In some ways, San Telmo is iconic. Having not been to Argentina, when I think of Argentinian grill, I think of San Telmo.
The owners must be numerous, and / or very popular people, because every third person I know in Melbourne knows one of the owners! Whoever they are, there were some intelligent decisions made from day one about the location, focus/theme, and fit out. The lane way location in the East of the city, guarded at one end by Bar Lorinha, and at the other by Pellegrini’s, is a food lover’s hotspot.
Inside you have the epitome of a large bar and restaurant that has managed to maintain intimacy. Not the usual rectangular room, the L shape with a variety of seating arrangements including luxurious booths, lead to a focus on the fire of the grill and the chefs literally at the coal face. You are salivating the moment you walk past the grill into the restaurant.
I’ve been here several times with groups small and large, and every meal has been excellent. The advantage of a larger group is the amount of dishes you can try but the serves are such that even with two or three people you can still try several dishes.
The last experience was with two friends and we put ourselves in the hands of our waitperson. Knowing everything is generally fantastic helps as I would not normally take this chance. We started with empanadas which are a nice introduction. I’ve tried several over time, but these with silverbeet, leek and béchamel, were well and truly up to scratch. Great pastry in particular makes them a must try.
Next we tried the “Mejilla de Cerdo” which is braised Berkshire pork jowl with crackling. It isn’t everyone’s thing, but I love pork jowl. Incredibly rich and fatty, it is lucky it is not readily available outside of a few favourite restaurants. We also had the chorizo at the same time, served plainly, and just plain delicious.
Above all, the star of the San Telmo show is the meats; lovingly touched with the grill after being beautifully seasoned. My experience is that you cannot go wrong. Recent occasions I’ve tried the O’Connor flank and hanger steaks, and even more luscious is the rib eye. They are generally cooked on the rare side of medium rare, depending on their fat content, sliced generously by the chefs, and served up alongside chimichurri, as well as some hotter sauces. Also alongside the meats today were beautifully roasted champiñones with smoked kale, crumbed proscuitto, parsnip puree and Jerusalem artichoke chips. A great side but outshone by the simply cooked meats.
Normally desserts in a meat lover’s restaurant are a lesser light, better to not order. Here, we are in an Argentine venue that is true to its roots. The desserts, many based on dulce de leche (sweet milk), are actually worth ordering. That isn’t to say I’ve tried dessert each time, but when I have, dishes like the crepes and today, the dulce de leche crème caramel with salted peanut praline, are excellent from both a flavour and technical perspective.
With a better than standard list of cocktails, reasonably priced and diverse beer and wine options (including many from Argentina/South America), and even a great semi-private room for groups, it seems all the boxes are ticked. Service is not a case of just box ticking though, it is genuine and knowledgable, and the nature of the dining room makes it seemingly easy to get attention, but it also is obvious that the waitstaff are eager to engage with their tables.
San Telmo is one of the restaurants in the CBD that stands out because of its difference. On top of this, all facets of the restaurant make it accessible to a broad audience, and a comforting place to dine.