Mi Buenos Aires Querida
What do you do when waves of snow are coming your way? Make like a bird and head south. So in celebration of my 45th birthday, I packed my swim trunks and headed to Punta del Este, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Forecast, sunny and 85 degrees. NYC outlook, below zero and tons of snow.
First stop, Punta del Este, the Latin American version of the French Riviera. After a lengthy plane ride (over 12 hours), a hunger the size of a sumo wrestler developed. So before the bus transfer to Montevideo, we visited the Mercado de la Puerta. Just think Chelsea Market in size or La Boqueria and then replace the stalls with parrillas, grill restaurants, everywhere, with the wonderful aromas of smoking meats and woods and charcoal, a veritable smokehouse open marketplace. Hypnotized and mesmerized by the sights and smells of all that beef, it is difficult to make a decision where to begin. Families sitting in front of enormous selections of grilled meats, organ and otherwise, washing it down with bottles of medio y medio (sparkling wine mixed with white wine, a bit sweet), or enjoying whisky and tannat.
We chose to sit outside, where I tasted the mollejas (sweetbreads) and some rib steaks and lamb ribs, modest fare to start, but all so wonderfully cooked and smoky and tear provoking. We had started this trip on the right foot. Meatapalooza had begun.
I stayed in Punta Ballena, a short drive to Punte del Este, with my good friends Joe and Emir in a condo complex overlooking the vast ocean, complete with pool and indoor grill. Every home has an indoor grill with chimney. The days were spent bronzing under the warmth of the sun, eating strange Italian sandwiches for lunch (some version of tomato, melted cheese and ham) or terrible pizza (shockingly awful), looking towards the evening for the nightly grill activities. We shopped twice, purchasing plenty of rough cuts of meat and provoleta (cheese to be grilled) as well as tannat and more medio y medio. Aside from the trips into town for shopping, pastries from Les Delices, and gelato from Freddo, there was no need to leave the vista and sun’s embrace.
I learned a special grilling technique o control the cooking temperature of meats perfectly. It involves two sides of the grill. One where you start a wood fire, and when the embers fall, you rake it over to the other side. When you have raked enough over, you start the grilling.
After a week of baking and quite frankly getting sunburned,regardless of diligent spf protection and application, we took the journey to Colonia del Sarcamento, an old town that was once a battle point. You can still see the old fort and canons and historical trappings. We found a wonderful sleepy wine bar, El Buen Suspiro, with eclectic food and a great wine list. Many of the wines were locally sourced and all reasonably priced ($20 to $100). We spent the night drinking and looking at the moon and stars.
The next day we took the Buquebus, the famous ferry that takes travelers to Buenos Aires in under two hours. As Americans, we had to purchase entry tariffs to the tune of $160.00 per person. It is valid for ten years and must be purchased in advance. This shows you how badly the Argentine economy is suffering.
We stayed in the Palermo Soho district, a hodgepodge of old and new, with shopping and restaurants vis a vis Soho, NYC.
We stayed at the Rendez Vous, a boutique hotel with Jacuzzi and terrace. The staff was fantastic and extremely helpful. The rooms modern and well appointed. We learned quickly that restaurants were willing to give us a better exchange rate if we paid with US dollars. This led to the understanding that if you exchanged dollars for pesos in the casas de cambio that dot Florida (nabe), you could get up to thirteen to one as opposed to the official 8.66 to one the bank or credit card charges. In other words, if you are thinking of coming to Buenos Aires, bring lots of cash. Most shops and restaurants will give you a better rate.
Buenos Aires has many parillas and pizzerias. Many of them are standard in terms of menu. We had one good pizza at Guerrin, a Grand Central Station sort of place, reasonably priced and well crafted. The rest of the pizzas on the trip were forgettable and poorly constructed.
We visited two of the more popular parrillas, Don Julio and La Cabrera. Don Julio was rustic where La Cabrera a bit modern. But both delivered in terms of quantity and quality. Late nite bustling, there are long waits past ten pm and even at lunch time, so time your seating or make a reservation. After sweetbread, provoleta, morcilla (blood sausage), empanada, and chinchulines (lamb intestines or chitterlings), there is barely any room for dry aged strip or ojo de bife (rib eye), but we ordered any way, hoping the malbec would break down some of the protein fast enough for us to make it to dessert. After these two huge meals, we turned our attention to fine dining.
Even in early February, it was still a bit humid for my taste in Buenos Aires. Our days consisted of waking up late, grabbing a coffee and heading to a different neighborhood. What ends up happening is shopping, gelato, and lunch. Murillo for leather goods, Recoleta for Madison Avenue type of shops such as Tramundo by Martin Churba or Mariano Dappiano. Centrico for handmade leather shoes, or new sunglasses or lenses with Latin American flair at Sante Fe Optica. Michelle made out like a bandit. Quite a haul.
This would bring us to merienda (happy hour), a time for siesta or drinks, and what better place than Bar EL Federal, as old school as they come. We had very strong, proper negronis and sloshed home to the Jacuzzi, Havana Club cuba libres fashioned in the hotel room.
We couldn’t quite catch up to the schedule of dining past 11 pm and then hitting the cocktail bars. Cocktails first and then dinner, and then we’d see if we could party like a porteno.
Some fine cocktails were served at The Harrison Speakeasy, where the bartenders travel frequently to bolster their craft. In a club setting, the Victoria Brown bartender showed a deft hand, albeit under the pressure of the booming sound system awaiting the night crawlers to creep in until the wee hours of the morning. For a funky milieu, try Mundo Bizarro. Perhaps the best in the group for total package is the stalwart Floreria Atlantico in the posh Recoleta area, entrance via a staircase downstairs from a cool flower shop, a speakeasy with distinctive Argentine character.
The fine dining scene is alive and well. Just take a look at the Latin America Top 50 restaurant list. Though many hail from Peru, Buenos Aires has its fare share. Our first choice was at I Latina in Murillo, where flavors of Latin America are combined to bring comfort in its familiarity and impress in technique and fusion.
A beautiful front garden leads to a tropical setting in a townhouse with high ceilings and open kitchen and striking artwork from Chef Santiago Matias’ mother. Warm Caribbean décor and colors sets the right mood for the whole experience. Fine bow-tied servers with excellent tableside manner guide us through the wine and courses. A duo of white corn arepas set the stage with avocado and goat cheese, delicate , spicy and bright. Then followed a bread basket made of coconut, banana and chipa, unusual and hearty. Beef cheek mole followed, rich and deep, with a hint of mescal, for me the star of the evening. Prawns accented in pineapple and fennel resonated true Caribe. Then the Baru style ceviche changed my mind about the mole. Perfect marriage of mango, coconut and lychee. Pulpo ensued in a stew, tender and moist.
The pork tenderloin smothered in a coffee sugarcane reduction worked least for me. I’m just not a fan of coffee in food. The coffee flavor usually overpowers the whole dish. Avocado and aguardiente ice cream anchored the dessert. We drank malbec, which, as much as I would like to love, just doesn’t pair well with several course tasting menus. This would be a theme throughout our meals.
We also tried out Tomo 1, again a Latin America top 50 housed in the Panamericano Hotel, where chef Federico Flalayre weaves his magic in a more traditional portena gourmet style. Chef was gracious enough to pose in a picture with me.
The cooking had a strong backbone in bistro style, with dishes such as chicken liver mousse and buffalo bresaola. Pristine Patagonian shrimp and dumplings, pumpkin soup, mushroom ravioli and trucha, beef tenderloin and Cornish game hen, finished by a series of flans and parfaits with tropical fruit flavors. We drank chardonnay throughout the meal, switching to malbec for the meat course. Fede is rocking it.
At Tegui, in Palermo Soho, the setting was rich in urban feel, complete with side garden of palm trees with open roof to the starry night sky. The food was more experimental here, giant steer’s horns adorning the front of the open kitchen towards the rear. The flavors spanned a spectrum, starting with beet yogurt and smart tomato salad in different textures. Octopus and shrimp in a corn soup make its presence well represented, interrupted only by another fruity bread course. We sipped a curried carrot soup out of a wooden bowl, and then ate lovely sardines with broth. Pork and beef tenderloins made their appearances in various smears and sauces, topped off by a fruit compote and some chocolate. The wine service was off. Our somm failed in trying to find a wine of my taste even after lengthy discussion. Otherwise a stellar experience.
The next night we hit Aramburu bistro, not feeling up to the challenge of another ten course tasting menu of molecular gastronomy. And what a relief it was to have straight forward bistro food. Simple beef carpaccio with cous cous and mushrooms, rocket in simple vinaigrette, a potage of seafood, mussels in a curry broth and grilled rib eye steak. Dessert was a dish of arroz con leche granita, wildly textured and cool, as well as some chocolate cream. Actually can’t wait to come back and try the whole shebang at his flagship.
We watched the Super Bowl in Buenos Aires, which proved a tad difficult. The few bars that aired the finale turned the whole event into a NYE production. We were told to arrive several hours before if we wanted a table. So we got Mexican take out at La Fabrica de Taco, went back to the room and watched a great game.
We really wanted to try some apartment restaurants, but a few were closed or the timing never worked out.
Buenos Aires, a city of fading glory, European charm and architecture, a cultural hotspot, complete with many great traditions and a rising food trend, offering great shopping and entertainment for all.