The decor of the Rio Grande is modern, with furnishings of dark wood and black leather. It is cool and inviting place in the Tel Aviv summer, with a few tables on the sidewalk in the shadow of the imposing Shalom Tower. The unimposing interior is dominated by a well-stocked bar and semi-open kitchen; pleasant light rock music plays in the background.
There is a short list of specialty cocktails. A house sangria is often a tempting choice in hot weather, but we decided to pass when we were told it would be served warm, even in the summertime. Instead, we opted for the “margarita with a twist”—the classic lime version, with a splash of melon syrup to make it a bit sweeter.
The mojito, meanwhile, purported to be the standard cocktail; apparently what qualifies it as special here is the size: huge, meant for sharing. We ordered the regular size anyway; the drink turned out not to be a mojito, however, but actually limonana, with a barely noticeable dash of rum. Fortunately, both drinks were refreshing, at least.
No-one comes to a steakhouse expecting the food to be healthful, but Dan is keen to point out that nothing on the menu is fried. Additionally, most menu items are gluten-free, and labeled accordingly.
Listed under the appetizers is the house bread with garlic butter—actually a very pale baguette, served with an innocuous herbed butter.
The meat theme is evident in the appetizers as well. Since we were not going to order a sirloin steak as an entree, we opted for the grilled sirloin with root salad as an appetizer. Given the amount of cucumbers atop the sliced radishes, carrots, red onions and beets, anywhere else this would be called a tossed salad. In any event, the small slices of sirloin were excellent.
Our second appetizer was the tomato salad with busche cheese: red and yellow cherry tomatoes with parsley, grilled onion and cubes of the white cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. There could have been a bit more cheese, but it was a very good salad nonetheless.
When it came to the entrées, our knowledgeable waiter Yam gave a thorough explanation of the cuts of meat—seven different steaks—including recommendations for how to have each grilled.
We were also informed that the smoked spare ribs are a specialty of the house, so we elected to try them, along with a T-bone steak.
Two things set these ribs apart: they were basted with teriyaki sauce, rather than the more common barbecue sauce; and they were large, rather than baby backs, with a layer of fat to be trimmed away. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the caramelized teriyaki crust imparted a marvelous flavor.
The T-bone is even easier to describe: it was one of the best steaks I have had in Israel.
Entrées come with one choice of a side dish: baked potato, smoked pumpkin, stir-fried mushrooms or a salad. Of these, the pumpkin was the standout. Additional sides may be ordered for a slight extra charge.
Steaks come with a trio of condiments: mustard brandy, chimichurri, and something mysteriously called “white relish”—which is nothing more than aioli. All were good; but steaks of this quality are rarely in need of a flavor enhancer.
There is an eclectic wine list of domestic and imported vintages, with a handful available by the glass.
With four tantalizing choices for dessert, we took the owner’s suggestions of the basbousa and the chocolate pâté. The former is a surprisingly light and moist semolina cake, enhanced with pistachio cream, rose water, cinnamon and whipped cream; the latter a thick mousse practically the consistency of cake, with a unique marzipan frosting of macha green tea.
Both desserts were worthy of the superb ribs and steak we had enjoyed earlier.
From Shine and Sharp to Meat KitchenAnother Tel Aviv steakhouse is at the same time both older and newer than Rio Grande. This riddle is easily solved: the older steakhouse is the venerable Shine and Sharp, which only recently transitioned—under the same ownership—from its non-kosher status to its kosher iteration, bearing the name Meat Kitchen.
In size, Meat Kitchen is practically the polar opposite of Rio Grande: the former is very large, with a handsome bar and comfortable leather seats. Behind the bar is an impressive view of sides of beef aging: according to restaurant manager Koby, Meat Kitchen applies a layer of goose fat to its cuts of beef, and then ages them in-house for at least 31 days.
While the food menu is bilingual, the list of specialty cocktails is in Hebrew only. Our friendly waiter recommended the Chef’s Recommendation: melon vodka, cucumber, crushed basil, sour and tonic—a truly distinctive drink. We found the margarita, on the other hand, to be less satisfactory.
Continuing to follow our waiter’s recommendations, the first appetizer we ordered was the saltwater sashimi: razor-thin slices of sea fish on a layer of midori sour with cubes of watermelon, watermelon caviar and red chili pepper as a garnish. The dish was noteworthy for its beautiful presentation and nice interplay of flavors—although, a bit surprisingly, the fish was not the star.
Our second appetizer was the seared sirloin with black eggplant cream and glazed shallots in a beef and mustard bouillon with hazelnut croquant. The beef was chewy and flavorful, although care must be taken not to overpower it with everything that’s going on in this dish.
Among the main courses were two that are designed to be shared. One is the prime rib, which is described by its weight, and the other is identified helpfully on the English menu as a “share plate”—a full kilogram of meat comprising veal chops, chorizo, entrecôte and sirloin. The variety is what swayed our decision in favor of the quartet—and the fact that it is so rare to find veal chops on the menu.
Apparently, veal chops will continue to be elusive: it turns out that there was a translation mistake, and they are actually lamb chops. Fortunately, even if the menu disappoints, the meat—served on a sizzling platter—does not: the chorizo is authentic, the lamb chops succulent, the entrecôte delicious, and the sirloin steak even better than the first time around.
The meat was washed down nicely by the house wine, the Meat Kitchen private label Cabernet Sauvignon from Yaffa Winery.
Although it is not easy to save room for dessert here, it is worth effort. The restaurant has its own dedicated pastry chef, who came up with such masterpieces as chocolate mousse and truffles with fresh blackberries, coffee cream and pina colada caviar, and the “apple in honey”: apple sorbet that is closer to real ice cream, Granny Smith granita, meringue and a crispy apple tulle—all in an exotic honey-thyme sauce.
Meat Kitchen reminds me of an old Levy’s rye bread commercial. To paraphrase: you don’t have to keep kosher to enjoy eating here.
Rio Grande, 4 Herzl St., Tel Aviv. Tel. (03) 573-7277.
Meat Kitchen, 65 Yigal Alon St., Tel Aviv, Tel. (03) 536-4755.