
But the thing I liked about El Gaucho – more than the salmon, more than the old-fashioned dinner drama – was how slowly my dinner passed there. We were there for three hours, but I never looked at my watch. I gazed out at the other diners, and watched my husband gaze at the sign to the cigar room. Things moved in slow motion. Flames, everywhere, but never a hasty action. Every time a waiter passed, he paused slightly at our table, and smiled, as if to prove he wasn’t in a rush.
We lingered over the Roquefort platter El Gaucho sets out at the end of each meal. (I hesitate to use the word “complimentary,” because we certainly paid for it somewhere.) We fed each other pear slices. Cracked open whole nuts and laughed at how much better the squirrels are at it. Sipped coffee and chatted, well after we’d paid the bill.
Yes, it’s an expensive restaurant. But it was just what the doctor ordered.