Juan Imeroni acquired the property that now houses Pampas in February 2020. That particular corner of O’Bryonville has long housed restaurants, but there seemed to be a touch of bad luck surrounding it—two very good restaurants, Enoteca Emilia and Eighth and English, both opened and closed there within the span of a few years. This time, the bad luck struck before the restaurant even opened, and on a global scale. Two weeks after Imeroni bought the building, the pandemic shut everything down. The many months of delay gave him extra time to work on the decor and buildout. Pampas finally opened for take-home meals during the week of Thanksgiving, and for indoor dining in December.
Imeroni is an established restaurateur in the city’s dining scene, and two of his restaurants—Ché in Over-the-Rhine and Butcher and Barrel downtown—dip into his Argentine heritage. A glance at either menu, though, will show dishes like gnocchi Bolognese and milanesa napolitana, plus burgers, steaks, and wings. Much like American food, Argentine cuisine is a melting pot shaped by some fairly recent immigration, particularly from Italy and Germany, and with plenty of meat on the plate.
The menu at Pampas resembles these other restaurants—and even has some of the same dishes, like the provoleta, which is a big slab of grilled cheese. Pampas is more upscale, though, and eschews casual dishes like the empanadas that are served at both of its sister restaurants. Also, Pampas puts parrillada, the Argentine method of cooking over an open flame, at the heart of its menu.
The name of the restaurant comes from the enormous grassland that stretches across Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. With the region’s focus on cattle ranching and fairly sparse human population, it has some similarities to the American idea of the Old West, with the Argentine gaucho taking the place of our cowboy—self-reliant, and with a rough-and-ready attitude toward things like food and personal comforts. Imeroni has fond memories of visiting his grandparents in this area and took inspiration from the rustic meals he used to eat there.
Today, most people grill with gas or wait for the charcoal to burn down and have an even glow. We actually aren’t used to a lot of flame directly on our food. At Pampas, though, almost all of the dishes go up against the fire, and there is a penetrating smokiness that pervades the whole menu. You can taste it intensely in everything. You can even find it in the drinks, where a simple syrup made out of charred orange appears in the popular Gaucho del Camino cocktail along with lime and an ancho liqueur. It might be a bit much for some people—I found the burnt flavor too pronounced in dishes where there wasn’t an assertive flavor to stand up to it. (For example, in the burger, with its fairly ordinary combination of cheese, bacon, and onions, or the salmon with Israeli couscous, which is dominated by the taste of butter.)
However, in dishes where the smokiness is matched by equally intense flavors, the parrillada style works nicely. As might be expected, the chimichurri at Pampas—the Argentine herb and vinegar sauce, one of their great contributions to world cuisine—is excellent. Luckily, it appears throughout the menu, and does wonders wherever it goes. Spicy, tart, and filled with the flavor of oregano, it wakes up dishes like the marinated skirt steak and adds a lovely depth of flavor to the dish of French fries, one of my favorite finds at Pampas. Something like an Argentine poutine, Pampas covers the fries with lamb gravy, smokes the cheese curds, adds minced thyme and rosemary along with the chimichurri, and then lightens things up with some spicy leaves of watercress.
The highlight of the meal at Pampas, though, rather surprisingly, is dessert. These are made by Chef Barbara Tome, who recently came to Cincinnati from Argentina and deserves special commendation for the three dishes she adds to the menu, all of which are magnificent. The cabernet pears are cooked in a complex spiced wine reduction that beautifully sets off the sweetness of the pears. A cinnamon crumble adds texture and a touch of vanilla whipped cream rounds out the whole dish. The dulce de leche cheesecake, with its crispy chocolate base and marshmallow-y top, is almost as good, as is the chocolate tart, with its delicate fruit sauce and anise-tinted cream. All of them are impeccably balanced and totally delicious.
With the pandemic in full force, Pampas had to open with a fairly stripped-down menu of four entrées. The restaurant planned to significantly revamp things in the spring, so by the time this review appears there should be more dishes, including more small plates, more seasonal offerings, and more proteins—particularly more cuts of beef, as befits an Argentine restaurant. There are also plans to expand its outdoor space beyond the small patio currently out back.
Pampas is quite beautiful inside, filled with mosaic tile and old wood and wall hangings. As suits its name, it manages to be both rustic and elegant. Even with masks and the tables a bit farther apart, it is lovely to have this building in O’Bryonville humming with life again. Hopefully, this corner’s bad luck—along with all of ours—is finally coming to an end.
Pampas, 2036 Madison Rd., O’Bryonville, (513) 321-0863