This place is named after a classic tango. Though after one of its Argentinian mixed grills, you might barely be able to move.
Close by, on this gently sloping and tree-lined section of Highbury Park, a few businesses have ‘Arsenal’ jimmied into their names, from Arsenal Hair Hunters to Arsenal Fish Bar. Garufa’s chocolate-brown exterior, on the other hand, merges smoothly with the brick terrace into which it slots. The restaurant’s name swirls across its front with a golden flourish: Garufa might be simple in many respects, but it isn’t cheap.
Inside, more of the brown - from rough brick walls to lampshades. Here the colour evokes the earth – the soil of the Pampas – which nourishes the Argentinian cattle that Garufa customers come to dine on. The space is made up of two small blocks, with the front of these acting as the main dining area. A small bar separates it from the back section, which is mostly given over to the kitchen and the bathrooms.
As an interior, it has a simple, take-me-as-you-find-me confidence. This bodes well; with raw materials as precious as Argentinian beef in the kitchen, a straightforward touch is preferable to fussiness. There are few other distractions in the restaurant, with some photos of the old country, a chalkboard advertising live tango on Mondays, and (incongruously) a small box for business cards. All of this simplicity might be taken as a reminder: eating steak appeals to our basic instincts, but it doesn’t come at basic prices when that steak is from Argentina.
It’s all change come the tango nights, but Garufa’s general feeling is of quiet anticipation and eyes-down munching. Perhaps it’s the brick walls and the softly lit colour palette which contribute to a muted atmosphere. Service is friendly, if occasionally the staff seem a little thinly spread.
It’s a pleasure to be offered freebies in a restaurant. With the basket of bread and flavoured butter offered here, though, it’s mostly the thought that counts. The bread is cakey – as Argentinian bread can be – but it also seems stale. A couple of slices of cheap baguette accompany it, plus some red pepper butter which lacks flavour.
A board outside advertises a special lunch of choripán – sausage split and stuffed between bread, the fast-food Argentinian version of a burger or kebab – with fresh juice for £7.50. This might be a better way of sampling the restaurant’s way with the country’s bread.
Also along flour-and-water lines, the empanadas here are a success (£5 for two). Choose from beef, chicken, spinach and cheese, or ham and cheese. They come fresh from the oven, looking like the offspring of a pasty and a samosa: golden and flavoursome.
Other starters include salads: there’s the ‘Garufa’ which (despite its £6.50 price tag) is a simple affair, and one with smoked salmon, grilled goat’s cheese, avocado and caramelised onions (£8.50). The Argentinian taste for provolone cheese is represented: provoleta, the country’s less melting version is cooked on the grill and sprinkled with oregano (£4.50).
There’s a beef carpaccio (£7), and then the tapas-like dishes: croquetas de pollo served with black olive paste (£4.50); grilled squid and asparagus skewers (a reasonable-sounding £4.50); chorizo (Argentinian-style sausage, not the Spanish stuff) and morcilla (both £3). Sweetbreads (mollejas al verdeo, £4.50) are excellent: a small but punchy portion in a sauce so lemony it’ll make you pucker.
Apart from a single veggie option and a lone fish dish, you can have anything you want for your main course as long as it’s steak. There’s bife ancho (rib-eye) or bife de chorizo (sirloin), coming in at £16.80/£21.90/£28.50 for 225g/300g/400g. Bife de lomo (fillet) runs £23.50/£29.80 for 225g/300g. Note that further heft can be added to any of these cuts for £8/£10 per 100g of rib-eye, sirloin or fillet. Then you have to order sides.
Garufa’s ‘Special Dishes’ are simply cheaper versions of the above steak options. There’s bife criollo con papa al horno (190g of an unnamed cut with baked potato, pesto and caramelised onions) for £19.75. Another of churrasco marinado con papas confitadas (£16.50) is a 190g steak, marinated in chimichurri sauce and served with potato, rocket and parmesan. Cooked with slashes along its length (presumably to get more marinade), this steak of unnamed cut has at least as much going for it as the bife de chorizo.
The parillada Garufa is a mixed grill to share (£27.50 per person) which includes various cuts of steak, Argentinian sausage (chorizo) and black pudding (morcilla). The fish (on this occasion) is sea bass fillet (£15, sides to be ordered separately). The regular vegetarian option is ravioli of sundried tomato and ricotta cheese (£10.70), served with pine nuts, tomatoes and sage butter.
The lack of diversity in the mains is made up for by the thirteen sides (£3-£4.50), which include mashes of potato and squash, fries, and simple salads. Then there’s the more idiosyncratic spinach on toast, fried egg-topped asparagus, and a rich concoction of sweetcorn, butter and herbs called humita norteña. Desserts include ice cream (£4), pears in Malbec sauce (£5.50), cold bread pudding (budín de pan; £4.50) and dulce de leche cheesecake (£5.50).
Cocktails, from Pisco Sours to Caipirinha (the national elixir of Argentina’s bitter rivals Brazil) are all £7. Bottled beers (£3.80) on offer are Quilmes, Corona and Cusqueña. Draught Estrella Damm is £2.30/£4.30 for a half/pint. Reds start at £18 for a bottle of La Colonia – Norton 2010 Malbec, with the cheapest available by the glass the £5.50 Santa Rosa Tempranillo. The £24 Alpataco Pinot Noir is a fine choice: light but flavoursome. White wines – less numerous – start with an Argento Pinot Grigio at £5/£18.50 for the glass/bottle.
The Last Word
Garufa is a restaurant that looks made for eating steak, but it’s everything except the steak that really seems value for money.