"It's the nicest thing you can say to a girl. It's a way of flirting with a woman in the sexiest possible way," says my friend Carmen, a native of Guatemala who has spent more than a few flirtatious days in Argentina. The dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty says she doesn't get nearly as many piropos (the word translates as a "poetic compliment to a woman") in Kansas City as she would like. "But," she says, smiling slyly, "I get a lot."
Carmen had been nagging me, in a charming way, about taking her to Parkville's new Piropos, which has become the area's most talked-about new restaurant since it opened three months ago. In fact, it inspires plenty of poetic compliments for its stunning hilltop view, attentive service and genteel touches (such as a switch to press when the restroom "needs attention"). But along with all the chatter about the view and the restaurant's talented 26-year-old chef, Tomas DiGregorio (who returns to his native Buenos Aires later this year to marry his long-waiting fiancée), a few myths have been whirling around Piropos too. The first is that the servers bring sizzling cuts of cooked beef to tables, where they slice off portions with a big knife. That showy technique might be a tradition in Buenos Aires, but not at Piropos, where the beef comes out of the kitchen on a plate, just like it does at any Midwestern steakhouse. Another bit of misinformation is that Piropos serves Argentinean beef. Alas, no.
"The beef in Argentina is the best in the world," Chef Tomas says, his eyes almost glazing over. "Our soil is so rich, and the cattle feeds on the grass that grows in this rich soil, so the beef tastes more flavorful, richer. But we do not use it. We use certified Angus instead."
"We had planned to use Argentinean beef," general manager Sam Silvio explains, "and were all set to import it when all the hoof-and-mouth publicity in Europe frightened people, and the importing of beef from Argentina was stopped last year. It's being shipped again, but we're going ahead and using American beef right now."
The Argentinean flair comes not in the preparation but in the seasoning of Piropos' juicy steaks, which include a sixteen-ounce Kansas City strip and a fourteen-ounce ribeye. Diners are encouraged to slather on one of three distinctive sauces: a creamy garlic aïoli; a salsalike criolla sauce -- loosely translated as Creole, it's made with peppers, tomato, celery and vinegar, like Spanish sofrito -- and chimichurri, the wonderful parsley-and-pepper (and garlic, vinegar, oregano, paprika and olive oil) concoction that's a staple on Argentinean tables.
On the tables at Piropos, the sauces come in little china pots, and Carmen gave the chimichurri a jaded eye. "It looks greener in Argentina," she said. "There's more parsley in it." But after spooning a bit of the pungent, rust-colored sauce on the flaky crust of a beef empañada, she pronounced it "delicioso!" She wasn't as thrilled with the empañadas themselves, little envelopes of slightly sweet pastry stuffed with ground beef cooked with raisins and bits of green olives. "They should be doughier. And baked!" Carmen fumed. Chef Tomas later confirmed that in Buenos Aires, the three varieties of meat pastries would, indeed, be baked instead of fried. "But in Kansas City," he said, his teeth clenched, "they like everything to be fried!"
Maybe that's why I liked them so much -- especially the spiced beef variation; the chicken version (flavored with roasted peppers and onion) and the ham-and-provolone creation were less memorable. Another tasty appetizer -- not fried, mind you -- was a plate of cold shrimp perched around a puddle of "pink sauce," lightly flavored with cayenne. One of the salads also held up a chorus line of fat shrimp, this time fanned out over a mound of mixed greens drenched in a piquant shallot vinaigrette.
The shallot mixture, which has a tart bite, is the featured dressing on all of the restaurant's five salads (the alternative is a creamy ranch concoction), including a summery affair of sliced tomatoes and crumbles of Maytag blue cheese or a big pile of shredded carrots. I adored the latter salad, even when Chef Tomas whispered that "it's not a fancy dish in Argentina; it's a peasant dish!" I've got news for him: It's a peasant dish in Kansas City too -- a relic of a cafeteria salad display -- which is precisely why I loved it. For an Italian-American who grew up eating traditional lettuce salads, an orange heap of slightly sweet, paper-thin flakes of carrot is a treat, especially when it's splashed with a dressing that counters the sweetness with a jolt of vinegar and garlic.
Because Italians make up Argentina's largest ethnic group -- "at least 45 percent," says Cristina Worden, the restaurant's co-owner, who is half-Italian and half-Polish and looks like Jeanne Moreau -- the menu struts a few sophisticated pasta dishes (and one plebian choice, a penne in marinara sauce, which is dullsville). A dish of oversized ravioli stuffed with ricotta and bits of fresh spinach was dreamy, tossed with crunchy walnuts and a thick butter sauce lightly flavored with sage.
That Italian influence also shows up in Argentina's most popular fish dish, which is breaded and pan-fried "Milanese-style." Chef Tomas does a version of that, but he uses fragile tilapia, which isn't at its best under a coat of bread crumbs. And the servers -- who are accustomed to complaints about the dish -- deftly steer diners in a different direction. They'll point out, for example, the menu's newest offering, a superb chunk of halibut, pan-seared, brushed with a purée of roasted red pepper and served over jasmine rice with a jumble of julienne vegetables.
But it's the grilled meats that make dining at Piropos an event: a gorgeously tender filet next to a pile of fried Spanish potatoes; a pair of dashing pork chops tucked between real mashed potatoes and a swirl of sautéed apples; seared lamb splashed with a dark wine sauce. Carmen dipped pieces of her ribeye in chimichurri, while another friend greedily spread both chimichurri and the garlicky aïoli on top of his thick Kansas City strip and pouted when I leaned over and took a nice piece for myself. The sauces were so addictive, we kept the server running for more.
All of Piropos' desserts are equally habit-forming, from a hefty slab of chocolate cake drizzled with dulce de leche (the dense, vanilla-scented caramel known in South America as "milk candy") to a slice of creamy flan, laden with the dazzling dulce and a cloud of freshly whipped cream. For adventurous eaters, there's jellied quince or a plate of candied pumpkin, which arrives as a pyramid of glistening amber cubes on a puddle of topaz-colored syrup. The chewy texture and intense sweetness of the delicacy may not be to everyone's taste -- in fact, three bites was enough for me to say adios, amigo. I much preferred a plate of airy crêpes wrapped around spiced apples, dulce and whipped cream. It was the pastry equivalent of a piropos: a sweet nothing.
Like a seductive lover of either gender, Piropos knows how to do all the right things.