I am a late diner by preference. While most of you readers are getting up from the table, I’m just sitting down. There are advantages to this; I avoid rush hour traffic, and my wife has time to relax after work before we head out to forage for our evening repast. I can be persuaded to dine early when there is a good reason, such as a companion’s work schedule or an excellent restaurant that closes early. Happy hours don’t usually qualify, because they’re generally specials on bar snacks that aren’t my idea of real food.
Recently I was dining with my early-rising brother and we arrived at Santino’s in Santa Monica before 7 p.m., when tapas and wine were on special. The deals on Argentine snacks were so alluring that we decided to order a few before our salads and steaks. After all, with prices so modest that nothing was over $5, the portions were undoubtedly small. We selected eggplant rolls, beef Milanesa, and empanadas, added a pitcher of sangria to wash it down and figured that afterward we would order entrees. It was a sound plan, but we didn’t carry it out.
I usually drink sangria as a hot weather cooler, which was not needed on a blustery winter evening but our cheerful server Celeste highly recommended it. The balance of fruit and wine was very refreshing and we sipped it and ate homemade bread dipped in chimichurri sauce while we waited for our starters. These arrived after a short wait and were nicely composed on the plates so they stimulated the appetite and imagination.
The milanesa and eggplant both reflect the Italian influence on Argentine cuisine, as many as half of the citizens of Argentina have some Italian heritage. The eggplant was made rolatini style, baked slices rolled around a mixture of goat cheese, roasted peppers, and basil leaves, then sprinkled with balsamic vinegar. The combination of mild eggplant, sharp tones of pepper and basil, unctuous cheese and sweet-tart vinegar was perfect, as perfect a preparation as I’ve had in any fine restaurant.
Beef Milanesa, or Milan style, is also known as schnitzel: steak pounded, breaded with modest seasoning and fried. It was served with lemon and a mild dipping sauce and was a simple hearty snack, perfect as a palate cleanser between bites of eggplant.
Every countries in South America has empanadas, but with regional differences – made with corn flour in Colombia and Peru, fried in some countries and baked in others. Argentine empanadas are made with wheat flour and baked and our beef version was the criolla style, with olive, onion, and some paprika-based seasoning adding an extra dimension to the flavor. Though the taste was fine, these weren’t quite the equal of the other two items, thanks to filling that was a bit dry.
The starter portions were sufficiently large that we abandoned the idea of a salad and considered splitting a main course – a steak or perhaps one of the pastas. When we asked Celeste what the must-have item from the menu was, she suggested something different: a lamb ragu from the tapas menu. Her recommendations had been spot-on so far so we agreed to try it, and ordered glasses of a Tempranillo-Garnacha blend and a Bogle Old Vines Zinfandel to accompany it.
The ragu arrived in an unexpected presentation – stewed lamb over a layer of crostini topped with arugula salad, with a crosshatching of parmesan cheese on top. The lamb in rich gravy was pure comfort food and would have been decent but unexceptional by itself, but in this presentation the array of flavors and textures made every bite slightly different. It was a fine and filling dish and we abandoned the idea of ordering anything else except dessert.
The dulce de leche crepe and flan briefly caught our fancy, but we selected assorted berries flamed with rum and a homemade chocolate mousse instead. Though the flavor of the mousse was good, it was stiff instead of creamy, which is not the way I prefer it. The blackberries and raspberries over vanilla ice cream were more to my taste, the rum flavor a background hint behind the tartness of berries and cream.
Our meal for two, with excellent service in a pleasant environment, ran only $63– a fantastic deal for a meal of this caliber. I would have counted this as a worthwhile meal even at full price and will be back at Santino’s even at my accustomed later dining hour, which I’m sure is exactly what they intended when they offered the early specials in the first place.
Santino’s is at 3021 Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica. Open Monday-Saturday 11a.m.-11p.m., noon-11p.m. Sunday. (310) 392-5920. Beer and wine served, live entertainment some nights, street parking only. Wheelchair access OK. Phone (310)392-5920.