Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dining In Buenos Aires

Note: I wrote this restaurant review for a potential job as a food critic. Since I just wrote about the Mongolian Barbeque the other day (and I'm in a lampworking class all weekend), this post is a bit of a copout but I hope you enjoy it anyway!

After a few meals out in Buenos Aires, it becomes apparent that, succulent Argentine beef aside, all restaurants are the same. I find the food is adequate, even tasty, but it’s mundane and forgettable. From corner café to grand parilla, the menus are as predictable as the sunrise.

In every dining establishment, I find the obligatory steak, fantastic hamburgers, the egg dish, the fish dish and always, the Argentine version of French fries. It is as if by trying to please everyone, they fail to please anyone. Those humdrum pappas fritas are a good example. They are perfectly fried golden potatoes with dressed up with garlic and parsley – it really makes you homesick for just plain old French fries. And while salt is readily available, don’t dare make the mistake of asking for pepper – a mistake I’ve made in far too many restaurants.

No matter what type of establishment I’m in, the scene is always the same: The waiter will stare at me, dumbstruck and then utters in a high pitched voice, “Pimenta?” Wearing disgust on his face, he marches off to the kitchen, informing everyone along the way that some American idiot wants to ruin her food with pimenta. He eventually returns with pepper- the fries are now cold – and gathers the other waiters around to watch how this strange ingredient is used. Pack your own pepper; it’ll save lots of embarrassment.

The other phrase to be aware of is “con jamòn” or with ham. Everything comes with ham. No kidding. Apparently, this is where the ham in hamburger originated. Order a steak, it comes with ham. Melon? Yep. Ham. If you don’t love ham, learn this phrase and utter it every time you order: sin (seen) jamòn (without ham).

While thousands visit Buenos Aires every year and seem perfectly happy to partake of gastronomic predictability, to find an interesting meal – with or without ham- throw away the tour book and talk to some locals. If your Spanish is rusty, try British tourists as they seem to have better guidebooks.

It was a Brit that led me to Brocolino’s, clearly the best Italian restaurant in Argentina – and probably even the world. It’s that good. It is a noisy, family joint down a dark street. It’s easy to hurry past Esmerelda, as it intersects with the busy Florida shopping district. It seems like a good place to get mugged. Yet, there’s always people, huddling in the dark, headed somewhere…Brocolino’s.

It’s a really ugly restaurant. Most Argentine buildings are brown or tan and it’s shocking to walk into the most hideous bright green room off the darkened street. But the waiter’s greet you in Spanish and make you feel like an old friend. If you’re not sure what to order, they just start bringing you food.

The pasta is perfect al dente; the sauce robust with lots of garlic. Angel hair with garlic and oil (Aglio e olio) is a stinking rose lover’s delight. Be prepared to smell garlic coming out of your pores for at least 24 hours. By then, you’ll be craving more.

El Teatro should be on every tourist list – it’s located right next to the world famous Teatro Colòn opera house, a popular destination. Yet the large parilla is filled with animated and loud locals. Ah, but this grill is different. Because of the locality to the opera, El Teatro doesn’t feel like the average barbeque place. The patrons are nicely dressed and the décor is rich with green plants and lots of velvet. I was extra lucky on my visit as I was traveling with well-known actors. We were seated in the lush balcony overlooking the main dining area.

The menu has the usual assortment of grilled meats but there is lighter fare here. The salad is made from variety of greens instead of the usual hunk of iceberg. The house dressing is rich with tarragon. The grilled chicken has been marinated in a salt bath and then buttermilk before grilling. El Teatro also serves a dish that is more common at home barbeques: provoleta. A nice sized chunk of provolone, dipped in oil and herbs, grilled until the inside melts and the outside is crispy, is brought on a steaming plate with a basket of soft bread. I am certain this dish caused me to gain at least ten pounds during my extended stay, and worth every ounce.

For Sunday morning breakfast, try the Florida Café. Omelets abound at every restaurant, but the Florida makes pancakes. While they are not fluffy – more likely close cousins with a crepe –they are a wonderful remedy for the homesick. Having been in B’aires for weeks and missing my Sunday ritual of pancakes, this was a welcome find. Syrup is not to be found but the panqueques are served with a thinned dulce de leche. “Milk jam” is made from sugar and milk, cooked to a milk chocolate brown and appears in almost every sweet Argentinean dish, usually in a thick and chewy mass. At Florida, the thin caramel is a refreshing accompaniment to breakfast fare, served on toast and muffins as well as pancakes.

It is at the Florida where I notice another commonality with all Argentinean restaurants: a waiter will never pour cold milk into coffee. It must be scalding hot before being decanted from three feet above the table into a coffee cup.

In the quest for unusual fare in B’Aires led me to several Chinese restaurants, only to be disappointed with the greasy, over-cooked food. Then we heard of Mongolian Barbeque. The cab dropped us off on a wet winter eve in front of what looked like a house in a non-commercial neighborhood. Our ride was out of sight as our group discovered the door was locked. Realizing we were a good two miles off any major thoroughfare and possible taxi stand, we bundled up for a long walk in the rain. We didn’t make it very far when we heard a woman call to us in Spanish with Chinese accent.

She let us in and explained in English that 5:30 p.m. is very early for dinner in Argentina. She sat us at a fireside table and brought a fine red wine from the San Juan region while we waited for the cooks to finish setting up. There was a cold bar of meat: beef, pork, chicken and shrimp, as well as an assortment of vegetables and sauces. Simply fill a bowl, hand it to the cook and a waiter brings it to the table. The chicken was moist and tender, the vegetables crisp and perfect. By 9 p.m. the tiny restaurant was filled with the laughter of neighborhood locals and our gracious hostess called us a cab. If trying Mongolian Barbeque, plan on dining late and knock on the window if the door is locked.

If you are willing to travel a little for a great meal, Gato–Blanco (White Cat) is a destination dining experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend suggested we go to a restaurant that required traveling by boat. Located a couple hours from downtown Buenos Aires by both bus and boat, this restaurant, in Tigre, is on an island on the Rio Capitán, one of the many rivers and inlets off the Rio Paraña.

Gato-Blanco reminds me of one of the many restaurants my family used to visit by boat on lazy Sunday afternoons in the Louisiana bayous, band blaring and smells of something good coming from the kitchen. Sure, you could get there by car, but why would you want to?

The trip to Gato-Blanco is the beginning of a fun, relaxing day. The boat hums through the wide river delta and gives an up-close view of how the elite of South America live. I really loved looking at the breathtaking houses with expansive lawns that butt up to the river. Every house has a “boat elevator” that lifts a boat high into the air so that another may dock beneath it.

The restaurant also has a large dock and lawn chairs right on the river. There are interior and exterior dining areas as well as a bar and tea room. The front yard is a large, park-like garden with playground equipment for the kids. And yes, there is a white cat hiding in the foliage.

The food is filling and needed after the boat ride. Grilled shrimp with garlic is a house specialty as is a flat fish served with lemon and champagne. Red meat lovers will go for the sirloin stuffed with mushrooms, ham, cheese, potatoes and cream.

After dining on such rich food, a walk along the riverbank is needed. Or hang near the band; strangers will ask you to dance. By late afternoon, it is time to board the boat back to the bus depot. The chill coming off the water on a June winter night makes it possible to sit in the waning sun while wearing my thick coat. The warm sun, the great meal digesting and the gentle rocking of the boat make it impossible for me to stay awake. A long nap ends a terrific day and I’m ready for the more populated destinations in Buenos Aires.

Brocolino’s

Esmerlda 776

Buenos Aires (Florida District)

Inexpensive

El Teatro

Toscanini 1288

Buenos Aires (Recoleta District)

Moderate

Café Florida

Cordoba 399

Buenos Aires (Florida District)

Inexpensive

Mongolian Barbeque

Avenida Las Heras 3357

Buenos Aires (Palermo District)

Moderate

Gato-Blanco

Río Capitán nº 80 Delta del Paraná CP (1648)
Tigre - Buenos AiresArgentina

Moderate


4 comments:

donnaconklin said...

oH how I wish I could eat food that sounds as delish as what you describe... but my poor sensitive tummy would have no part of it. Of that I am sure!

CreekHiker said...

Donna, Actually the fare there is pretty bland. Lots of bread, cheese and the purest beef on the planet! It's really simple and fresh.

I swear I've been a grump all day today because I miss a certain fur-baby!

Anonymous said...

Are you living in Buenos Aires?? We just arrive two months ago & I'm looking for fellow lampworkers down here!

mini at easy dot com

PS, I'm with you on the bland food thing! ;)

CreekHiker said...

Mini, So sorry but I haven't been in B'aires in well over a decade. I used this old piece I wrote for a job interview as "filler" while I was too sick to blog!

Good luck to you.