I was vegetarian for nine years, four of which were vegan. Travel was often a nightmare. Feeding my cat made me queasy. My karmic lifestyle came to an abrupt end when anaemia set in and a Jewish friend in New York pressed a bacon and cheese hamburger on me as part of my cultural experience.
Ever since then I’ve been living in bad faith. Religious and ethical objections aside, the arguments for vegetarianism on environmental grounds alone are compelling. The meat industry is too gross to contemplate. Instead, many of us rather philosophically lump it with all the other necessary evil in the world about which we feel we can do precious little; we go with the dominant culture, though perhaps in our own measured way. I’m a vegetarian trapped in a beef-eating body.
But if you thought we were a meat culture, try Argentina. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I saw much to taunt my herbivorous Jekyll with my salivating Mr Hyde. Steakhouses are the national passion. In their windows whole beasts, split open, simmer over coals. Portions are outsized and the meat bloody. Even the tablecloths are leather. Menus list innumerable cuts, some even identify the breed. Rump, sirloin, T-bone and fillet is about as far as we go you might find porterhouse and entrecote; or reference to means of preparation, such as minute steak.
In a few upmarket establishments, such as the Savoy Cabbage, Chalmar beef is specified to ease the conscience. This supplier prides itself on happy grazing cattle, no antibiotics in the meat, no trucking (they graze in bovine oblivion next to the abattoir), and humane standards of slaughter.
There is a bumper sticker that reads “vegetables are what food eats”. So if you don’t cook meat at home and you’re watering for a good juicy steak, where’s the beef? There are a few independent steakhouses that tenaciously survive such as the Nelson’s Eye in Gardens and the Wooden Shoe in Seapoint, but others have embraced the brave new world. The Hussar, started back in 1964 in Rondebosch, has expanded into a franchise. Apparently it’s a favoured haunt of our city’s carnivorous mayor Helen Zille. They have added a grillroom in Greenpoint and a new flagship in Camps Bay. The decor at the original was spruced up to suit the polished new style: walls of wine bottles, half-opened wooden wine crates, racks of leather-bound books, and black and white photographs of fleshers at work.
They serve seafood, poultry, salads and pastas, but the emphasis in on the beef. There is always some game on the menu, including springbok loin carpaccio, wildebeest paté and grilled warthog ribs.
The menu states the steaks are from ‘super grade, grain fed South African beef” with ‘trademark basting during preparation’. Rump and sirloin come in various weights (from 200g for R92 to just approaching the smallest Argentinean portions at 400g for R129). The fillet (which I note recently shrunk from 250 to 200g) is R115, as is a 500g T-bone. These prices are reasonable as diners get complimentary creamed spinach and cinnamon butternut, with a choice of chips, rice, baby potatoes or, if you ask, a green salad.
Sauces (around R20) include the traditional béarnaise, mustard and Madagascan green peppercorn, and then there’s that wonderful local concoction that makes foreign tourists scream – monkeygland. It’s only vegetables and chutney, but don’t tell them – the porteños will be disappointed.
The specialities are circa 1975. Hardly a metrosexual joint, the Hussar offers a sirloin covered in a creamy blue cheese, and a ‘carpetbagger’, a fillet stuffed with smoked oysters and cheeses topped off with a brandy and wholegrain mustard sauce. If you order the Chateaubriand, be prepared, it is set alight in front of you.
Let’s hope their corporate expansion won’t trim the beef.
The buzz right now is around newly opened HQ (Headquarters), a long, narrow restaurant with two rows of tables alongside a steel, open-plan kitchen. It has a simple and attractive interior (also bookshelves) with face brick in keeping with its historic Heritage Square location. The lighting in the dinning-room is pleasant, but the loos are so dimly you can’t see yourself in the mirror.
The menu is straightforward: “you can have anything you like as long as it is salad, sirloin & chips” (R140). The result is a tasty, dependable and balanced meal. A novel concept locally, it is based on Europe’s L’Entrecôte restaurants (where you pay €17 including 14,5% service, desserts are €5,5). The vinaigrette is delicious, but I’m not a fan of iceberg lettuce. The lean sirloin is good, but the highlight is their secret recipe Café de Paris butter. On return visits I have discovered it is not always consistent.
There is a choice of popular regular fare desserts.
Quick service and the prix fixe should make this a hit with the business lunch crowd. All wines are served by the glass, which in these sober times I wish more restaurants could emulate.
What they don’t tell you is that there is a vegetarian option. Apparently if a party wanders in and there are any vegetarians among their number, the chef grills up some mushrooms. Luckily, I didn’t know this beforehand.
This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian 24 March 2009: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-03-24-the-meat-of-matter