Cocina Sunae – Getting it Right!

I had to go out for dinner on Thursday night.  We had a party to go to and here in BA no one goes to a party before midnight. The hours are complicated for an Englishman. I could have cooked at home of course, but home has comfy, after dinner armchairs and I imagined my motivation to attend festivities evaporating over a sip of whisky and a good book. Once I’m in, that’s where I tend to remain, but if I’m out, I’m out. I don’t want to turn into one of these whinging expats, perpetually moaning that the locals ought to learn to adhere to my more “civilised” timeframes. “How do they work the next day?” you hear. “That’s why the service is terrible,” is a common refrain. So no, I have determined to be as porteño as a porteño, perhaps a little bit more so. A little bit sleep deprived, a little bit hung-over, just enough to stand dreamily in a queue having vague thoughts and not noticing that something that takes 5 minutes in the UK takes 10 to 15 here. After all my time isn’t that important, I’m not a banker anymore. It’s a bit like a conversion to Buddhism, without having to spend a lot of time holding your breath.

The difficulty was where to dine. I hardly ever eat at a parilla anymore. My butcher is the maestro of meat, the capo of “cortes”, his ojos de bife or cuadril are “de la re puta madre” (a good thing I assure you). I adhere to the blazing hot pan, flip every 20 seconds, and then let rest for 10 minutes school of steak chefs. I can’t think of anywhere that betters my home cooked bifes. There are a couple of places that I like to eat pizza and one for hamburgers along with my new favourite for fish and chips, but this is quick food. I needed to be out the door at nine and happily occupied until eleven thirty. A menu of several courses was required. And herein lay the problem; my recent smart restaurant, multi course, tasting extravaganzas have been dismal.

I consulted La Doctora, as the girlfriend hates to be called. Confusingly both medics and lawyers are called doctor here. Just be careful whom you wave diseased body parts at when attending social events. “Why don’t we go to Cocina Sunae?” she replied. “You are always happy there.”

Obviously she was right. I’ve been to Cocina Sunae a number of times. The weekly menu is published on Facebook and when it tickles my fancy I sometimes make the trek. It’s not actually far from Villa Crespo where I live but for a Palermoite, Colegiales feels like a different world. Where are all the bars, the restaurants, the clubs, the lights? This is somewhere where people live, not where they go out. Do I need spear-carriers or Sherpa guides?

Of course, this is the point. Cocina Sunae is a “puerta cerrada”. A closed door, fixed menu, reservation only restaurant, which operates three nights a week from someone’s home. And that someone is Sunae (also known as Christina) and this is her cooking, just as it says on the label. I would suggest to my limited band of followers, that this is possibly the only place to go in BA for Thai/Vietnamese/Indonesian / Philippino influenced food, that won’t leave you scratching your head, wondering what connection the dish you just ate had to do with anywhere in Asia.

Luckily La Doctora doesn’t drink much and has a car that you would have to pay someone to steal, so it only took ten minutes to get there (they actually have security outside so you can park a more desirable automobile without risk). It being a beautiful evening and my eagerness to get out of the house meaning we arrived earlier than our friends, we enjoyed a nice pinot noir on their pretty terrace while we waited.

Then onto the food. No smoke and mirrors, no pretentious presentation, no dry ice. Just nicely plated, solidly constructed dishes, that appear as you expect from their menu description; presented by a properly trained waitress who explains the dish and how to eat it in case you are unfamiliar with this kind of food, which due to its scarcity here many Argentines probably are.

Nice and simple and correct. Excellent crispy Vietnamese spring rolls to start with, to wrap in a lettuce leaf with some sprigs of mint and coriander, and dip in the appropriate sauce or in the home made chilli sauce (there is a secret patio upstairs with a veritable chilli farm soaking up the sun).

Followed by a tasty Thai prawn and grapefruit salad with a citric dressing.

While there is a choice of two, we all chose the same main course. A classic Indonesian Redang. Slow cooked beef with everything, by which I mean all the classic herbs and spices that meld into the coconut milk. Robust, fresh, lingering flavours redolent of the best of home cooking. Did I have a complaint? Well of course I did. It came with a generous portion of steamed rice but not enough sauce, so we asked for more. It duly arrived, we all soaked our rice, we all ate all our rice and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then arrived at the conclusion we were too full to eat a dessert, so I can’t comment on the last course. Rather amateurish for a food writer I admit. And by the way, for those who crave photographic evidence of the universe’s existence, there are plenty of photos of their food on their site (http://www.cocinasunae.com/).

My English master always told me that every piece of writing needed a conclusion, so what is mine? Well in fact I have several: Cocina Sunae’s popularity (and believe me its busy, and with a high percentage of Argentine habitués) proves that even when providing food that the local audience is unfamiliar with, success is attainable providing you stick to what you really know. Forget all this fusion nonsense unless you have an intimate understanding of all the cuisines you are trying to fuse. Go for the genuine article.

Also putting you own name to your restaurant can either be a designation of your passion for veracity or an intimation of excess of auto-esteem (a problem that psychiatrists tell me is uniquely common in Argentina).

I’ve always had a fear about dumbing down flavours for the Argentine palate.  CS has been in existence for longer that most of the closed door restaurants I know, and appears to have educated their patrons’ palates. Possibly when they started, they did have to dilute the flavours for the local crowd and they do ask you about the level of picante you enjoy. However I suspect they now have an Argentine following who will eat the pretty slice of chilli as a badge of honour or sophistication.

Finally consistency. While I only go when I like the sound of the menu, Christina is always there, supervising, cooking and even serving. You might like some dishes more than others but the quality will remain the same because she is the proverbial chef who eats in her own restaurant.

It sometimes depresses me to have to write honest reviews. There is a sense of enthusiasm in the gastronomic scene here, a desire to break out of the meat and charcoal encased mold. I feel I should be more supportive, after all things don’t change overnight, and the courageous new wave of chefs are taking risks both in the kitchen and financially. It’s important they succeed. The problem is that too often the escape route is technique based; sous vide, foams, gels, incomprehensible fusion, presented blandly so as not too be too challenging. When I want to eat, what I want is a solid rendition of the dishes description, something that adheres to its roots and ethnicity. No more, no less. With a lack of availability of so many cuisines it would be marvellous if Argentines or new immigrants like me, focussed on genuine renditions of a national cuisine be it Indian, Chinese, Malaysian or even some of the more regal slow cooked Mexican dishes (as an Englishman I’m a bit screwed here), rather than just adding a “toque”, a diluted nod in their direction. The reason many of the best restaurants in BA are Peruvian fusion is that the Peruvians and the Japanese have had decades to perfect the integration.

Luckily I have no such reservations with Cocina Sunae. Out of all the puerta cerradas in BA, Christina is the one who is certainly getting it right.

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