Thursday, June 12, 2008

Unico

Argentineans don't shy away from gruesomeness at mealtime.

Exhibit A: The name for the grill commonly used in South American barbecue, parilla, is also the name of a torture device to which victims were strapped and electrocuted during the Argentinean dirty war.

Exhibit B: Unico’s interior decoration scheme.

Unico is the Argentinean steakhouse on rue Paul Bert where, last night, I had my first taste of beef in thirteen years. The brainchild of two Argentinean transplants, a photographer and an architect, the restaurant is located in a former butcher shop, and the owners left much of the original trimming intact. A poster listing the day’s market prices for different cuts of meat is the least of it – think meat hooks hanging from the ceiling and a massive mechanical slicer in plain view. Depending on your propensity for nausea, “grisly” might not necessarily seem like hyperbole.

But Unico's penchant for gruesomeness is matched by sweetness and conviviality. Its trilingual servers are friendly and attentive in a way that's fairly unheard of in France, and they ply you kindly (or not so kindly, depending on what time you have to get up the next morning) with complimentary shots of liqueur at the end of the meal. Unico’s ambiance, despite the spiked metal objects, is warm and genial. Dim lighting, clients of mixed ages, a feel-good 1980s soundtrack, and slightly above-average noise levels create an addictive atmosphere; my companions and I stayed for over three hours without realizing that the time had passed.

But the gruesome-pleasant dichotomy isn't the only contrariety that Unico bridges with aplomb. My evening at Unico was a night of counterintuitive combinations, of contradictions resolved.

Can a blood sausage be both savory and sweet? An appetizer whimsically named mariage de saucisses argentines et boudin noir proved that the flavor of blood is complex, at once deep and mellow and luscious. (It's a better choice of starter than the ceviche, whose melting texture was offset by a bitter taste that made the whole operation feel like sashimi doused in limeade.)

Can a taste be both novel and familiar? My bife de lomo, tall and resting upon two spears of asparagus, was different from any of the other meat I’ve tried (and not just because Unico’s version of à point is so pink that I’d hate to see their saignant). The steak’s flavor was soothingly ferric, its texture resilient. The robust mouthfuls of protein were foreign, but every bite strongly reminded me of my early childhood, of evenings spent swimming in the chlorinated pool at my aunt and uncle’s house and then eating grilled steak with my cousins. Last night I unconsciously began grasping my fork babyishly in my fist, plunging my meat enthusiastically in the accompanying chimichurri sauce and aioli, so pleased was I by the unexpected familiarity of the meat.

Can a meal embody both animalism and humanity?

I had always thought of steakhouses as places for men who wanted to get in touch with their inner caveman, to devour flesh with the unabashed relish of a predatory mammal. Immoderate consumption of meat, in any context, feels like a gesture of defiance of modern civilization, its neatness, its rules, its exigencies of balance and control.

But last night I saw that the act of sharing meat, too, is a celebration of humankind and of the connection that people have with one another. Maybe I had half a glass too much of the Luigi Bosca I shared with my companions, but I understood for the first time the dignified symbolism of meat: Taking the life of an animal is an affirmation that we are alive. It is an affirmation that we humans are special, complicated, not like other animals.

Not every aspect of my meal at Unico was contradictory – the warm, oozing dulce de leche cake with a liquid center that we shared for dessert was an unadulterated pleasure. But the pleasure of the rest of the evening was complex, and I left feeling, somehow, both light and heavy.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Your first taste of beef. Wow. I am curious if you will continue the omnivorous lifestyle upon your return to New York. Of course, "A Temporary Omnivore in New York" is not as catchy.