I’ve waited a few days to write this review, hoping a sense of balance or at least forgiveness might return. I’ve already bored my girlfriend with plain anger, biting sarcasm or what I consider bitter humour but she probably just considers bitter. Why do I take it so personally? Why do I feel I’ve been defrauded? Yes, it was an expensive evening. But two fifths of the cost was reasonably expensive wine, so hardly the restaurant’s fault. Perhaps it is my age. I thoroughly resent it when someone steals three hours of my precious remaining time, to subject me to an unpleasant ordeal. I moved to Buenos Aires to escape tedium. This restaurant managed to inflict it upon me.
The evening started so well. Cocktails and Osso Bucco Empanadas at the Fierro Hotel. Well made drinks and delicious tapas, even if this newcomer dish may have been stolen from my blog (I know they follow it). If it was, they had improved it. Miniaturised the empanadas, stuffed them really full, and then fried them. Excellent. Crisp, light, tasty and juicy. I should have just stayed and eaten a dozen of them!!!
Then we went to the Livian Guest House, drank a couple of glasses of champagne in their garden while listening to a good singer/guitarist before cramming into their living room to watch a show by a magician/mentalist type chap. I hate magicians. This one was a mentalist. He picked up on my negative body language immediately and recruited me as his assistant. And OK, he was brilliant. So good in fact that, despite the fact I was starving and very much looking forward to the tasting menu at Paraje Arevalo, I rather resented leaving 10 minutes before the end of his show to catch our reservation.
But I went with enthusiasm and the expectation (I’d read a lot of reviews, several by people whose opinions I respect, and the chef apparently worked at the Fat Duck) that I was going to eat an adult, sophisticated, intensely flavoured meal, possibly with some challenging dishes. In fact I’ve been meaning to go to Paraje Arevalo for some months, so missing the opportunity to see said magician get it wrong and pierce his hand on one of the hidden spikes he uses and has his audiences shuffle, was a small sacrifice.
Except it wasn’t.
El Bulli, Noma, The Fat Duck, Molecular Gastronomy, etc. etc. etc.!!! Liberally dispersed in marketing material of whichever hip new restaurant, but what does it all mean? Well I’ve eaten at Heston’s restaurant and was the proud owner of his cookbook. It weighs more than the Bible, Koran, Torah, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead put together and only covers about 10 recipes. And its focus has nothing to do with molecular gastronomy, if by that you mean weird scientific practices for nebulising, quick-freezing, sous-viding and all of the rest of the apparently indispensable armoury of equipment and techniques of the “modern” chef. No, the reason his recipes take a minimum of three-bloody-days to cook is that they all start with classic (though sometimes enhanced) methods of concentrating flavours. All of them. In often very non technical and highly labour intensive manners. A mere mortal like me may look at some of them and say, really? Will anyone notice? I mean, if I haven’t slept for 48 hours to get this perfect stock ready to cook with, I want my friends to be such gourmets that they really care. Heston presumes they will.
So if you eat at Heston’s restaurant you may love some of the dishes, you may hate some of the dishes or you may be able to appreciate why something is interesting despite not being remotely to your tastes. What you will not think is “bugger, this is bland”. You won’t sit there thinking, this guy is wasting my time. You will never say, hmm, where is the discernible flavour? Because, like it or hate it, Heston specialises in concentrating all the discernible flavours into something that you can’t ignore. Only then does he move onto (for me the entirely optional step) of an eccentrically, science laboratory assisted, presentation.
You may notice there are no photos in this review? Why? Because with food I’m beginning to think there is nothing more misleading. A picture may speak a thousand words, but they may all be lies. You can’t photograph an aroma, a flavour, a foretaste or aftertaste. We all wander around now clicking our food, thereby impressing upon chefs that appearance is 90% of the battle. We are forcing them towards the flim-flam of presentation rather than the coalface of traditional technique. At cooking school recently my teacher explained that he spent a lot of time with books of Salvador Dali to improve his plating art. Fantastic, if he’s already got the flavours going on. Otherwise I’d prefer to be served by a big Italian mama with the plating technique of Jackson Pollock.
I love tasting menus. A friend of mine recently raved about the pillow menu in the last hotel he stayed at. The height of luxury he thought. I can’t think of anything worse. There are enough decisions to take in life, why do I even need to think about pillows? Just give me a good one or leave a variety on the bed. A tasting menu is perfect for me. Give me eight dishes that you are confident say something. I’m happy if four are good. I don’t even mind if one is disgusting, Heston’s snail porridge for instance (even though I love snails), or his horrible egg and bacon ice cream. The latter actually made me feel slightly nauseous but at least it didn’t bore me. I’m happy to give up free choice if I am confident that “el commandante” knows what he is doing.
Sadly, I know I have to get down to specifics. Eight tedious courses of specifics. I’ll be brief. If you are going to serve retro potato chips (crisps in English) please dry them on a bit of kitchen towel first rather than letting the oil run into the bottom of the serving receptacle. Put salt on the witty fresh popcorn.
Raw (and probably pre-frozen) scallops don’t taste of much here unless marinated. Cauliflower crème didn’t do anything to enhance. If I hadn’t been wearing my glasses the dish would have been invisible, slivers and smears of white against a white plate.
Then a tasty, mushroomy, pancake was ruined by an incomprehensible sugary candy-floss topping.
The sous-vide poached egg, then bread-crumbed and deep fried, was fine, but an egg without salt?
Something else??? Certainly there wasn’t a crunchy mouth cleansing salad!
Sadly, the famous Palermo restaurant hijackers did not come through the door at this point, relieve us of all our money and put us out of our misery.
Then steak. An original choice in Argentina? Sous vide, purple rare. Actually very well seasoned. Perfect for me, horrible for a couple of my companions. As you were not asked how you liked your steak cooked, they were thoroughly put off by the purple meat and the bloody juices seeping into the mashed potato. Good for me, I was starving still, so ate theirs. Strangely though, I have yet to meet an Argentinian who would contemplate eating meat this rare.
A couple of puddings, something on a big Chinese spoon, no idea what it was. Then a chocolate desert. Not only the epitome of bland but surrounded by a white sauce that they didn’t have enough of. So they served the last person at our table with the same but instead of the flavourless white crème, they dragged some yogurt out of the back of the fridge and told us it was the same. It wasn’t but sadly it wasn’t better. The waiter refused to admit it wasn’t the same. The cook didn’t dare come out of the kitchen to answer the accusation. However, as it actually tasted of something (old yogurt) it was undeniable.
I seem to have forgotten a couple of courses, but I remember that they cannot have been memorable. Or maybe the greasy crisps were a course? Was the bread basket the other? Who knows or cares? Halfway through the meal we’d all lost the will to live or at least remain sober, hence the size of the bill. Swigging had become a necessity.
It still confuses me how the reality of this restaurant diverged from my well-researched expectations. Perhaps the chef owners had been called away by a sudden death in the family? Maybe they were running low on ingredients? Maybe their food is designed with the photographer in mind, not the diner? Certainly it was not a patch on Las Pizarras (Thames 2296), which produces classic, big-flavoured dishes with simple presentation. I should go back and give it another go. Anyone can have a bad night. But then again maybe the owner will read this review. Better not to risk it!
Paraje Arevalo, Arevalo 1502, ( tel: 4775-7759) in case for some obscure reason you are still interested in going.