The Argentine Bean is a little gem that could become one of my favorite local restaurants. Its owners have purposefully jumped the chain-dining tracks and have made their place everything you don't expect in a shopping center eatery.
With its Latin-influenced menu, its funny name, long hours and off-the-main-drag location, it's an ambitious, edgy concept. But the food is quite well done, the staff is young and eager, and I applaud the effort!
When I hear "bean," I think coffee. The espresso ($1.45; $1.75 double) is excellent, but this is much more than a coffee shop. Argentine Bean's day starts early with pastries from Shadeau Bakery ($1.85-$2), including muffins and croissants. I think this is the first Northern Kentucky spot to feature Shadeau goodies. As their crowd builds, they hope to offer a daily quiche.
While lunch technically starts at 11 a.m., the friendly staff offered to let us order from the selection of panini early on a recent Saturday. These grilled sandwiches are large enough to share. Served on wonderful Shadeau bakery bread, they showcase all the right ingredients.
I loved the Argentine panini ($7.59) with its layers of rare roast beef, melted manchego cheese, delicious roasted red peppers and spicy chimichurri mayonnaise. This "chimi mayo," flavored with garlic and oregano, is an option on deli sandwiches as well. My companion's Pabo ($7.59), with turkey and havarti, got its zing from chili mayonnaise. The panini are served with peppered potato chips, but soup or salad can be substituted for a small up-charge.
The corn chowder ($4.59) was one of the most interesting soups I've had in ages. Though the server assured me it was meatless, it had a deep, smoky flavor that might have come from roasted chipotles.
Though the menu has Latin and Mediterranean influences, there aren't many specifically "ethnic" dishes. We enjoyed a beef empanada ($6.95) stuffed with ground beef, raisins and pine nuts in an egg-washed pastry.
In the late afternoon, the menu switches to tapas. Grazing really suits our appetites lately and has become our dinner style several times a week. I'd much rather enjoy a few small, flavorful dishes than face a big platter mounded high with food.
The Bean has divided the tapas menu by temperature. From the "chilled" choices, we enjoyed a flavorful caprese salad ($7.95) with fresh mozzarella, roma tomatoes and shredded basil, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette.
The Baby Blue Cucumbers ($6.95) are hollowed cuke halves filled with creamy blue cheese dressing -- a little bit awkward to eat, but delicious. On another visit, I'd like to give the sampler platter ($12.95) -- a selection of imported olives, meats and cheeses -- a try.
According to the chef, the most popular selections are on the "warm" side of the menu, but that might change when the weather cooperates and the patio tables become available. For now, the Margarita shrimp skewers ($8.95) and the pork tenderloin with spicy apple raisin chutney ($9.95) are the best sellers. My vegetarian guest and I enjoyed the baked brie topped with Chambord ($9.95) and the garlic-rich "hongos" ($7.95), sautéed mushrooms finished with wine. I had to try the latest menu introduction -- flaky crab cakes served with chili mayonnaise ($11.99). Not spectacular, but nicely done.
Good news for local foodies who haven't heard much from our old favorite Avi Bear lately: The Argentine Bean features his delicious desserts, and they are every bit as good as I remembered. We saved room for a creamy cappuccino pie ($6.75) and sinful caramel crème brulée ($6.90).
The Argentine Bean is making an ambitious effort to get noticed and to bring people in the door; they offer live music, afternoon events, evening dance lessons and wine tastings. There's a full calendar at their Web site (argentinebean.net).
I imagine that their overhead is hefty, with Crestview Hills positioning itself as Kenwood South, and it will be challenging to compete with their big-name, better-known neighbors. I'm going to plan an evening for my drinking-after-work girlfriends at the Bean, because the whole tapas concept is perfect for our wine-and-dine nights out. Most of the tables are set for four or more, and the menu lends itself to sharing.
The Bean is nicely decorated, with walls sponge-painted in tones of warm Spanish saffron, accented with cornices that emphasize the high ceilings and make the small space seem bigger. The owners have done a nice job selecting affordable wines, but the servers might need a little more coaching in how to help customers pair them with food. All in all, this bright, multifaceted gem just needs a little polish to shine.©
Go: 2875 Towne Center Blvd., Crestview Hills
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.) Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Visa, Mastercard, Discover
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of options