Contrary to my early assumptions, the chuckle-inducing name of this new Queen Village bistro - Hoof + Fin - was not the product of an English-as-second-language mistranslation.
Jersey-bred co-owner Deanna Ebner insists that neither of the Argentine men in her orbit - chef and co-owner Carlos Barroz, and her husband, Lucas Manteca - can claim ownership of this too-clever twist on surf-and-turf: "That would be me. . . ."
The visually minded Ebner was simply aiming for a moniker that conveyed the menu's meat-and-seafood focus, but was also campy enough for the stick-figure logo she had in mind for the window and the garage sale's worth of tchotchkes she's used to decorate the little BYOB, where a paint-by-numbers horse picture, bare Edison bulbs, butcher-block tables, and dark, varnished wood wainscoting lend the minimalist space a retro bistro feel. Servers in Hee-Haw plaid shirts and jeans add to the kitschy-casual, down-home look.
As for whether she's heard titters over the name - infectious-disease punch lines, wisecracks about feedlots - Ebner deadpans: "Not to my face, I haven't."
Then again, this charmed but noisy little dining room (formerly Gayle, and Azafran before that) is so deafeningly loud on weekend nights, it's a good bet she wouldn't hear it anyway. But Philly foodies, many of whom first met Ebner on their Shore vacations to Stone Harbor, where she and Manteca once had Sea Salt and still own Quahog's, are likely to cut her some slack in her first Center City venture - especially with a chef as skilled as Barroz paying homage to the rustic flavors of Argentina.
If one thing is true, in a hoofy sense, it's that Argentines are unapologetic about their love of cattle ("Not many vegetarians in my country," concedes Barroz.)
And the 32-year-old veteran of the Manhattan scene (Sushi Samba, Toloache) has upped his game here from the simple seafood-shack cookery at Quahog's to deliver some deft modern renditions of his favorite South American flavors - many of them beef.
Tender skirt steak, marinated overnight in a chimichurri electrified with oregano, vinegar, and garlic, is a highlight of the asado mixed-grill special, which also featured a spicy fresh chorizo; a garlicky "matambre" pork flank; and tender, smoke-scented pads of grilled sweetbreads. Those sweetbreads, heat-charred on the outside and creamy inside, are also available as a stand-alone appetizer (streaked with a minty vinaigrette) and are another typical item, Barroz says, on Argentina's hard-core carnivore menus. So is the lightly deep-fried sheet of top sirloin Milanesa that still came perfectly mid-rare despite its thinness - a perfect harmony of garlic-soaked crust, gamy beef, and crunchy green salad.
Quickly grilled strips of thin-sliced short ribs are the most common preparation for that cut in Argentina, he says. But the rubbery rendition on my asado was that platter's biggest disappointment. I much preferred Barroz's takes on the more Euro-centric-style of slow-braising short ribs - cooked down with malbec wine into a hearty ragu ladled over wide ribbons of pappardelle pasta, or served like a meaty brick tenderized from eight hours of slow-steeping in citrusy sangria, alongside thick-cut rails of super-crisp potatoes topped with a garlicky Provençal mince of parsley.
A little European touch isn't out of place, especially considering the strong Italian influence that stamps Argentine cuisine. It's reflected on this menu, too, in some impressive house-made pastas, like the melt-away nubs of ricotta gnocchi that simply dissolve in a truffled gloss of brown butter, sage and capers. Or the hand-pinched farfalle bow ties that anchored a rich pasta special tossed with poached lobster in a white-wine cream sauce whose richness was sparked by cuminy chorizo spice. Or even the splendid little grilled pizza topped with a surprising combination of sliced soppressata layered over a lemony blend of sour cream and cream cheese, topped with fresh arugula.
I was less thrilled with the risotto, which was more watery pilaf than naturally creamy rice. The beef tataki was also a miss, the nearly raw meat sloppily sliced into long ribbons that were awkward to eat. Among the cold appetizers, I preferred the tuna ceviche, with its bright yuzu marinade and contrasting crunches of spicy radish and sweet watermelon. The crab salad, tossed in a zesty cocktail sauce with hearts of palm, cilantro, and scallions, was a refreshing take on a classic. The fluke carpaccio, though, was a letdown, with too many strong flavors - ruby grapefruit and truffled citrus - competing with the delicate fish. Likewise for the cornmeal-crusted calamari, whose ketchup-y citrus barbecue sauce was distractingly sweet.
Complaints about the food, however, were relatively few, as I munched from the rustic goodness of meat- and corn-filled empanadas wrapped in half-moons of flaky house-made dough, to a bountiful arroz a la Gallega, a sort of paella-bouillabaisse hybrid that brought a wonderfully cooked medley of seafood (snappy shrimp, briny clams, tender mussels, and white fish) in a soupy mound of rice soaked in turmeric-scented tomato broth spiked with chorizo.
Desserts are limited, but you'll be happy sticking with anything lavished in Barroz' house-made dulce de leche, such as the panqueque crepes rolled around caramel-sauced fruit.
Though this kitchen uses good ingredients that for the most part merit the prices, from the high teens to the high $20s, the simple "from the grill" items did strike me as a bit austere for the fee, especially the plate that skimpily brought just three scallops (albeit excellent ones) for $22.
But my biggest gripes here, really, concern the lax service and especially the noise, which is imposing even by Philly BYO standards. Good luck hearing the server explain the nightly specials - let alone talking to a friend across the table. (Though our waiter came to us still chewing a mouthful of his snack, so it's unclear we would have understood him anyway.) I don't recall Gayle being this loud. But the ambiance was far more pleasant during the lighter crowds of midweek, when Astor Piazzolla's bandoneon tangos actually could be heard dancing from the stereo, and on mild-weathered nights when more tranquil seats are available in the light-strung back garden patio.
Either way, if Barroz keeps cooking like this, Hoof + Fin is likely to be packed + lively for some time to come.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Garces Trading Co. in Washington Square West. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.