Argentina’s most popular meal is the asado or parillada, a mixed grill of steak (chilled and never frozen) and a variety of meat cuts and sausages. Asador or parilla is an Argentine steak house. Alternatively, asador is also referred to as the griller of the asado and parillada.
In the heart of Sotogrande’s San Enrique district, overlooking the main Ayala polo club field, within the Ayala España Development, is Cancha II (Cancha Dos). There are three Ayala polo fields out of the 16 polo fields in Sotogrande in Andalucia, southern Spain.
It is an oasis of extreme calm in an already very relaxed and low-key development. Sotogrande is one of the most exclusive and well-planned communities in the world.
We arrived on a perfect spring day and were met by Paola Zobel, founder, owner and operator of Cancha II. She is the second daughter of Iñigo Zobel and the former Maricris Cardenas, and granddaughter of the late Enrique Zobel.
Paola is young, passionate, very spirited, and full of energy. Yet she is also warm, independent and very grounded despite her pedigree.
The restaurant environment she has created is welcoming, relaxed and very rustic chic. A kind of place you can come in dressed up or dressed down.
Cancha II was actually an existing structure in one of the polo fields, which was relocated and reconstructed.
Old and distressed wood provides instant character and charm like that of an old stable. But with large expanses of glass, modern furniture and appointments, you are instantly brought into a very present-day environment.
With the polo field as your front and backyard, it is almost, no, it is indeed, magical.
The view is spectacular—the field of greens or the handsome and attractive polo players galloping on their thoroughbreds. Think Nacho Figueras, the Argentine polo player and signature model for Polo Ralph Lauren.
Now enough of the teasers, let us get to the core of the food. It is no mystery that there are two things that make for a great steak. The quality of the meat and the timing of the grill by the asador.
What makes Cancha II even more special is not only are the meats flown in fresh from Argentina and grilled by Manoco (the asador who once came to Manila), but also, the asado is laid on a wood-burning grill using orangewood from the nearby orchard. This clearly adds flavor to the fresh, unseasoned meat.
What are the qualities of Argentine beef vis-à-vis a US rib eye? Argentine beef is flavorful, the cattle grazing in pastures. Meat from grass-fed cattle is believed to be healthier than that from grain-fed variety, as it contains more omega 3 fatty acids.
The meat is lean and not marbled, and is best cooked medium rare to keep it soft and juicy.
Top picks at Cancha II
1. Sweetbreads of Beef (neck of calf)—melts in your mouth. Crunchy on the outside and tender inside.
2. Iberian Secret Pork—It’s almost like Kurobota Tonkatsu, Spanish-style.
3. Solomillo—fillet of beef. No fuss; just a good, thick, flavorful, perfectly grilled steak.
4. Tapa de Lomo—Strip loin is leaner than a rib eye but very flavorful.
5. Parillada Argentina—mixed grill of chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) strip loin, sirloin, rib eye and chicken breast.
Other appetizers and main courses:
1. Marinated Watermelon with Crispy Thin Ham and Celery Salad. Marinated in ginger basil and Chinese pepper. So refreshing yet so flavorful with the salty, crispy ham.
2. Asparagus with truffled mascarpone, lemon puree and crispy bread—excellent flavor and texture with no tartness in the puree.
3. Tuna Tataki with ajo blanco and green apple—Nice mix of fish and fruit… very similar in taste to salmorejo.
4. Bacalao with a chermouli crust (typical in Africa), red wine and tomato, zucchini butter beans and smoked red pepper sauce. Bacalao’s saltiness was balanced off by other elements. (But I must say I didn’t pay much attention to the fish. I was programmed to be a carnivore for the night.)
1. Panna Cotta with Raspberry and White Chocolate—smooth, milky, creamy and tasty all in one breath.
2. Marinated Pineapple with Pistachio Praline—fruity, sweet and crunchy. Incredible mix of textures of fruit and nuts.
3. Crepes Con Dulce de Leche Vanilla Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce—a very typical Argentine dessert.
Wine and spirits
The wine and spirits collection is wide though not very deep, which is perfect for an asador. Deepest is the gin offering with 14 labels.
The selection of Spanish, Argentine and Chilean wine ranges from Vega Sicilias, Marques de Riscals, to inexpensive Finca la Linda. Clearly, they want you to enjoy your meal with spirits.
A popular drink is the “Clara,” which is ½ beer, ½ lemon soda. We enjoyed the Argentine but very Bordeaux-like 2009 Bodega Septima Gran Reserva, Malbec. But I must admit we couldn’t resist starting with our favorite, easy-to-drink light and crisp Delamotte.
Evidently, the spirit and energy of Paola resonate in the menu and in the way her team works (Justo, the Spanish manager, and Robert, the English chef).
The obvious respect for tradition in the cuisine, service and of the environment, and yet pushing the envelope are the restaurant’s hallmarks. You know they want you to keep coming back. No wonder it’s always full, serving up to 200 patrons a night in the summer.
Yearlong clients include the English, Dutch, Germans, Australians, the locals and some Filipinos.
Apart from the Zobel clan, the Aranetas, Todas, Chiongbians and Tantocos are frequent guests. The kind of menu and place like this attract not only the affluent regulars, but also those who don’t splurge but come on special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, because they appreciate the quality of the offering.
If I were to rate a restaurant 1 to 3—3 being the highest—this is how I would rate and describe Cancha II:
Location—3, exclusive but accessible
Interiors—3, low-key, genteel, rustic and authentic. Totally unpretentious.
Food—3, steak options are excellent as expected. But most unexpected are the appetizers, other non-meat main courses, sidings and desserts. Absolutely fresh, creative and a perfect complement to the hard-core meat offering.
Wine and spirits—3, I would add more Cava’s though.
Service—3, attentive but relaxed. Servers were not lacking in peripheral vision but they were “never in your face.”
This asador is a must when in the Costa del Sol. And you don’t need to be a carnivore to enjoy the food and the lovely setting.
I can only imagine what new things Paola will have for this August’s polo season.
For more information, contact Asador Cancha II, San Enrique de Guadiaro, Sotogrande, at www.asadorcancha2.com.