July 25, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Delicious Kultur Shock in Buenos Aires 

Slabs of meat with sauces and sides cover our table at Cabrera Norte. Photo:Steven Richter
Slabs of meat with sauces and sides cover our table at Cabrera Norte. Photo:Steven Richter

Escaping New York summer has become a ritual for me and my guy, the Road Food Warrior.  We spent a marvelous winter in San Francisco one July.  And last summer discovered exceptional hospitality in Vancouver. This July passionate fans of Buenos Aires promised us a gentle winter, I decided spring jackets and many layers would see us through.  And then it snowed. A few big flakes, not all that impressive to us who slosh through drifts every winter but the locals went berserk – it was the first snow that stuck here in 90 years.

 The thermometer dropped.  Fuel had to be rationed.  It is a choice of fuel for taxis or heating homes, we are told.  The government is so busy running for reelection, starting public projects that will be halted once they win, disillusioned detractors say, there is never a plan for emergencies. The president’s mascara-smudged wife (as one newspaper columnist described her) will run to replace him -- evoking nostalgia for dynasty and memories of Evita (Evita-Madonna, at this point the image is permanently fused here).  Fatalist friends say nothing can be done to stop it. She will win.

So it really is winter, chill rain falling now, though usually drear mornings dissolve in brilliant cold sunshine.  What a shock.  To go from the lush summer fruit and melons you can actually smell at Fairway and in Hampton farmers’ markets to winter citrus, grapes and apples. Not a sign of a raspberry anywhere (except on a luscious fruit tart at the Alvear Palace Hotel’s sumptuous lunch buffet.) 

            And then there is the kiss.  First night in Buenos Aires we arrive at a dinner party -- a froth of forty or fifty plus children and dogs gathered by new friends from Miami who, like a handful of Americans we have met, couldn’t resist buying an apartment here when the peso hit bottom.  A few have moved; the rest commute on long weekends or for the season (in less time than it takes to get to Easthampton from West 73rd). There is wonderful food, very Argentine -- too much and delicious -- and opera singers including a tenor who normally works as a cantor in a synagogue.

And the surprise comes with our first introduction. A kiss. “This is Gael. Meet Susana.” I put out my hand.  She puts out her face and delivers a kiss. Getting the drift as I see the cheek kissing ritual around the room. I kiss back. “And this is my daughter.” Kisses all around. Between an air kiss and a real kiss. Women kiss everyone. Men kiss women. Well-trained tots kiss too. 

Tango apasionados come in all sizes at Porteno y Ballarin's milonga. Photo: Steven Richter

 Meeting a well-traveled Argentine and his wife one evening for dinner I lean forward for The Kiss...but he stands aloof, hand out to shake mine.  I am a bit flustered. How cool.  He is treating me as if I were a New Yorker. Of course.

And this is a first report for all you friends who were swooning over memories of the great Argentine grass fed, hormone-free beef and sharing your favorite restaurant lists...I love you. I thank you. I am puzzled. I cannot say I have been thrilled by the exceptional flavor of the Argentine beef we are eating.  First comes the struggle to get it rare.

“Rare,” I say when the waiter seems to speak English.  Sangue. Saignant,” I try in what I think is Italian and French. “Rojo. (Red) Mucho roja.” Is beef masculine or feminine? And lately, after two or three medium rare steaks I did not send back because I didn’t want our local pals to become persona non grata at their favorite steakhouse: “Jugoso” (juicy) and “cruda” (raw).

 Then comes the struggle to cut off a piece.  No steak knife seems sharp enough.  I saw away, ripping the sinewy meat apart. And then to chew. I am chewing so intently, the flavor if there is any is lost or in some cases, subverted by whatever the animal was marinated in.

We have been to a few classic meat palaces. Some with multiple recommendations from gourmand pals I trust.   La Cabrera (actually the supposedly less crowded annex Cabrera Norte is where we went, jammed to the rafters on a Saturday night, with a giant TV screen tuned to cooking demos on the local food channel and people pawing the pavement waiting to enter when we left after 11). Brigada in San Telmo was on the lists too. Astonishingly cheap. And the steak, actually rare. Looking the waiter straight in the eye and saying “Crudo” did it.  But it was tough,

 Given this disillusion, we were amazed to discover at the venerable and fiercely unchic Rio Alba, a positively tender (by comparison, but still reasonably tender) and deliciously flavorful lomo (tenderloin – the filet mignon we would disdain as a steak for cowards back home).

 We had been invited by a much traveled friend of a friend who admitted he had pondered for hours where to take a restaurant critic. He ruled out any restaurant doing what I could get in New York or Paris and decided on this brightly lit, old fashioned room with its fake autumn leaves and reeds in baskets.  There we shared all the Argentine musts: Melted provolone from the grill. A flattened rubbery grilled sweetbread. Good empanadas. Two kinds of sausages. Equally satisfying, like the meat-filled pastries.  Then some short ribs on the bone, fatty and tough and not much meat.  And that wonderful lomo.

 I’m not sending you to Rio Alba. 

 But I am recommending Happening in Puerto Madero, the newish port-side development with its up-price condos and shops and the Phillipe Starck designed Hotel Faena carved out of an old warehouse. Happening’s buffet table of cold starters, cheeses and salumeria ($6.25 a plate) is irresistible and full of must-haves and mystery concoctions  -- Is this a Waldorf salad floating in mayonnaise soup?  Lamb tongue, brains, liver terrine, fish mousse, wonderful vegetable tortillas (omelette cakes with zucchini, spinach or pumpkin). Adding to the triumph, very good bread, crispy croutons, assorted spreads, trained waiter...and a grilled sweetbread that astonishes – the delicate texture has not been lost on the grill. My guy’s rib eye is juicy, rare and full of flavor, meaty but not unchewable – the best so far -- although I am only able to harvest six small bites of meat from my six fatty lamb chops.

 We stop by the window to the grill to catch the action.  A fire rages between two grates where heat and smoke alone cook the meat. Unlike the roar of flame that sears and caramelizes our steaks – that crust I must admit I am addicted to – here the fire never touches the meat.

 And we have been impressed by dinners at Thymus (no, it wasn’t about eating parts, as Steven worried) and Gran Bar Danzón (where they offer 100 or 200 wines by the glass, depending on who is telling the story) and the best beef I’ve had so far – a luscious braised short rib that tasted like home. Here the chef who worked his way up from dishwasher has a familiar flaw:  At least one ingredient too many in every dish (though happily it is not necessarily an ingredient that spoils the experience).  Of course he knew we were there tasting.  And, more importantly, he knew he was feeding Alicia Delgrado, the much feared and catered to critic of The Nacion.  

 So he was cooking his fingers to the bone in a full house – the big night out for Argentines of a certain class is Thursday. I could hardly hear Alicia in the howl, with a crowd three deep at the bar and every table full. Of a certain age, modestly dressed, very discreet, eating without comment, she looks remarkably benign.  But she is extremely vivid in describing a recent unpleasant experience at Casa Cruz – still a torridly imperative destination for well-heeled locals and jetsetters, celebrities and politicos. 

 How bad was it?

 She draws a finger across her neck and bares her teeth.

             “But it’s in your guide,” I protest.  Her guide is pointedly, not all-inclusive, but rather, “her recommended.”

 “Well, you will see in the new edition,” she snaps, with a triumphant smile.

             Ah yes, the restaurant critic’s most rewarding moment:  the last word -- Revenge -- a dish best eaten cold.

 Most pleasant shock of all is how amazingly cheap it is to eat, $15 to $25 for dinner, $30 per person for our splurge at Happening, including the expected ten per cent tip. I leave the Disco supermarket with $12 in groceries that would cost me $30 at Fairway and $40 in Venice  And taxis are so cheap, there’s no incentive to master the subway or busses.  Often five pesos, tip rounded off to the next peso. And if you throw in another peso or two, the driver says thank you.

 This afternoon we went looking for El Palacio de Papas – home of legendary puffed up fried potatoes – pommes souffles, the twice-fried potato balloons we don’t see in New York any more that I remember from Le Pavillon.  It is school break here and the place was jumping with local families and tourists, Brazilians mostly, our Argentina-born friend observes.  Expecting a McDonalds for fries, we had already eaten en route.  “We just want to taste the fries...” our friend confesses to the tuxedo-clad maitre d’.  Prosperity is not yet certain in Buenos Aires or perhaps politesse is in the genes...the guy who would have withered us in Manhattan, calmly seats us at a cloth-draped four top where we share a $4 salad and a platter of fries, while all around us everyone –prepubescents, even toddlers -- slice away at major meat.

 Too dazed by excess for a museum, we stroll along the pedestrians-only causeway past leather shops and fast food tummelers soliciting our mouth’s patronage till we spy a taxi with an illuminated red “libre” sign and head home.  For some of us a Lipitor.  For all of us, a nap before dinner.

 As my guy likes to say, sighing that we have missed the theater, a colorful handicraft market, wine country afternoons, and popular excursions...for one lunch too many. ”It’s her job.  Someone has to do it.”


 The Wines of Patagonia...Well, Why Not?

The proud winemaker of Patagonia takes a sip and a bow at Oviedo.   Photo: Steven Richter

 As soon as I see the 60 or so goblets sparkling on crisp white napery at Oviedo I know that is our table.  We are tonight’s chosen people – Ernesto Lanusse (caterer, chocolate maker, food eminence), Fabricio Portelli (wine writer, creator of brand new En Primeur #1, an optimistically advertising-free journal of Argentine Wines), Ovidea’s proprietor Emilio Garip and his wife, and dominating the evening -- a charismatic, charmingly self-mocking, globe-straddling wine maker, Hans Vinding-Diers. A bit plump in a cozy way, just 37, with a modest double chin, he reminds me of a young Peter Ustinov.

          South African-born into a Danish wine-making family – Vinding-Diers grew up in Bordeaux on his father’s properties in Graves and has worked at wineries in Australia, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa, France, Spain, Portugal and Hungary, currently hopping between making Malbec at Bodega Noemi in Patagonia, where he also oversees production of the Pinot Noirs at Bodega Chacra for the owners of Sassicaia, and Tuscany where he nurses Argiano, on the Contessa Noemi Cinzano’s Montalcino estate.  

          All of this emerges in alternately passionate and self-mocking asides though he never make it clear if the Contessa is his wife, his paramour, his business partner or all three.

          Oviedo, an unfussy, clubby looking place, with leather banquettes and a discreetly professional staff, is a Buenos Aires institution for fish. A little amuse of slippery octopus with garlic puree, powdered almonds and a sprig of baby arugula sets the tone...ambitious and delicious. Then we are sharing very expensive king crab legs with three sauces, fresh mushrooms, and deep fried baby squid on lentils with bacon – all daily specials. 

          Steven is easily persuaded to order a steak.  Suckling pig is the wine critic’s choice. Since I am of the school that believes wine is red, I am perfectly content to sip these powerful Patagonian reds with a savory cut of red mullet – only slightly too cooked – on a podium of roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini.

          “Why did I choose Malbec?” Vinding-Diers asks. “I did Malbec because Malbec is the wine of Argentina,” he says airily.  “And I was looking for a vineyard with old vines.  Who says you can’t find another terroir?” he exclaims. He is really good at this.  I see him traveling the world glossing whatever he has to sell. “I would prefer not to say Malbec on the bottle if I had my choice.”

          “I am very old world...I’m very gentle with my wines,” he offers. I think we are all pretty sloshed now.  He’s starting to sound like a romance novelist.  “I like to massage them with a feather duster. I’m not overdominating the wine. I’m letting the grape go from the vine to the bottle. No need to get fancy. You dig a hole and you drink the wine.”  He demonstrates by lifting his glass.

          “Parker has just given 100 points to a Malbec,” the wine critic observes.

          For a second or two the breath is sucked out of the Danish prodigy. The wine in this enviable spotlight is not his.  He recovers and lobs a dismissal: “Who knows what Parker will give it next year?” 

          No point in falling too hard for these babies.  The truth is the Pinot Noirs are wonderful and his premium Noemia is exceptional. But only 300 cases a year are produced of Noemia and at $100 a bottle, I will not be drinking it again soon.

          But Ovidea, high-priced to Argentines, is a bargain to us.  Desserts are amazingly well-done, especially the chocolate milles feuillle layered with passion fruit gel and a local classic – a sticky caramelized apple crepe.

          At almost 2 a.m. we kiss kiss away leaving the stalwarts to open three or four more bottles.


Alvear Palace Hotel Av, Alvear 1891 Recoleta. tel. 54 11 4808 2100
Casa Cruz, Uriarte 1658, Palermo Viego. tel 54 11 4833 1112
El Palacio de la Papa Frita, La Valle 735. tel. 4393 5849
Gran Bar Danzón, Libertad 1161. tel 54 11 4811 1108
Happening, Alicia Moreau de Justo, Puerto Madero 310. tel 54 11 4319 8712
La Brigada, Estados Unidos 465. San Telmo. tel 4361 5557
La Cabrera Norte, Cabrera 5127, Palermo Viego. tel 54 11 4832 5754
Oviedo, Beruti 2602. Tel 54 11 4821 3741, oviedo@restaurantoviedo.com.ar
Thymus, Lerma. Palermo Viejo. tel 54 11 525 4772 1935 thymus@fibertel.com.ar