A Real Spread
That legendary eater James Beard once wrote that good bread was the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods, “and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
I’ve eaten more than my share of good bread and butter over the years, but never to the point of nearly ruining a perfectly good dinner. That’s exactly what happened the first time I dined at Piropos, the four-month-old reincarnation of the Argentinian steakhouse formerly located on a bluff in Parkville. Gary and Cristina Worden (a native of Argentina), moved their restaurant to Briarcliff Village last year, and now it’s on a bluff with an even better view: a dramatic vista of downtown Kansas City.
The new venue is located on the second floor of a vaguely Tuscan-style building near the entrance to the supposedly swanky but seriously claustrophobic Briarcliff Village shopping center. I’m underwhelmed by the retail complex but wowed by the stylish Piropos, which has two entrances, including a dramatic circular staircase on the first floor that winds up to the main dining room with its vaulted ceiling, grand piano and a stunning wall of arched windows facing south toward the Kansas City skyline.
The dinner menu has changed very little, and the formal touches remain: exquisitely professional service, salads on chilled plates with cold forks (ditto for dessert service), crisp white tablecloths and a pianist playing an unexpected repertoire of show tunes. I swear I even heard the Georgy Girl theme.
I didn’t request a window table on that first visit, so I focused my attention on a more alluring subject: a silvery wire basket heaped with hunks of crusty baguette, crispy slices of buttery focaccia and pencil-thin breadsticks. No less an authority than the Book of Deuteronomy informs me that man cannot live by bread alone, so I made liberal use of the delicacies that came with it: Argentinian butter and a trio of Latin American sauces — chimichurri, garlic aïoli and salsa criolla — served in little white bowls.
“Don’t eat too much bread,” warned my friend Franklin as I splashed a spoonful of dark-green chimichurri on one of the foccacia crisps. But the crackerlike bread covered in the concoction of parsley, garlic and olive oil was my undoing. And before I could stop myself, I was also spooning the pale garlic aïoli and the salsa criolla crudo (chopped uncooked sweet peppers, onion, tomato and garlic) on the bread, the breadsticks, even my fingers.
Our server had made a production number out of explaining the sauces to us when setting them in the center of the table. “And this one,” he announced, pointing to the dish of criolla, “is pronounced kree-OH-zha” — in Buenos Aires, anyway, where criolla translates roughly as creole and the chopped pepper dish has similarities to Louisiana-style cooked creole sauce.
“You’re eating a lot of butter,” Franklin said disapprovingly as I slathered another slice of French bread with the imported Argentinian spread. It seemed odd, given that we were in the heartland of the United States, to use a dairy product from Latin America, but I later discovered that it wasn’t as exotic as I thought. Back in 1949, the country’s then-leader Juan Perón — Evita’s husband — complained that Argentina wasn’t producing enough butter to export; in the past few years, however, international trade statistics report that Argentina’s butter exports to America have increased significantly.
I didn’t notice any particular taste difference, but what the hell. It was, just as James Beard believed, the greatest of feasts. Unfortunately, I was practically full before the empanadas arrived and on the verge of bursting when my dinner — a plate of wallet-sized ravioli stuffed with goat, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and drenched in a buttery-rich chili-and-carrot sauce — was set before me.
Since I had decided to seriously cut back on carbohydrates in 2007, this pre-New Year’s dinner was my final blow-out. While I nibbled on the pasta pillows (the sauce was surprisingly bland), Franklin cut into a breaded beef tenderloin: Milanesa de Lomo is kind of a Latin American schnitzel. “It’s the classic Argentinian dish,” our server explained. “Any visitor we have from Argentina orders this dish and makes everyone else at the table get it, too.”
And it is a classic dish by most Midwestern standards, except we call it chicken-fried steak. American diner versions don’t use beef tenderloin, as a rule, and the Milanese-style pan-fried steak is an upscale variation: not greasy or covered in a crunchy crust or any kind of gravy. The Argentinians prefer it desnudo, in all its naked, sauceless glory.
Ordering dessert that night would have been impossible, though the sweet selection boasted some real temptations — including chocolate mousse and various pastries dripping with caramel-like dulce de leche. I promised myself that next time, I would push the bread basket aside so I could indulge myself in some decadent finale.
A few days later, I returned for lunch with Lou Jane and Bob, who were eager to see whether this new Piropos lived up to the terrific word of mouth it’s been getting since opening in September.
“It’s very high drama,” Lou Jane noted as we were escorted to a table close to the tall windows. She had visited Buenos Aires the previous year and loved the vibrant city and its culinary style, greatly influenced by Spain and Italy. “We have to try the empanadas,” Lou Jane said, poring over the single-sheet menu mounted on a wooden board. “They’re the country’s national snack.”
I was all for that. Those savory, meat-filled pastries would give me a new food object to douse with criolla and garlic aioli. Meanwhile, Bob raved about the steamed mussels swimming in a luscious broth made with heavy cream and sambuca.
Lou Jane and I shared the house chop salad, dressed in a jarringly potent Stilton vinaigrette (the English blue cheese overpowered everything else on the plate), along with a grilled chicken breast covered with oregano and the bife de Lomo, a fork-tender filet sided with mashed potatoes. Bob went for the more lavish lomo à la pimienta con papas à la crema, a 6-ounce, peppercorn-encrusted filet in a seductive brandy-cream sauce.
The old Piropos never served lunch, but the new venue does a brisk business, thanks to pedestrian traffic generated by the shopping center. Even late in the afternoon, the dining room was full and, back by the staircase, a pianist was tinkling “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” The music was sweet enough to make up for the dessert that, once again, we simply were too full to consider. Even though I’d wandered only a few times into the bread basket, I had done quite a bit of damage to a plate of batatas fritas, thin-sliced fried potatoes.
On another lunch visit, I pushed the bread basket away first thing and winced just a couple of times as my friend James buttered several slices and ate them with relish before going to work on a mound of linguini carbonara prepared with a rich Reggianito cheese and cream sauce. “It’s the best I’ve ever had in my life,” he proclaimed.
I nibbled on half of a fat baguette sandwich spread with tarragon aïoli and stuffed with sautéed sweet lobster meat. It was so rich that I finally set the bread aside, ate the lobster and had the server box the other half to take home. Being seriously carb-conscious required so much work that I was too exhausted by the end of the meal to reward myself with something sweet. But James dug lustily into a martini glass filled with ice cream, fresh berries and ribbons of dulce de leche.
“I don’t know how you can be so disciplined,” James said, licking his spoon. “Dessert is the best part of any meal.”
At Piropos, James Beard and I would beg to differ. Piropos