Gardel's the Restaurant, as opposed to Gardel's the Dance Club or Gardel's the Sight to Behold, is not for the timid. It's for those who prefer the offbeat to the sure bet, those with fairly deep pockets, those who are willing to take a chance, and those who enjoy Continental cuisine when the continent is South America.
By now you may know this extravagant production in the old City Life Museum is the work of the Alonso family, immigrants from the Philippines more than 30 years ago, whose dream was to have a gourmet restaurant, bar, lounge, and dance studio under one roof. I doubt if they also dreamed of having a White Tower restaurant, but since there is an authentic one on the second floor left over from the museum, they plan to turn it into a working diner.
Gardel's, in other words, is a baroque work in progress that will leave some head over heels in love and others shaking their heads in disbelief.
Eating here is about as cozy as eating in the Chartres Cathedral. The first-floor restaurant has soaring ceilings, huge windows, cavernous spaces, bare wood floors and a sweeping grand staircase. The walls are scarlet, art- glass light fixtures glow over the banquettes, and above the dance floor are metal hangings that twirl and glitter as they catch the light.
We were the only people at a table the night we were there, although several folks were eating at the bar. This gave a certain eerie quality to the evening, as a small squad of servers waited on us and us alone. (I should add that a friend went the next Saturday night and every table was taken. He was disappointed, although his food was good. From my description he thought it was going to be a quiet dinner. To each his own.)
The staff took good care of our lone table, and our waiter's the-customer-is-always-right mindset was impressive. When we got our desserts, we asked for a bread plate so we could pass around tastes. He thought we had said "bread," and without blinking an eye brought more little rolls, slices of baguette and baby muffins, as well as jalapeno-flavored butter and garlic in oil to have with our cakes and sorbets.
While Gardel's calls itself an Argentinean supper club, the cuisine isn't so easy to label. The menu is ambitious, with regional ingredients like peppers, sweet potatoes, plantains, corn meal, and avocado as the supporting cast in dishes created with European techniques. The wine list is divided between Californian and South American selections.
Gazpacho is a perfectly smooth, perfectly balanced puree that would be good on its own but achieves greatness with the addition of a small, icy scoop of cucumber-cilantro sorbet and a "timbale" of chopped avocado and onion.
Most of the first courses are elaborate, some really small meals in themselves, like the fat shrimp (OK, prawns) arranged with grilled corn cakes and a gourmet greens and radish salad.
Fruit is often an important part of the mix. Sometimes too important: The crabmeat and mango salad with pineapple carpaccio turned out to be mostly an enormous pile of pineapple chunks with crab at its center. (Mango simply wasn't involved that evening.) Fresh pineapple is good; this much fresh pineapple, even combined with lump crab meat, isn't an appetizer.
Look for regional dishes given uptown status and served in quantity. Flautas -- corn tortillas often filled with chicken, fried, and served with beans and rice -- are stuffed in this kitchen with shredded duck and draped on roasted sweet potatoes, plantains and stewed dates. Try finishing this off and following it with an entree and dessert.
While there is seafood on the menu, Gardel's strength is its meat dishes. Pork loin is cooked to smoky perfection over the apple wood fire in back of the bar. It arrives juicy and tender with Swiss chard, a puree of sweet potatoes and plantains, and crisp fried onions. Rare slices of flank steak offer delicious hints of their espresso marinade. The complex flavors are balanced by their bland plantain gnocchi, a little too bland for me. If none of those appeals, veal short ribs and lamb shish kebabs are also possibilities; and there is even rigatoni bolognese made with ground veal.
Still, the kitchen can come up with the goods if you order seafood. The rockfish fillet with an edge of ginger is firm and fresh. As with the other entrees, just as much attention is paid to what else is on the plate: in this case, black-eyed peas and wilted spinach with a caper vinaigrette. That's mostly a good thing, but the side dish with the duck entree, a fat risotto cake loaded with Pecorino-Romano cheese, is almost too assertive. It dominates the tender duck slices and fights with the sweet fruit chutney.