FOOD & DRINK: Chill out with the flavours of Chile

La Vaca South American Steak House
La Vaca South American Steak House
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WE Brits have always got on well with Chile. Every so often, when push comes to shove, they’ve taken our side if there’s been a bit of Argy-bargy down South America way.

Perhaps they remember our Admiral Cochrane who commanded Chile’s navy in their war of independence against Spain in the early 19th century, or their country’s first leader, the half-Irish Bernardo O’Higgins.

So if you’ve swallowed a history book it will come as no surprise to meet a Chilean called Rodrigo Clarke cooking steaks in Broomhill.

We’re at La Vaca (it means the cow), in the former premises of Buon Deli, on Glossop Road, and I’m licking my lips at the prospect of getting my teeth into something meaty in the Chilean restaurant he’s opened with wife Gloria.

It’s not the first Chilean restaurant in Sheffield – that was La Parrillada, on Cumberland Street some 20 years ago – but it’s the latest.

Rodrigo and Gloria met when she went to work for a year in Santiago, Chile’s capital, and they ran a hotel there until she persuaded him to come to the Steel City, with the aim of opening their own place.

They’ve had a sort of dry run at it by hiring themselves out as a visiting barbie, the Chile Peppers, but now they’ve taken it indoors so they don’t have to worry about the weather – rather wisely it seems with the current deluge.

There’s still a barbecue, a steel parrilla, or charcoal grill, which lends a bit of food theatre and tempting smells.

The two-roomed eaterie is very red: blood red walls, red paper napkins, and red shirts for the waiting staff with the La Vaca logo modelled on the Chilean flag, with a bull replacing the star. There’s a cow hide on the wall, waggon wheels in the window and a tree trunk with bottles for branches. Someone’s got a very good touch with décor.

It’s a smallish menu, built around a slate of half a dozen steaks and grills plus some fried fish and veggie dishes cooked downstairs.

After complimentary slices of French bread and tablas, a fresh tasting salsa (but no plates to eat it on), I tackled the costillas de cerdo, or pork spare ribs (£4), a real bargain, meaty, juicy, peppery and slightly smoky. I asked a waiter about the spices and he said it was chef’s secret.

But not for long. Rodrigo told me later it was all down to a smoked chilli spice rub from Southern Chile.

They didn’t come with a sauce. That’s fine. But they’d have looked better with a little bit of garnish for eye appeal, say some chopped chives. And that’s a little tweak La Vaca needs throughout its menu.

My wife had garlic prawns (£5), perfectly decent if unremarkable, and the kitchen downstairs had forgotten that the menu says the accompanying bread is toasted.

Steaks, served in 8oz and 12oz portions, start at £8.50 for rump and £10.50 for sirloin and ribeye, with a 16oz T-bone for £20 or a 24oz pan handle (rib eye on the bone) for £22. To that you need to add another £2.50 for chips and £2.50 for a vegetable.

My 8oz sirloin was excellent: good, tender, moist meat, cooked as requested (medium-rare) and nicely seasoned, tasting exactly as if it had come from the barbecue, which it had.

But that was also the problem. It arrived on the plate looking lost and alone. There’s no garnish, not a half of tomato, grilled mushroom or tomato or sprig of watercress. La Vaca doesn’t run to onion rings and sauces, it’s strictly barbie.

Having said that the chips were great, crisp outside, mealy within, but the creamed spinach was the worst vegetable side dish I’ve encountered in a restaurant, barely cooked, stalks left on and still crunchy, rather than the velvety mixture you would expect.

My wife had a tranche of salmon (£9.50). It was OK but only that. It had been pan-fried but it would probably have tasted a lot better barbecued. This did have a salad garnish while a lacklustre potato salad racked up another £2.50.

We shared an unexciting lemon tart (£4.50), rather thin, with bland pastry and a stiff, lemon curdish filling. And it didn’t even have as much as half a strawberry for garnish.

Now we actually liked this place a lot better than it reads, although my meal was much more exciting than my wife’s, so I’ve been generous in my marks for food.

Rodrigo doesn’t need any lessons on the grill but I do think he needs to sort out the garnish problem because, no matter what culture we’re from, we eat first with our eyes and food needs to look good when it’s served up to us.

But it’s a lively, exciting place which deserves to succeed. Here’s a tip, try and book a table in the front room for maximum food theatre.

With coffees and two glasses of a soft, fruity Chilean Merlot (£3.75 each), we paid £51.50.

477 Glossop Road, Broomhill, Sheffield S10 2QE.

Tel: 0114 267 6215.

Closed Mon. Open Tues - Sat 12 - 3 and 5-10pm, Sun 12-9pm. Licensed. Cards. Veggie dishes. Street parking.

Web: www.lavaca-restaurant.co.uk