The Argentine cowboy comes to Society Hill.
For many, many summers, my grandparents had a beach house in Margate. It’s gone now, but I remember the little white rancher, how it hugged the lawn like a bunker, the burgundy shutters we eventually painted navy. I remember only three bedrooms, but as many as a dozen family members could be in residence over the weekends in July and August.
If my grandmom had opened a restaurant there, it would look like Hoof + Fin, the new Argentine grill in the old Gayle space: simple wood tables, framed seascapes in stormy blues and salty grays, lobsters and lighthouses painted on plates that hang on the walls.
That house wasn’t much, but for my first 14 summers, it was my favorite place on earth. And at 35 seats set under the old-timey hazel glow of Edison bulbs, Hoof + Fin isn’t much, either, but after a glorious gaucho cookout in these stripped-down, memory-tugging digs, it has earned a similar distinction.
Co-owner Deanna Ebner and chef Carlos Barroz have big shoes to fill at this address, but the food is so soulful, so flavor-charged, so delicately wrought one minute, so rustic and brawny the next, you’ll enter the joint missing the culinary riddles once served here and depart wondering, “Gayle who?”
There’s no guessing at Hoof + Fin. Empanadas are empanadas, flaky and filled with sweet corn and Manchego cheese. Ceviche is ceviche, fluke or tuna bejeweled with summery watermelon. And beef is most certainly beef. In Argentina, cow is king, and Barroz, a native of Córdoba, knows how to cook one inside (grilled sweetbreads with mint!) and out. His grilled, chimichurri-marinated skirt steak is an intensely beefy, smoky experience, 10 ounces of rare grass-fed ribbons resonating with garlic and herbs and tradition.
Hoof + Fin’s menu is divided into raw starters, apps and salads; pasta; and composed mains and mix-’n’-match grilled meat and fish with sides like simple grilled asparagus and “Provencal” fries tossed with raw garlic and fresh parsley. And that’s the scaled-down spring version of the opening rambler. Order a bit from each section. The fair prices allow it. Or visit on Monday nights, when $39 buys a course from each category and dessert, or on Wednesdays for a traditional asado feast set to the tunes (hopefully soon) of a strolling Argentine accordion player.
Ebner strolls the front of the house, weaving through buddy-buddy waiters in vintage jeans and Buffalo plaid. She and her Buenos Aires-born husband, Lucas Manteca, chef of the Ebbitt Room in Cape May’s tony Virginia Hotel, have taken an apartment a few blocks from Hoof + Fin and are splitting their time between here and the Shore. So is Barroz, also the chef at Ebner’s and Manteca’s inspired seafood shack Quahog’s in Stone Harbor. Perhaps you ate there one summer, feasting on pacu rubs and cinnamon-scented clam chowder? Then you know Barroz can cook fish as gamely as he cooks meat. Case in point: that tuna ceviche, a springtime aria of sour (lime and yuzu juices), salty (soy sauce), spicy (Sriracha, Cherry Belle radish) and sweet (melon).
Barroz does right by dough, too, whether in the giant empanada or the best, most surprising pizza I’ve had all year. Par for the Argentine course, it’s grilled, then topped with a blend of sour cream and cream cheese and layered with petals of spicy sopressata, arugula and red onion. It’s outstanding, as fitting a tribute to Argentina’s Italian immigrant population as the rustic house-made pappardelle tossed in a macho puttanesca you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley at night. Shreds of grilled and Malbec-braised costilla (short rib) duke it out with briny capers and cracked olives in the inky sauce, punched up with fresh oregano. The risotto stands in sharp contrast, angelically light with asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes, fava beans and an anointment of truffle oil that proves the much-maligned condiment can be used for good as well as evil.
Panqueques, delicate crepes rolled around berries enrobed in tangy dulce de leche, are the way to end a meal I’m dying to repeat.
Laid-back, honest service. Casual, convivial atmosphere. Music up. Prices down. And the kind of food I like to eat. Is Hoof + Fin the best new restaurant of 2010? I don’t know, but it’s definitely mine. My grandmom would agree.
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Hoof + Fin
617 S. Third St. 215.925.3070
Hours: Dinner: Sun., Mon., Wed. and Thurs., 5:30-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10pm. Brunch: Sat.-Sun, 11am-3pm.
Atmosphere: An unpretentious assembly of dressed-down locals, rustic woods and beachy knick-knacks.
Service: A friendly, casual troupe that’ll make you feel at home.Food: Grounded but exhilarating.