Eyes Gently Shut

With Spring in the air, pleasant clients out and about and all good with the world, we went for an early afternoon walk. Which soon led to hunger which soon led us to Palermo Hollywood. And while heading to Chipper for fish and chips, we passed another favourite that was offering an excellently priced set menu and we sadly got diverted. And while more of this in another post (once the management has had a chance to respond to my note to them), after settling down with two excellent pisco sours, we realised that everything that didn’t come out of a bottle had gone to shit. Yes I am afraid there is no more accurate (or polite) way to describe it and please bare in mind that even your granny would say “se fue a la mierda” here.

To say we were disgruntled is an understatement. We were actually sad and angry. To lose a favourite is like a bereavement. And it also entails more work and expenditure to find a replacement recommendation for our guests. Of course it could just have been a bad day, chef absent due to death in family sort of thing but I kind of suspect it is more serious. The atmosphere had changed. It’s a restaurant based on expensive primary ingredients. Inflation at 35% is probably killing them. They may have been scrimping over the set menu but they will kill their trade like that. Their staff will soon leg it back to Peru.

So how to recover the beauty of the day? I’m not rich anymore so we can’t afford to go out wining and dining twice in a day. I summoned up the email that the Ministry of Culture sends me every Friday, telling me how to spend the following week. What ideas did they have for me? Quite a few as it seemed but I’d already seen the DUDANDOT project at the Sivori Gallery. Fun but not twice, though there is also an amazing ceramic sculpture exhibition that is worth a look.

The huge itinerant exhibition (1500 pieces/450 artists) of masters of Ibero American art (I’m not even sure what that means but it seems to be modern artenesal), has apparently just arrived in BA but is spread out over 2 museums and I’d already walked for a couple of hours. Better to leave that for another day or two or three and anyway it’s on for a few months. A couple of things didn’t start till midweek. A couple of other things seemed too complex artistically for my simple mind. Fusions of film, music, history and performance that risked simply confusing me. And then I hit on the perfect suggestion. A solo performance by the renowned Austrian violinist Édua Zádory, playing everything from Bach to some more modern Austrian/Hungarian composers topped up with some recent Argentine works. In the lovely concert hall at the Usina del Arte that only holds 250 people and is acoustically designed for un-amplified performances. It sounded simple. One woman, one violin and some music that I would be entirely ignorant of. For a grand cost of nothing to go and see, other than making the effort to drive down to La Boca. So we did.

To say it was exceptional might be a case of a MacDonalds habitue suddenly being confronted by Heston Blumental’s food. I’m really not qualified to judge. Was she an amazing violinist? It seemed so to me. She seemed to be able to move across the centuries with verve and precision but then I’ve never been to a solo violin concert before. Frankly I didn’t even know how many sounds one violin could make…many of them simultaneously! But La Doctora is a bit more educated than me. After all, free concerts in Buenos Aires are nothing new. She’s been popping into the Teatro Colon for their free afternoon offering for years and she said it was impressive and who I am I to disagree. And so while we spent the afternoon walking back from the cheap but awful meal, bemoaning the plague of inconsistency of Argentine restaurants, we then spent the drive back from La Boca elated by the fact that we could risk seeing something that we had no idea about, because the city was happy to educate us. We had a world class experience that quite frankly we probably wouldn’t have risked if it had come at world class prices.

My strongest impression? I spent most of the concert with my eyes gently shut. After all it was one woman, one violin, dim lighting. Not much to see. But I did wonder afterwards, when was the last time I was out in a public space surrounded by a couple of hundred people with my eyes shut, only really using one of my senses? Life seems to have become multi-media. What, they just listen? What do they do with their eyes? They’re going to get bored! Don’t they need something to take photos of? No, why don’t we do a wine tasting with carefully chosen electronic music that goes with each grape type? And no I’m not making that up, I got the invitation. It’s a pleasure, a relaxation, to give yourself over to one sense. I can imagine my granny with her first decent record player. Obviously you don’t stop thinking but the thoughts sort of drift over. I was obviously still thinking about food and my normal bugbear, food presentation. I was thinking about dinner blindfolded. Obviously taste is both oral and nasal but the blindfold would get you back to fundamentals. Apparently there is a place in Almagro that does this. I’m going to go. What happens to all these modern cooking techniques if you can’t see them? is a sphere or a foam diminished or intensified? More surprising or less? 

So God bless Buenos Aires. They make it pretty difficult to have a bad day here. It’s tricky not to stumble across something that inspires you if you make half an effort. Sometimes if you really want to relax you just have to opt out. “Hacer fiaca” is the official name for deliberately not doing anything. It’s perfectly acceptable as an excuse in a city where “i’m broke” doesn’t cut the ice. But hell, I’m English. I’m genetically programmed to get out of the house and do something the moment the weather is vaguely nice. I have a terror of the next 44 days when it wont be. Will I exhaust the possibilities that the city offers me? Well I’ve been here five years and it still seems fresh. I’m not a long term guy but you won’t see me budging for the next five!

I apologise for the lack of soundtrack while reading my blog. A bit of Pampa Trash would have been nice. And the visuals, pathetic, no photos, not even a cute cat! If you didn’t understand it because it wasn’t divided into a list of the “5 Unmissable Things in BA”, mea culpa. I’m not very modern. But if you want to appreciate the exhaustive and exhausting cultural and social life of BA, come and stay with us. It’s an old fashioned city with old fashioned values, even applied to the modern. Last week’s Cigar, Chocolate and Wine tasting did work. 

Not all multimedia is bad.

Another Hard Day’s Work.

Although officially it is still winter, by 8.30 it was already warm enough to enjoy a little coffee on the terrace while preparing myself mentally to cook breakfast for all 4 guests. Oranges to be squeezed, fruit salad to prepare, bakery to visit, eggs and bacon cooked to order. Of course, I only needed to do the cooked stuff (and not even that if I felt lazy) as Daniela had already dealt expertly with the rest.

Breakfast over and the sun was shining brightly, 26 degrees expected. I spent a bit of time helping my clients decipher the schedule for the Tango Festival in La Boca and explaining where else to go there (The Quinquela Martin museum) and more importantly where not to bother with (Caminito). I got rather enthused by the tango festival, a two week affair based around the world championship. Not so much the dancing, though I fancied seeing an hour or so of that but more the modern fusion concerts. I thought I had better go. After all if I can’t get excited about BA’s cultural offerings, how can I enthuse my clients? And this one offers so much choice.

So I spent a couple of hours knocking out a few emails and reading a book in the sun, before hopping in the car with La Doctora and racing through strangely blockage free streets down to La Boca to the very beautiful new Usina del Arte, a converted “Tate Modern style” power station that houses a couple of remarkable concert halls and lots of art space. I parked right outside and happily left the car on the street due to the enhanced police presence during the festival. Parking is free down there of course. We watched some of the qualifiers for the stage tango and then picked up (free) tickets to see Pampa Trash, one of the new Garage Tango bands from zona sur, as the southern outskirts of BA are known. Some of the most exciting music I have heard in a long time, brilliantly accomplished musicians, fusing tango with acid jazz, folk, be bop and rock. Difficult to describe accurately, but worth looking up on http://www.pampatrash.com.ar.

Then we wandered over for a bite to eat at El Obrero, an old fashioned bodegón. Calamaris and a generous glass of wine each. Followed by a bit more dance, another band to see, and then home in equally un-hassled fashion. A great day out at a cost of less than 10 of those Great British pounds I vaguely remember, for the both of us, including shows, petrol, lunch and cigarettes!

On the way back from the garage I picked up the shopping from our favourite fruit man, so tomorrow’s breakfast needs are accounted for. Sadly the guests are getting more strawberries as they are so good at the moment and we only serve the best, but I will throw some delicious sausages that my German friends make for me, into the breakfast mix . Now I am looking forward to my guests returning to help them plan their evening. They are keen on Jazz clubs and we have several close by but they know little about all the new and hidden cocktail bars that have been springing up recently. If I make them sound sufficiently mysterious and difficult to access, perhaps they might decide they need a native guide and of course I will be happy to oblige with a detailed tour. Any excuse!

How do I deal with the stress you ask me? What is it like to be at the hard edge of a fledgeling hospitality empire? Well sometimes I feel vaguely guilty about not having a nine to five job where I am expected to work nine till nine. There is a little echo from my conditioning about the importance of a career, about getting ahead, about making something of myself. Then I remind myself I was never really anything other than a remarkably good “communicator” (define as you will), who managed to convince many expert individuals of his own expertise, in fields that he had no qualifications in. Really that left me with few options. I could either head up a global bank or multinational company or run a little B&B in Buenos Aires. And the problem with the former is that you don’t get left with much time in the day to have fun.

Of course there is always the issue of money. Compared to my former self I have ridiculously little. But then I spend ridiculously little, doing so much more than I ever used to in London. And I have time to do it all, with plenty to spare, which if I wasn’t such a lazy bugger I would be dedicating to writing my third novel (still struggling to write the ending for my first), honing my body at the gym (I’ve lost 2 stone just because I walk around more, but got bored of the gym after 2 weeks) and learning to sing the blues (still at the training phase, 30 years of whiskey and cigarettes accomplished and the Blues School is only two blocks away). There is little I would really like to do that I can’t afford, though that may be explained by the fact that I am a peasant at heart and have also already had the opportunity to try many of the things we are meant to aspire to. My number one priority is eating well and while I like restaurants I couldn’t imagine eating in one every night. Here I have had the time to go to Chef’s school but more importantly have the time to produce increasingly more complex dishes from scratch (in my amazingly equipped kitchen), with ingredients from small local providers, that are turning out better every time. Food wise I’ve got it licked so its lucky I walk around a lot. And hell, it may even turn into a money making adjunct to my business one day if I decide to pull my finger out.

Maybe I’m too hard on myself? Maybe I’m not as lazy as I think? After all, my overriding responsibility is to make sure that my guests have a wonderful time in this city. Each time I go out to a new bar, restaurant, art space or venue, I am going out with purpose. Their experience will to some extent be conditioned by my recommendations. So my responsibility is to know what’s hot and what’s not, across the cultural spectrum. In fact it’s becoming clear to me that I am nearly always working, trying to discover a new cocktail, a peruvian fusion dish, a wine, a band, an artist or an interesting new social group that may seriously enhance the experience for my clients. Christ, I’m working a 16 hour day for less than a McDonalds employee. Shocking, what a sacrifice. I better program in a little siesta for tomorrow. After all, I don’t want to burn out. That might be macho for a banker but not for the owner of a B&B. Wake me up in time to cook dinner please.

Winter Sun and Kumquat Chutney

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Mid winter in BA and now it’s really cold, down to 2 degrees this morning. However, I’m lucky enough to own my own microclimate, my ample Andalusian terrace where if the sun is shining you have to strip off your jumper by midday regardless of the surrounding chill. And the sun has shone consistently for the last few days with a kind of alpine glory and while this has been deceiving and has led to me venturing out on the street seriously underdressed on occasions, I am still getting in a few pleasant hours of work a day basking in its rays. That is if you consider lounging with a coffee, book and cigarette to be work, which as an aspiring writer I obviously do.

I share my terrace with my plants and other than those that are simply designed to give shade and privacy during the summer, all the rest are useful by which I mean edible. Lemons, limes and kumquats, lots of herbs and a wide array of chilli plants which I nurtured from seed and which I am hoping will find conditions here conducive enough to become perennial. I have faith as even in the depths of winter the Thai ones are still producing a fresh crop every two weeks.

Given that all these plants are in their first season and some of the larger ones suffered from my amateur attempts at transplantation, I had low expectations for the yields especially from the trees. The lemons failed, producing lots of pretty flowers that didn’t set. The lime did better, though the fruit was not your UK supermarket lime. It turned out less acidic, incredibly fragrant, more orangey…nice to cook with and I have preserved the rest in a salt brine (and just fried some up with some red mullet fillets (Trilla for my Argentine friends).

The Kumquats however have gone ballistic, weighing down their spindly trunked tree with kilos of fruit. Unlike chillies they all ripen together. And while La Doctora has eaten one tree’s worth that leaves the problem of what to do with the other? I’m not the kind of guy to let them rot on the vine!

Neither do I see myself as your Martha Stewart jam-making kind of person. You read about this stuff and it all seems complicated and precise and requires buying expensive jars that cost more than the jam and there is risk of mould and bacteria and unforeseen poisoning of guests etc. I’m not yet convinced. But maybe chutney? Yes, chutney is something I miss here. Sweet, sour spicy flavours to go with cheeses or cold meats. Not part of the national food dictionary. Impossible to buy. Complicated to make?

It turns out that there is nothing simpler and that possibly there is nothing more delicious than kumquats to make it with (obviously my home grown are superior to any you can buy!). My method of cooking something new is to read 10 recipes on the internet, forget about them for an hour and then go shopping with an idea of the end flavour in mind and an eye out for what looks tasty in the greengrocer. I made an Indian spiced chutney, but you could easily go more herbal (rosemary would work in large amounts) or more christmas pudding (cinnamon, cloves, brandy?). Anyway, as much as anything as an aide memoire for myself I will give you my newly invented recipe, which according to La Doctora couldn’t have been better.

For about half a kilo of kumquats (quinotos here):

Bung 2 finely chopped red onions in your saucepan with a big thumb of finely cooked ginger and cook gently in olive oil. Then add chillis of your choice, the big green jalapenos giving a grassier flavour and some little red bird’s eye for a bit of underlying heat.

After a few minutes add mustard seeds, ground cumin, black pepper, turmeric, garam masala, (about half to a teaspoon of each) and then a teaspoon of cinnamon. Integrate, taste!! And if that seems like the base taste (given that it will become much milder by the end of the process) then add your kumquats. I only halved them as you are going to cook them hard so it’s nice to preserve a bit of shape and colour even though they will end up very soft. Then add a hundred or two grams of raisins.

Once the kumquats have softened a bit and given out their juices add two or three big spoons of sugar and at least half a cup of vinegar ( I used cheap apple vinegar and a dash of sweet chinese). Cook (slow or hard depending on how much stirring you want to do) until everything is nice and soft but the kumquats still retain texture and the liquid has evaporated. Cool, leave a day and eat!

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If this doesn’t go with a good ripe goats cheese I don’t know what does! And as every verduleria is currently selling quinotos in small sacks and they are cheap as chips you have no excuse.

Let’s join the Martha Stewart jam making set. After all she’s out of prison now. We wont need domestic goddess tats!

My mother will never believe it.

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Yes Mum, I actually spent a goodly portion of the last six weeks watching football or as it is more properly called in these parts fútbol (in case you don’t remember me I am at the back, far left, trying to look aloof). Only when Argentina played you understand, I haven’t completely lost my marbles! Well other than on those occasions when I thought it was important to watch one of the other matches with teams that had a good chance of meeting Argentina in the finals. Such as the unmissable Brazil, Germany match where all the mean thoughts popping into my mind as Brazil went 7-1 down, proved that I am assimilating well as an immigrant here. And yes I learnt the first couple of lines of our futból anthem, which had little to do with the World Cup generally and plenty to do with goading our beach loving brethren while they jumped to carnival in those garish yellow shirts. “Brazil decime que se siente…..”

“Brazil, tell me what it’s like to have your Daddy in the House….”

Catchy, and showing impeccable taste for having nicked the music from Credence Clearwater Revival rather than some tuneless modern nonsense but it did demonstrate Argentina’s rather over-developed self-confidence. We would have looked quite silly if we had gone the same way as some of the lesser nations like England, Italy or Spain who don’t really understand this fútbol thing and got knocked out before I had worked out how to use the remote control.

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I’m ashamed to admit it, I even dressed up, yes I proudly wore the celeste y blanco, our national colours. Of course I didn’t go so far as to actually purchase an Argentine football shirt but as their polo team wear the same colours, it turned out I had a number of suitable items in the closet. I did however get La Doctora to cut a very fine Argentine flag (you know the one with the smiley sun) off a no longer fit for purpose shirt and attach it to the back of my unfashionable denim jacket, thus immediately transforming it into a unique item of envy. Small kids pointed to it in the street.

Of course, the latter was also a prudent move. After all us English pretty much invented football hooliganism. I might have moved to the dark side but I didn’t want to get caught out in a grey area. Occasionally I have been mistaken for Dutch or German. With the flag on my back I was golden.

“No reconoces tu propia bandera boludo?

We live in a Catholic country which means we are more prone to superstition than a kalahari bushman. As a fan you check your “Cabala”, understanding that it is in fact entirely down to your own actions (and very little to do with how your team plays) to decide the match’s outcome. La Doctora soon pointed out that whenever I left the room for a quick cigarette break, the opposition seemed to score. Therefore I had to sit through the later matches without budging, 45 very stressful minutes each half I soon discovered (they do stop for a fag at half time) and even more painful given the minimal gap between extra time and penalties. It could have been worse, the other way round and I would have been designated Mufa (bad luck) and banished to a freezing balcony with a packet of Marlboro for the entire match.

So how did we lose the final? Was it really that I watched the first minute of the second half of extra time through the crack in the door while I finished my much needed (did I mention how stressful this fútbol is) oily rag? I suspect it was, wrong angle, difficult to keep your eye on the ball, then some pre-pubescent kid comes belting down the middle, catches the ball with his chest, hefts himself unnaturally into the air and flails a leg at the ball with alarming accuracy. And no, they hadn’t switched the TV over to some Harry Potter movie, the kid had scored! Just shows you can’t take your eye off them for a minute as my granny used to say (I was never sure whether she was talking about kids or balls). Mea Culpa as I didn’t admit to my friends.

Anyway, it was probably better this way. Obviously we won the World Cup according to the terms we had previously defined, which was simply to do better than Brazil. And had we really won it Brazil would have surely closed its borders for the next 4 years to defend itself from a plague of gloating Argentines and that wouldn’t be good for trade. I suspect I am cured from my footie passion for a similar length of time. The responsibility was just too much.

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But I did enjoy it. In fact I surprised myself. I started off pretending to have a vague interest. After all we were talking about the fate of a whole nation according to the media. It was kind of important. And then I got caught up in the atmosphere. Everyone was at it, overtly or discreetly. All ages, all classes, all economic groups. I live in a pretty upper middle class area but you didn’t see a dog being walked that wasn’t wearing a little blue and white coat. And given the entire country shut down and there was nothing you could usefully do or any opportunity to go anywhere during the matches, you might as well get together with a number of friends, open the Malbec, order in empanadas and pay some attention. It turns out its a rather skilful game. Obviously rather slower than polo, but in polo you change your horse every few minutes whereas these chaps can’t just change their legs whenever they feel a bit of fatigue. It’s also a bit more risky than I thought, mainly to your legs and head. Not quite like a tonne of horse falling on top of you at thirty miles an hour but you still have to be committed to your sliding tackle or diving header without being quite sure what you will encounter. I suspect the more you watch the more you understand, so I am going to stop now before I get hooked.

Yes I’ve enjoyed the World Cup and we played a great final. The Argentine’s capacity for celebration is impressive and it doesn’t need to be fuelled by booze. Other than the few (possibly politically encouraged) spoilers who ruined the normal (and by that I mean, something of everyone) people’s celebrations after the final, BA was a delightfully tempered place to be. But I’m still going to stick to Polo. It’s less stressful. The Argentines are the best in the world. Without realistic competition. Have been for years and look like they will remain so.

Don’t worry Mum. I still always take the easy way out.

 

 

Solid Choices

 

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The 5th Floor is quiet at the moment but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. The rational for staying at a more intimate establishment such as our own is not just the familial atmosphere but also the access to local knowledge and the planning ability of your hosts. Of course The Faena offers you an Experience Manager and most other hotels a Concierge. Undoubtedly she (at least at the former it normally is a she) will be considerably younger and decidedly prettier than myself but does she spend her spare time trawling through auction catalogues to judge the quality of the respective houses’ pre-sale exhibitions or journeying off to the new spaces and events that the Ministry of Culture has just inaugurated? I doubt it, she is probably saving herself for a good evening’s clubbing.

Does she pore over restaurant reviews, agonising about lack of consistency or a sudden change of chef? Unlikely. She probably doesn’t have the money to eat out often nor the international experience to make her recommendations relevant. If you want to pop a few pills and dance till sun-up, a Faena experience manager may be for you. She will know the Buenos Aires club scene far better than myself. If you are looking for solid food choices to fortify you for your daily cultural program, maybe not.

However providing our “Super-Concierge” service is hard graft. We can’t rely on third-party reviews and pretty photos to enhance our list of recommended restaurants. We have to get out there, literally get our snouts in the trough, ignore the perils of piling on the pounds. After all our credibility is at stake! And sometimes it is disheartening. The BA food scene is developing incredibly quickly, but is still too frequently hit and miss. Sometimes I become despondent, lock myself in the kitchen and just cook what I know I like, for maybe a week. However, having had a few good experiences recently after integrating with a voracious group of foodies on Facebook, we were once again inspired and have put in some Serious Eating, obviously “on behalf of our future clients”, sampling the (relatively) new and venturing out to check quality at a couple of the more established.

CEVICHEDoes Buenos Aires really need another Peruvian fusion restaurant? They seem to be popping up like moles on a croquet lawn. We took advantage of the fixed-menu offer during Buenos Aires Food Week to try Olaya, one of the most recent, and then returned last week to confirm initial impressions (yes we are conscientious). It seems the answer is yes, if the restaurant in question leans firmly towards its Peruvian roots. The BAFW menu was plainly Peru. We couldn’t not try the classic Ceviche with its attendant Leche de Tigre. It was probably the best I’ve had in BA. Fresh and zingy, unusually spicy for here, delicious leche, and very ample. Having been offered an amuse bouche of 3 tasty and well made Nigris we could have (should have) moved straight onto dessert (also good) but we didn’t. We deviated by way of an unnecessary and not very interesting main course. La Doctora, who spent seven years in Lima, said it was authentic. That didn’t mean I wanted to eat it.

Tiradito

But the ceviche ensured I wanted to return and so I did. I won’t bore you with the details of each dish, the moral of the story is just stick with the generously proportioned starters, sushi, ceviches and tiraditos. We tried four which were all delicious, washed down with good pisco sours (the Peruvian pisco, not the Chilean impostor) and again one much duller main course (which was by then unnecessary). These guys definitely excel at the fiddly stuff, the quirky blends of textures and flavours, the amplification of the freshness of high quality fish. If I want a stir fry I’ll lock myself back in the kitchen and do it myself but you won’t find me imitating the complexities of the plate below. After all, there is a point to going out.

TACUNIGIRI

Other than that, the place has onda, light and airy, you can see the chefs working and the service is great. Although not the bargain option, I’ll be going back. And by the way, this is an efficient market. Chira opened at the about the same time as Olaya, serving Peruvian Fusion in a too-cool looking locale, with a too expensive menu and the feeling you would be face checked on the door. A five minute walk from Olaya, we never went in. It didn’t look welcoming. Or fun. It appears to have already gone belly up. Another expensive RIP in BA’s restaurant scene.

(By way of an aside, if you’ve noticed that my food photography has dramatically improved i’ll let you into my new strategy. If you like the place and are going to write about it nicely, just ask them to send you their pro photos over. It saves all the fiddling around and looking like a bloody train spotter. You are probably an eater not an artist. Stick to what you know you can do well! Of course if you don’t like the place and are going to write nasty things, it’s obligatory to use your turn of the century blackberry to ensure the food images come out even grimier than your review.)

Also relatively new though with enough history to have overcome any teething problems, is Fukuro Noodle Bar, an altogether braver proposition. Genuine homemade Ramen noodle soup that you eat sitting at a bar. Possibly the smallest menu in the world, 5 items including pudding and not a table in sight. Do they really think this is going to work in BA? They insist it will and it appears they are right though it took me several cups of their very acceptable warm sake to get over the shock. I think it works. Both the dumplings and the steamed buns (the sum total of the starters on offer) are excellent. The sort of thing you could eat all day, given an endless supply of sake. The two soups (porky or veggie) high quality and brightly flavoured, the former possibly lacking a bit of gelatinous depth (I had the suspicion it was a tad too healthy tasting). Good noodles and add-ins. Not designed for a romantic night out but for a more rapid meal, definitely a solid and more unusual choice. And they do have hot sauce to liven up the broth.

The two restaurants above fall into the category of stuff I like to eat but don’t know how to make. I can’t see myself mucking around with the technicalities of sushi, the preparation of the myriad of ingredients that need to be ready and added in precise quantities to add to the flavour blend or indeed being confident in accessing the best quality of fresh fish. And while I suspect I could make a more than acceptable porky soup (maybe I’ll take my own next time, strong deep and gelatinous, and pay corkage?), I have no desire to dedicate myself to the intricacies of noodle making.

The next two fall into the category of stuff I like to eat that is time consuming enough and susceptible enough to the chef’s personal touch that I thoroughly appreciate someone else making it (and sourcing the ingredients) and gladly pay for the convenience of being presented with a menu on which there are lots of things that appeal which I can eat immediately.

Social Paraiso, from outside looks like the kind of restaurant I would set up if I ever decided to take the plunge. Smart enough to know you are in a restaurant, unpretentious enough to feel relaxed and not worry about how you are dressed. One assumes, correctly, that this is about food and not fanfare. Its menu seems to rotate with adequate frequency and seasonality and always has a variety of options I want to try. And this I knew just from walking past. Until a few of days ago I had never been in, for some reason whenever it occurred to me to go I could never remember where it was, got distracted, remembered somewhere else I wanted to experience and filed it into the “another day” category. So I’m glad I finally went.

It’s a restaurant that I don’t want to damn by faint praise. It’s solid, not flashy. The dishes taste pretty much as you hope they will. There’s a decent amount of variety on offer for such a small place. I enjoyed everything I had. While it doesn’t concern itself (and rightly so) with cutting edge techniques, it ensures the right variety of flavours on your plate. Top quality bistro food sums it up. And at Bistro prices, the bill was less pretentious than the place and the wine list a study in being reasonable and offering variety and value. I could cook some of their dishes better than them, some of them worse. It’s probably the restaurant I would end up having if I dared. A proper bistro, reasonably priced. There aren’t many competing for this title in BA so the owners should be proud. I’ll be going back.

Cafe San Juan. Finally, I have to admit it. Despite the fact that we live in politically correct, socially aware, anything goes times, I’m prejudiced. I’m eager to dislike television star, skater-boy, heavily tattooed chefs, who have risen to glory on the strength of their success in one minuscule restaurant where mummy and daddy run the front of house and back office. The “we’re a big family, cuddling spiky haired staff saved from a life a drug addiction” publicity back story, leaves me a bit cold. Plus seen from outside, the restaurant is tiny, packed, and they can’t employ a fat waitress as she wouldn’t fit between the tables. I have long skinny legs and I could hardly squeeze to the bathroom. And it didn’t look cheap! Which is probably why, though I’ve known about it for years, I never bothered going. I knew it would disappoint.

May I publicly apologise to said Chef, Leandro Cristóbal for my narrow minded discriminatory assumptions. If he would accept it, I would happily bestow on him the first winner of “The 5th Floor Ugly Food” restaurant awards. The few that follow my blog understand that Ugly Food is a good thing. The triumph of flavour over presentation; Food you eat with your nose first, not your eyes; Peasant sensibilities over bourgeois bling; Simmer in a casserole over boil in a (sous vide) bag; Don’t be afraid of a brown sauce, flavour is often brown! Those that don’t follow my blog may now have some idea of my kind of food.

So finally I went. Already in ebullient mood from a visit to the recently restored and seriously enhanced Quinquela Martin museum in La Boca (possibly the best collection of figurative Argentine paintings in the city), I was ready to try another classic. First myth to dismiss. San Juan isn’t expensive. You have to divide the prices in half because all the dishes are large enough for two. Second, the “too cool for school” staff are actually very pleasant and efficient (given the place is packed on a Sunday lunchtime), interested and knowledgeable and prevented us making the fatal error of ordering two main courses. My only criticism is that if they had stopped us ordering two starters we could have made it to dessert! And the wine list includes 5 of my favourite lunchtime tipple, Pinot Noir, ranging from reasonable to pricey.

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There is a selection of Montaditos, tapas mounted on toasty bread. Given the quality of the bread basket and the sheer size of these tapas I felt more bread was unnecessary. However, the couple next to us, looking for a quick bite, shared one tortilla española with big, thick slices of marinated escabeche style aubergine on top (see pic above) and left happy. And for 45 pesos they should have been! We mistakenly had the same, La Doctora’s order, probably fine if you are sticking to the tapas proposition but it didn’t really fit my theory. And I felt the escabeche dominated the omelette and while that might have been smoothed out by the toasty bread I didn’t want to eat more of the bread. But did I mention the excellent bread basket and quality olives arrive FOR NO COVER CHARGE (very unusual in BA), and anyway I had ordered two dishes that I cook a lot myself so wanted to compare.

Rabo de Toro (oxtail, pic above), followed by rabbit. Two dishes that are easy to get right if you pay a lot of attention and even easier to get wrong. In the first the sauce can come out weedy or greasy, or stick and burn. In the second there is always the balance between extracting flavour and tenderness while tee-toeing round the risk of drying out the bunny. Both were perfect, though very different from my own, natural sauces rather than wine enhanced.

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The rabo came au natural, but was at least half a tail. Accompanied by oil-dipped and toasted olive bread (yes I told you you should previously avoid the bread based tapas). Frankly, by itself, the lunch of kings! A generous amount of sauce that could have exhausted your bread basket. At 90 pesos a “light” lunch for two. The rabbit was spot on. Plenty of lovely sauce flavoured with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, crunchy triangles of polenta with ham and herbs (and texture). We made a supreme effort, swigged valiantly at a very tasty (Alberto Roca?) Pinot Noir, and finished it all. But then we were stuffed which was a pity, as the desserts going past looked tempting and ample but we couldn’t stretch further.

We wandered down to Coffee Town in the San Telmo covered market for caffeine recovery.

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I have to say it makes me happy to come across a celebrity chef who isn’t a fraud. It seems he promotes the same stuff he cooks. Big flavours that won’t bore you. Presentation wise, well it looks like a nice bowl of food, nothing wrong with that. So while Social Paraiso is damn solid and much more convenient finally the two are equally priced. As long as La Doctora promises to stay sober and drive the car (pobrecita) I’ll be going to San Juan but if she wants a couple of cocktails, I have no problem with SP.

Looks like I’m spoiled for choice now, something I couldn’t have said a few years ago. And as both work out around USD 50 for two, including wine, I only need a few more clients to ensure my happy lifestyle.

Cheers and keeping coming chaps, you get the super-concierge service and I remain well fed and content!

Olaya, Humboldt 1550, Palermo Hollywood, 4843 1751

Fukuro Noodle Bar, Costa Rica 5514, Palermo Hollywood, 15 3290 0912

Social Paraiso,  Honduras 5182, Palermo Soho, 4831 4556

Cafe San Juan, Av San Juan 450, San Telmo, 4300 1112

 

Boiling Bunnies, business ideas, and a homage to Jeanette Winterson

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As Jeanette pointed out and many of my new friends would agree, given they are a diverse bunch, Oranges are not the only Fruit. Nor is “Carne” despite its Argentine definition (“Beef”) the only meat. However Jeanette made the error of thinking there might actually be some value to participating in Twitter, and having participated with an enthusiastic description of murdering, skinning, jointing, cooking and eating the cuddly bunny that was decimating her vegetable garden, she was apparently surprised that the Islington literati considered this a crime against humanity. Obviously they took Watership Down literally and rallied in Lloyd Webber loving groups to demand her immediate crucifixion, all within the confines of typing very few characters. Luckily I am twitter free, uncontaminated by people who really believe that any form of intelligent expression other than a haiku, can be composed in twenty words while perched on the can.

Anyway, it’s easy to get a little bored of the variety of meat on offer at most butchers here. Other than Carne they generally stock a couple of cuts of pork (what the hell happens to the rest of these noble beasts?) and the Granjas (chicken guys) stock Chicken. The rest you have to order specially. However I just found that one of the 3 small butchers in the (half derelict) covered market on Salguero (between Guemes and Charcas) normally has interesting stuff. Last Saturday, along with a load of fresh and prepared partridges on display, there was a little cardboard notice claiming he had rabbits.

I love bunnies so I thought I would give it a go. Though frozen, (they come fresh but he freezes them after a couple of days if they have not sold), it was a decent sized beast and thankfully already skinned as I suspect my previous expertise in this department may have expired. Easy enough to joint up, if you have a decent knife, lopping off the legs and dividing the loin into two is kind of logical (after a youtube refresher video on the subject). And a jolly juicy rabbit it was too. Cooked simply with a rub of mustard in a white wine sauce it didn’t even dry out when I reheated the remainder the next day. It comes with all its bits so I sauteed the rabbit liver (picture above) with a bit of sweet vinegar as a starter. Even La Doctora who is concerningly un-carnivorous for an Argy loved both dishes. The other bits are perfect for enhancing your luxurious rabbit stock!

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It’s a bit strange this market. In prime Alto Palermo it’s three quarters empty yet it has three small old style butchers, two of which I have sampled and it is clear they know their stuff and depend on a long established and older clientele. The Carne/Beef guy (first on the right as you come in) provides some of the best produce I have eaten. Mr rabbit appears to have great partridges. There’s a fish guy, an old guy that sells a very limited range of normally perfect fruit, a flower/plant person, and not much else. I think I feel a business plan coming on! I don’t know what complications the owner has, what the lease terms are etc. etc. but I get the feeling I should get involved. No, I’m not thinking of Organic, or Vegetarian, and definitely not Vegan. But what a wonderful place for quality producers to start a vibrant market selling their wares. After all, the ambulant weekly Buenos Aires Market is now so packed that you can hardly get near the stalls but they are screwed if it rains.

So, provedores, if I can negotiate decent terms will you join me? Foodies, would you drag yourself to the easiest place in Palermo (and perhaps in the city) to get to by public transport? Come on you Macri people (I know a few of the city government are my FB friends) will you support this initiative? Give the owner a break on his ABL or something??

Come on Buena Morfa Social Club. You need to get behind this with all your contacts and skills. You understand my philosophy in all its simplicity. It’s a rude truth that we have to eat to live, for most of us several times a day. There are not many other things that are obligatory with such frequency. Therefore the pleasure that can be provided by a small increment in the quality of the daily experience, the continued sociability of a good meal, variety, surprise, value, nutrition, added up is worth more than most diversions.

A centre for all our trusted providers in the heart of Palermo?

You know it makes sense!

 

Tarquino. The best restaurant in Buenos Aires?

Last Tuesday was my birthday. I decided to splash out. A nice meal for 2 at what I had been assured was the best restaurant in Buenos Aires. This of course made me very nervous. Not about the money you understand. No, about the potential for disappointment. If you follow my blog you will be aware that my dalliance with “top end” cuisine in BA has hardly been a resounding success and given the self perceived anonymity of my early blogging I didn’t hold back with castigations. Now I am a little more involved in the food scene and a little more public and a lot more determined to remain in this fair city, I wonder whether I could go back to say Paraje Arevalo (they might just have had a bad night) or Hernan Gippioni (it could of been a one-off aberration to try and deconstruct a Favaba Asturiana), without them deciding to poison the weasel Englishman?

My nerves were further compounded by the fact that I have recently become the only English integrant of a group of fine fellows ( the Buena Morfa Social Club) who appear to dedicate an unusual amount of time to thinking about what they are next going to eat, eating it, and then reviewing it in some detail or to be honest in fanatic detail or occasionally irritating detail if you have forgotten to turn off Facebook notifications to your mobile phone. But through this group I have already discovered someone who really does provide French country cooking, another who makes world class chocolates and another who makes Osso Bucco empanadas. Not bad for a few weeks membership.

The problem with this group though is it comprises not only foodie enthusiasts but also a lot of chefs, caterers, ingredient and wine providers and restaurant owners. And judging from one owner’s feedback when a number of integrants criticised his reasonably famous steak restaurant, a little negativity could lead to a full blown drama. Albeit, to give the owner his due, the comments were taken very seriously and his staff were clearly called to account on that particular matter.

So this BMSC had unequivocally recommended Tarquino and guess what, head chef Dante Liporace is an active member of the group. Plenty of room for my little birthday dinner to lead to offence then! When I posted on their Facebook site that I was going the Chef liked my comment. Obviously he had never read my blog! It worked out well though as the Buenamorfenses get a special deal but only for very few of them per night. They were already over their quota but as it was my birthday Tarquino kindly extended the same terms to La Doctora and I. And what a deal it was! I didn’t spend a third of the cash I had stuffed my pockets with, determined not to deprive myself of anything on my birthday night. Which is excellent because it means I can use the residual to go back again, which I assuredly will.

So why do I worry about going to smart places here? Because gastronomy generally reminds me of London 20 years ago, where you ate pretty badly in most places, most of the time. Worse however is the fact that the chefs are frighteningly technically competent. Amazing presentation, spheres and foams, orbs and gels, sous vide and flash chilled…but half of them have never spent enough time eating in decent restaurants to understand that the more complicated the technique, the more you have to ramp up the flavour.

Well this Dante guy actually does. He genuinely understands flavours. His dishes leave you with an aftertaste in the same way a good wine should. And to be fair, while he uses a fair amount of molecular gastronomy techniques, a lot of what he ends up serving could be described as modernised classical. And we didn’t have one dish that could have been described as bland.

Neither did he make the common mistake here, of serving us a sub standard offering because we were paying a sub normal price. In fact I was surprised by the generosity of the portions and the unexpected fact that a very decent cabernet was included in the price.

I didn’t take a camera because I don’t care how food looks. I for one don’t eat with my eyes. Nothing is more misleading in the world of molecular gastronomy or perhaps anything to do with food, than photos. It was all pretty enough though, one desert verging on spectacular, presentation wise. More importantly, the flavours were clear and subtly amplified.

Our menu had 2 choices per course which made life easy. We had one of each. I still can’t tell you which I preferred but they were big enough to share without remorse.

Playful, is a new foodie word that can mean anything from the chef is a moron who should have been a conceptual artist of the type that you have to read an essay to understand each work, to he scattered a few petals over the top and called it “Spring”. Dante is playful in his starters although we were already predisposed to like him due to a fine bread basket served with an intense garlic puree dip. He deconstructed a classic cheesy porteño pizza and served it in a glass as a warm foamy mouse. It worked, much better than the original. The other starter was a “playful” take on Duck a l’orange. Tender and well seasoned (though surely sous vide) duck, a totally classic and not too sweet sauce, and a playful orange budin (sponge cake) served as a semi kind of foam. Damn good.

Main course wise we had beef cheek and Surubi, a meaty river fish. Both excellent. Well sauced, well accompanied. Proper flavours.

And then a twist on traditional argentine puddings for dessert. My only criticism of the meal, my orangey spheres were not as intense as the olive spheres served previously with the bread and therefore a bit pointless.

Obviously it was my birthday and as it didn’t seem we were spending enough (the menu was about £16 per head including wine) it was time to speak to the sommelier. A couple of late harvest sweeties to go with the very fine illy coffee. They had 2 by the glass. We had both. Both excellent.

All in all, nothing not to like. We had the last table, so were sat by the swing doors to the kitchen, but that didn’t bother me. The waitress was excellent, professional and attentive without being condescending (another trait in self professed fine dining establishments that I find intensely irritating). I have to mention that in terms of apron design, the waitresses wear a kind of sexy haute couture version. Looks great on them, wouldn’t look so great on me, but definitely enhanced my enjoyment.

Coffee came with macaroons…perfect.

Yes, this probably is the best restaurant in Buenos Aires. Don’t worry about the fancy techniques, they actually add to the flavour for once. The guy is a peasant at heart (and having spent many of my best eating years in the South of France there is no greater compliment) but with an impressive technical ability. You won’t leave confused or short changed!

How he is only ranked 1,600 out of 2,308 restaurants in BA on Tripadvisor defies imagination. Maybe he needs me to do his PR? After all, if I believe in something I can normally make it happen.

And I believe in this. Proper eating in Buenos Aires! The scene is changing. Tarquino will be the first of many. In 5 years, BA will count as one of the foodie capitals of the world. New things are springing up every day. Who can deny that from grey overcooked “British” food, London now serves some of the most vibrant offerings to be found in a capital city. So given that BA is a city of immigrants, there are plenty of roots to go back to.

Get yourself out there, albeit with a healthy sense of criticism and support it. Life is definitely getting better.