Leafing through the Wellington on a Plate catalog some months ago, one event in particular seemed to stand out for me. This was Cooking Over Fire, The Argentine Way, to be held at El Matador, the new “Café, Asador Grill & Bar” up Cuba Street.

Asador is the Argentine national dish, a way of slow-cooking whole animals over an open fire. This is supposed to result in a beautifully tender and juicy meat, with hints of smoke.

The idea with the event was to show us how to setup and start barbequing a lamb in the morning, and then come back and eat it in the evening. This sounded totally outstanding: FIRE, plus MEAT!, so I decided to make a day of it and bail from work.

This turned out to be a great choice.

Remember the old Münchener Burger just up from Logan Brown? No, me not so much either. It looked so dark and uninviting and I hadn’t ever been in there in 20 years of living in Wellington. That’s where El Matador now is; the interior has been gutted and extended, a false ceiling removed to make the place a bit airier and the walls stripped back to the old white with blue trim tilework left from when the place was a butchery back in the 1970s.

There, along with 10 or so others, we met local restauranteur Mike Marsland (who used to own Ernesto, and is brother of Havana first comrade Geoff) and his asador chef Conor.

Mike was full of interesting stories about the work, investment, and yes, regulatory compliance required to get a restaurant set up. The food trade sounded like an astonishingly hard and risky business to me.

Then he talked about the concept for El Matador. While the grill and the asador are central to the experience, the idea is to show a little more of Argentine food, not just the meat dishes for which the country is justly famous. Even so, there’s a lot of meat on the menu.

And if we loved the food, Mike reckoned there was a couple of good books to get hold of if we wanted to try and replicate the experience at home. There’s this one:

Mike Marsland and a useful book for any aspiring Argentinean Asador cook: Seven Fires, by Francis Mallmann

… and the second was Al Brown’s Stoked.

This evening, the centrepiece of our meal would be a whole split lamb carcass cooked on an asador. Mike warned us that we should have only a very small lunch, and that there was the distinct possibility of there being leftovers to take home. This sounded very good indeed.

Meanwhile, Conor rubbed salt over the lamb, and then showed us how to attach the lamb to the frame that will be suspended over the fire.

Connor wires up the lamb to the frame.

Apparently Mike and Conor spent the better part of a year in Mike’s back garden perfecting their asador technique. While this may not always have been the best experience for Mike’s neighbours, apparently local Argentine expats favourably rate the results, so they must be doing it pretty well.

By now Conor had got the fire going nicely and he hung the lamb halves over the fire – not so close as to have the flame touch them, but close enough that when the fire burnt down the hot coals would provide a good steady slow heat:

The lamb stats to cook over the open fire of the asador.

And that was almost it for the morning session. After coffee and a cake we reluctantly left them at 11am. The rest of the day couldn’t go fast enough… but at last evening rolled around.

At the restaurant, the lamb was now fully cooked. Conor took it off the fire:

The finished lamb, ready for resting

While it rested (covered), he grilled us up some quick starters: black pudding, kidneys, and sweetbreads. I steered away from the kidneys (I’ve never liked the taste, even before Conor told us what he thought they tasted like); but the sweetbreads and the black pudding were delicious, especially smothered in fresh chimichurri salsa:

Grilled black pudding, sweetbreads, and kidneys

These disappeared pretty quickly while we watched Conor bone the meat. This didn’t look like too tricky a job, as mostly it was ready to fall off the bone in great juicy handfuls. He sliced the fillet and some of the larger leg pieces… and with that dinner was ready.

Asador is typically eaten with salad. I could describe the salads, which were all pretty good, but to be honest I’ve forgotten them. I was there for the meat, which was utterly delicious: moist, lightly smoked, and cooked to perfection.

At this point I stopped taking photos. There were more important matters at hand.

On the tables were several bottles of a respectable Argentine Malbec, the traditional variety to consume with asador. But nicer still was the other wine there: Tiwaiwaka Lucinda 2007 from Martinborough, a harmonious and savoury Cab Sauv / Merlot / Franc blend. It was just as well supplies of this wine ran out fairly quickly, as I had to work the next day.

In addition to the food and the wine was possibly the most unexpected pleasure of the day – some great talk over beautiful food with a bunch of interesting strangers.

Time sped by. Everyone had second helpings. Next, Conor’s dessert, a lovely almond flan served with dulce de leche and a homemade icecream. That dispatched, everyone talked some more.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay.

But later at home: wood smoke scenting our clothes; full bellies; a pile of smoky bones from Conor for stock; and the happy feeling of a day well spent. Yeah, I think we’ll be back.