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El Gaucho, Seattle

By Alejandro Benes | From Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

Walk into El Gaucho and you are transformed. The restaurant bills itself as Seattle's "premier steak house," but evokes more a feeling of elegant noir. Lighting is low in the cavernous main room. The walls are midnight blue. The live jazz piano fills the gaps in conversation. Greetings are extended by someone in a tuxedo. For Seattle, a place defined by software, but still characterized by multiple body-piercings, El Gaucho is something different and, in this case, different is very good indeed. For one first-time visitor who, after three days, had done enough of the "fusion," "West Coast Asian-influenced," "Pacific Rim" dining in decors of blonde-wooded, halogen-illuminated closets, El Gaucho elicited an audible, "Wow!" And she hadn't eaten anything yet.

Owner Paul MacKay, a veteran of the first El Gaucho, which had mink booths and closed in 1985, had the inspiration to open the new one. "It doesn't look like the old Gaucho, but it feels like it," MacKay says. "When you walk in, the ambience hits you like a brick. It's amazing how easily we were able to remanufacture the feeling and have people come in and feel comfortable in jeans or--if they want to dress up--in the split-leg dress and fur. There's nothing like this in Seattle. It's built like a great showroom where the customer is the show." MacKay is being modest.

As you are led to your table, you'll notice diners at the end of their meals picking fruit, nuts and Roquefort cheese from a silver tray. This comes with every meal and is worth keeping in mind as you choose from chef and partner Ken Sharp's menu. The size and quality of the steaks are no surprise given the restaurant's billing, but you will eat well even if you don't want red meat.

Start with a Gaucho salad, dressed with homemade Roquefort and shrimp. If you have the "Wicked Shrimp," an appetizer, order it as your entrée. The shrimp are half-immersed in a sauce of butter and beer and spiced with cayenne pepper, ancho chilies, cumin and coriander. If that's too hot, split the wild mushroom risotto or the vegetarian cannelloni. Choose a chateaubriand for two and enjoy the tableside preparation of a "Cliff sauce"--Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire, butter, red wine au jus and Coleman's mustard--for the 28-ounce hunk of cow. "I'm so happy," was the reaction of a Seattle newcomer whose red meat consumption had been reduced by peer pressure to the occasional clandestine hamburger.

If the size of the steaks is not enough to persuade you that El Gaucho is about big food, order the Ahi tuna. It resembles an overgrown double veal chop and comes with wasabe on the side. It went wonderfully with the sommelier's well-chosen recommendation of a Kalin Pinot Noir Cuvee DD Sonoma 1992.

By now you're almost full or well into your angioplasty, but if you've thought ahead and reserved some space, move to the cigar lounge for the nuts, fruit and cheese.

If you have shown some restraint throughout, you can fit in the chocolate ganache or the Granny Smith apple pie with Olympia Mountain vanilla ice cream. The pie might be the best dessert offered, but the mango sorbet has a wonderfully tart citrus tang to it.

Maximize your enjoyment of El Gaucho by taking your own cigars. The cigar lounge, expertly supervised by Michael Don Rico, has an excellent selection of beverages and superb cigars, many of which are difficult to obtain on the West Coast, but Washington state imposes a 75 percent tax on tobacco. That, plus the markup, takes the price of a Davidoff Aniversario No. 1 to $65. You'd be making a better investment, for three dollars more, ordering a chateaubriand to go.

--Alejandro Benes is a businessman and writer in Washington, D.C.

El Gaucho
2505 First Avenue
Phone (206) 728-1337
Dinner About $40 per person, without wine