It’s in an area which might delight Kirsty Allsop, but something about Purley’s Buenos Aires Steakhouse doesn’t add up, writes STEVEN DOWNES
There is an obvious problem of conscience with restaurant reviews at a time when the biggest boom in new start-ups across the country is for food banks. But in an area such as south London, where there is precious little in the way of manufacturing going on, service industries, such as restaurants, become a vital part of the local economy and deserve some support.
So it was with that somewhat feeble justification that the staff of Inside Croydon were taken out for a bit of a jolly, all the way to Purley.
“You can’t beat a steak,” said the boss, to which the somewhat literal Polish cleaning lady suggested that a kitchen mallet could be used.
There are two Buenos Aires Argentine Steakhouses in the borough, the other being in South End. The Purley branch of the chain, opened in 2007, was the first of what is now eight restaurants around London, Surrey and Kent, “for lovers of meat and Latin atmosphere”. Situated on Russell Hill Road, the decor is attractive, bare bricks and stretched cow skins, simple wood furnishings, with magnificently large plate glass windows that look out on… a bus stop.
But this is clearly an area of the borough that still has money. Across the road from the Buenos Aires is a branch of a more exclusive estate agency that deals almost exclusively with properties on the exclusive Webb Estate; next door is a kitchen design showroom, where gated estate residents can choose granite work tops or Belfast sinks; then there’s a specialist flooring outlet (no lino here); and they’re all just along from a branch of Nora Ashby, there to provide all the chi-chi soft furnishings any Purley resident could ever wish for. It’s the stuff of a Kirsty Allsop wet dream.
So might the Buenos Aires be where the well-heeled elite of Purley go to eat? Probably not, we’d suggest, after one not-to-be-repeated visit.
We happened along there on one of the hottest days of the year. Stepping through the Buenos Aires front door, we were hit in the face by a wall of furnace-like heat. It was hotter inside the restaurant than outside in the direct sunshine of high summer. It was still early evening, but the kitchen was clearly working full steam ahead and there was no air conditioning or cooling ventilation of any sort.
Online reviews, of the anonymous sort which even the Huffington Post now recognises as being valueless for their failure to put real names to their comments (a policy that certain local newspapers might learn from), had noted how there had been problems at the restaurant in the past, with smoke coming from the kitchen area. There was no such issue on our visit, apart from the lack of thermostat control.
The service was immediate and attentive, a combination of cheery Croydon conchita and a tall, dark, brooding waiter, who issued a smile to most comments, presumably because his English was not good enough to understand the questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Ha ha… Yes. But where are you from?”
“Argentina.” Oh well…
Our waitress, who we reckoned had never been further south of the border than Godstone Farm, offered an introductory two-for-one on mojitas to get us into the Latin spirit (without noting that the Latin spirit used for this cocktail comes from Cuba), which at £6.50 for the pair we readily ordered – not least because we figured that the ice in the glasses would have some cooling effect in the hothouse steakhouse.
Someone at Buenos Aires knows how to mix a mean mojita. It might be one of the few drinks available in the place that is not part of some uber business chain restaurant concession: the walls are lined with over-sized bottles of Quilmes Argentinian beer, and Tapiz wine. We opted for a bottle of Merlot Mendoza to go with our meal. The wine was excellent.
With the heat suppressing appetites, we skimmed through a couple of unremarkable seafood platter tapas starters, having ordered an 8oz medium-rare rib eye and a rare sirloin. Fries, mashed potato or salad are included with the main, and we ordered a side of Portobello mushrooms.
The steaks arrived together, and both had been cooked medium. It was like being in a Berni Inn, circa 1973. It’s a sad day when a steakhouse cannot cook a rare steak. The mushrooms were the tastiest part of the meal.
On the walls, the management was publicising its regular Salsa dance nights. Not the Tango. We decided against creating a Fandango.
The restaurant by now was as packed as any owner would want to see on a Friday evening and while there was a good number of staff, it was not easy to take up the matter with the waiters. Maybe it is British reserve, but sometimes you just don’t want to jeopardise a whole evening because you are let down by a restaurant. The steak was OK, no better than that. Besides: how do you un-cook a medium steak?
It was noticeable, though, that a couple at a nearby table had cause to call over the waitress to question their bill. We soon discovered why when our bill – totalling more than £100 – arrived. Our two-for-one mojito offer, when billed, turned out to be a two-for-two offer. Tesco would have been proud.
But £6.50 is an over-charge of £6.50 after all. We called over the conchita and profuse apologies followed. When the revised bill was produced, it still included the £1.30-worth of VAT charged on the second, now uncharged, £6.50.
“The machine can’t cope,” we were told by way of explanation.
The machine had no trouble coping with adding a 10 per cent non-optional “optional” service charge to the bill, we noted (our loyal reader will realise that this may be something of a theme of ours).
Now the machine quickly generated a third, this time corrected bill, and for nearly £15 less than the original. The latest bill also demonstrated that it was indeed possible for them to give us customers the option of leaving a tip for the waiters at our own discretion.
That, though, was not the end of it. Ever wondered why menus, and wine lists, get whisked away from you once your order is placed, never to be seen again? It was not until I was checking the restaurant’s online wine list for writing this review that I discovered that they had also managed to over-charge us for the wine.
They do seem to have a bit of a problem with their pricing and offers at Buenos Aires.
When we were there, they were promoting a special for Sundays that read “All Day – Kids Eat Free”. Seems pretty straightforward, you might think. Then comes the small print: “from the kids menu when accompanied by an adult dining from the main menu” (we added the italics for emphasis; we did not add an apostrophe to correct their English).
And in really small print, a caveat contradiction to the terms in the previous line: “One child per two adults”.
It might be the sort of petty over-charging, a couple of quid here and there, that residents of the Webb Estate, one of the country’s most affluent suburbs, don’t notice or even mind.
But the management of the restaurants might want to consider whether such misleading offers are in the best interests of repeat trade. Or even whether they meet local trading standards. And all for what was, at the end of a meal, just a disappointingly “OK” steak at what is supposed to be a specialist Argentinian steak house.
Previous Inside Croydon restaurant reviews:
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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