Solid Choices

 

olaya1

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.

cafesanjuan1

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.

cafesanjuan2

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.

coffeetown

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

 

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.

 

 

 

Bargain Brunch and Remarkably Tasty!

 

Oasis

With the brunch culture now firmly embedded in the porteño psyche, even if the timing has been delayed by a few hours to compensate for the late night jollity (think a 2.30 start rather than midday), a profusion of places have sprung up to offer an often confusing variety of options. Varying from the basic but good quality and plentiful (Oui Oui – unfortunately you have to get there ridiculously early by BA standards to avoid the queues) to the molecular gastronomy inspired (HG restaurant in the Fierro Hotel – I can’t vouch for its quality yet because it all seems a bit much of a performance for a Sunday hangover to cope with), to the expat pseudo americano (Magdalena’s Party – acceptable if you like that kind of thing, but sorry, I lost my tolerance for unpleasant toilets somewhere in my teens), we are all out there bruncheando as long as the weather is fine. As you know, no self respecting porteño ventures anywhere if there is the threat of rain. Life as one knows it is “suspendido por lluvia”.

But last Sunday was fine, “un dia peronista”. The sun came out into the fresh blue sky, the temperature ramped up from a chilly 7 degrees to 20 in a couple of hours, my terrace was toasty by 11.00 and the air smelt like Switzerland. A perfect day to brunchear outside.

But where?

I was a founder member of Oasis Club, one of the few private members clubs here. And then I wasn’t, as they declined to renew my membership. I was never sure why. It might have been due to political incorrectness, being too opinionated, or not being adequately preppy, yanqui, or socially desirable. However La Doctora had joined shortly before they failed to appreciate my virtuosity in the story telling department and as they had finally decided to start encouraging proper Argentines to be members, they were reluctant to bar her from the premises….after all, she actually went for the interview! Whereas when they suggested this to me I simply asked if they were f**king joking. Their mistake for not insisting. If they wanted young white collar Harvard failures (after all, the successes are on Wall Street rather than lurking in BA) they should have said. I’m an exile, not an expat. I ran away from that life.

However times change. More importantly management changes, and they have actually managed to put together a club with some suitably pleasant members and a decent mix of expats and locals. I go as La Doctora’s guest more frequently than their rules allow but they can hardly ask me to reinstate my membership having summarily dismissed me. I consider myself an honorary member now, one who has witnessed the growing pains of a young enterprise, given a more than decent amount of financial support to their needy barmen, and importantly I’m still around after 5 years, whereas most expats have a short lifespan here.

So La Doctora commented they had a good looking and very reasonably priced brunch menu. And as Sebas, the head barman, has a lot of initiative and could probably fabricate a decent Bloody Mary despite the alleged restrictions on Worcestershire sauce imports, we decided to go. And the fact is that it was very satisfying. All kudos to their (relatively new) Chef. He doesn’t complicate things, they aren’t fancy, he is not a prima dona, but he does know his flavours. Proof that simple does not need to equate to bland.

We walked down in the sun marvelling that, like lizards, the porteños had already slithered out early to appreciate the weather, populating every bright corner long before their normal hour. Patios and terraces “a full” before 2pm. Oasis Club empty. Why? Perhaps because their beautiful garden whose cool is to be appreciated in Summer, gets virtually no sun at this time of year. But as you will see from the above photo, it does have a very pretty autumnal tree.

And it does have a damn good and reasonably priced brunch. For 190 pesos (or 230 for non members), you get 4 courses. A choice of granola and yogurt (too breakfasty for me) or brie and ham, as a little welcome taster. A small soup of the day (pumpkin) with a good homemade bread basket and a cheesy chive dip. Five mains of which I chose a juicy, flavoursome, kind of pastrami sandwich (more a slow marinated then slow cooked tapa de asado with pickle and dijon mustard) in a great homemade focaccia. Then a choice of well made puddings. Plus a real coffee (Illy thank god) and a proper drink (Bloody Mary for me obviously) included in the price.

You need to get yourselves down there. Why? Because if it remains empty they won’t be able to continue offering such value. They will go bust. They will have sad ingredients languishing in the fridge until expiry. Why wouldn’t you support someone offering excellent and incredibly reasonably priced food if you could wait for it with a large cocktail in hand. Lack of sun. OK, you can eat inside. You are not a member? Ring us (I’m sure they would prefer people to poverty, and potential new members at that)! Or come with us. Or if you have other places that offer better value in BA tell us!!!

Did I mention the mains are served with papas rusticas, basically baked skin on spuds, then deep fried. And they offer you a suitably spicy dip. Yes, I’m sure you are convinced now.

 

 

If You Know Where to Look 2 – Ethnic food

image

If there is one thing London can provide, it is a panoply of asian and oriental food. New York even more so. Buenos Aires, not at all so some would have you believe. Can this really be true? Of course this may be largely irrelevant to the beef munching tourist. And there are other ways to take a break from the caveman diet. Good Italian (my favourite is Marcelo), Spanish (Tancat), Pizza (Siamo Nel Forno), Armenian (Sarkis) Syrian/ Lebanese (Club Sirio – and the building is spectacular) or more problematically Fish (Damblee or Crizia, both have oyster bars). Further, there are all sorts of traditional “Bodegons” serving the local dishes, such as suckling pig, lentils, puchero or locro. So no, as a tourist here for a few weeks, you won’t have time to get bored.

But what do you do if you live here and have only spent 2 weeks outside the country in the last 4 years (trust me Chile and Uruguay don’t count when we are talking food variety – Peru of course does, but I haven’t made it there yet)? And if you were bought up by  a family with Indian roots (albeit rather colonialist ones) and ate papadums from the age of 6 months sitting on the counter of the local curry restaurant? It is certain that at some point you are going to seriously miss the lack of spice.

Well, first option is Peruvian or Nikkei, the Peruvian Japanese crossbreed. And for that you get yourself down to Osaka or Sipan where you will eat international quality food. What you won’t get is much picante though. For that you have to go to one of the barrio restaurants around Almagro and explain that you are not Argentine and therefore will not die if they put chilli in the ceviche (while we used to go to Mochica, it appears Elvis – the prior owner – has left the house! The last visit was disappointing , you are just going to have to do your own hit and miss research).

You can also go for Korean. However this involves persuading a taxi driver to take you down to Korea town in Bajo Flores, a rather dangerous part of the city (actually we drove and found that the streets were being patrolled by an admirable amount of policeman, so after dinner we still had a vehicle to drive back in – of course this may say something about the quality of La Doctora’s car). There is no doubt this is the real Korean deal. 200 Koreans can’t be wrong! We were the only non-Korean faces in the incredibly crowded place which drew some attention. But once you played with a few babies and chatted with the locals on the heavily armoured smoking terrace, they turn out to be a friendly bunch. And for a very reasonable fixed price they will bring you as much of any dish as you fancy, be it the cheaper meats or soups or the more expensive oysters and prawns. The only drawbacks are that you have to cook it yourself on your tabletop BBQ, and swear on your European passport that you are not Argentine – so please bring the bloody chilli sauce.

But as a Brit, Peru and Korea never really crossed my gastronomic sightline. What I miss is a Ruby (for those who don’t speak the Queen’s cockney rhyming slang, Ruby Murray was a jazz singer and her surname nearly rhymes with Curry, which is why a Londoner goes for a Ruby). There is only one place, Tandoor, which is genuinely good. Luckily it’s round the corner from The 5th Floor but I still feel we have an inadequate curry supply in Capital. What to do?

Asian is the same. Green Bamboo nearly gets it right but while the cocktails are great the food is adapted to the Argentine palate, as in dulled down. Cocina Sunae (a puerta cerrada), seems to have taken the other tack, starting small and educating it’s customers about the food. Much better and the only place we go regularly to eat east asian food.

But things are changing here. Argentines are beginning to crave more than meat, salt and smoke. My bet is in the next ten years gastronomy is going to take off. Their wines are evolving fast, their food tastes are sure to catch up. My plan is to be involved in the next developments and try and de-risk the start-up of some cutting edge new restaurants, be they bacon and sausage sandwich joints, noodle bars, or full on Vietnamese cuisine. Damn, the Mexican food here is so awful that my Mexican Architect can’t recommend anything. And where can you buy decent chocolate? We need to deal with these things as well!

So obviously I was a venture capitalist during the internet era. I “incubated” a load of companies (in partnership with multinationals like Sun Microsystens and Fujitsu), that provided fantastic services that people didn’t know they needed. The incubation part of the plan was brilliant. The failure was that no one actually needed most of the stuff we incubated. My shame is that my voice integrated software for surfing the net, is now forming the base of a lot of the voice responsive interfaces when you ring your bank. And the f@&King thing still doesn’t even recognise my voice!

But here I have a genuine reason to incubate businesses. While I only have to produce breakfast for 14 people, my kitchen is prepared for 50. Why? Because there are a lot of people out there that know how to cook something different, but don’t have the facilities or the experience to do it. The incubation process was meant to be about taking someone with a great concept, facilitating the delivery and adding any business skills they didn’t have. I think I can do that!

So I put it out on the internet. “Who wants to collaborate? Who wants to take advantage of my facilities? Who wants to make participate in a culinary adventure? I got various replies. A guy from Vietnam, a woman from Pakistan, a German lady who is fascinated by traditional South American cuisine and refines chocolate to 90% purity (another of the apparently undiscoverables here) and who as you might have guessed, is now working with us at The 5th Floor. A friend who does Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw food thinks she might like to do something (and while I’m prejudiced against that stuff, her food is strangely pretty delicious).

Of course, the hardest part of being a Venture Capitalist was the endless hours spent listening politely to enthusiastic entrepreneurs with hopeless business plans containing endless zeros after the £ sign. But here we are talking about food. The worst that I will have to do is spend endless hours eating and if the food is bad I can simply up my wine consumption speed, to ensure that the presentation is at least tolerable.

So I am proud to announce that we have just completed our second round of due diligence / eating a lot, with Thomas the chap from Vietnam, and the investment committee (we will still have to invest time, facilities and marketing skills) has approved moving on to the next stage in the incubation process…namely organising some trial dinners. “Thomas at The 5th Floor”, will shortly be bringing authentic Vietnamese and Thai food to the heart of Alto Palermo!

As always I travel with my lawyer “por las dudas”, as they say here. And La Doctora is establishing a healthy sideline skill in ipad food photography. Unfortunately, at the first tasting her enthusiasm for a bit of spice (while she is Argy, she lived 7 years in Peru where they do know their chilies) somewhat got the better of her and she wolfed down the salmon in coconut curry soup and the chicken satays, before remembering we were serious professionals who needed photographic evidence of our travails. All was not lost though, we salvaged a few shots and this time she behaved like the consummate professional, snapping hastily away before consuming the evidence. So a few shots of dishes that may appear at “Thomas at the 5th Floor”.

A fresh mango prawn salad, sharp, sweet and citric with the saltiness of fish sauce:

imageSeared, marinated beef (calm down my little Argy friends, that’s my portion. We can cook yours until it will be impossible to know there is blood inside a cow), served with sticky rice and a darkly soya/sesame oil/spring onion and spice dipping sauce and a cold lemon grass tea to accompany:

imageFresh summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce:

imageNote fresh pickled chilli and homemade sriracha sauce in the middle:

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Vietnamese spring rolls that you wrap in lettuce with mint and coriander then dip:

imageA delightful chicken broth with wontons and 5 spice pork:

imageA dessert of steamed plantains, tapioca and roasted peanuts:

imageSo by all accounts, another hard day suffered by la Doctora and myself in order to bring a little more diversity to the lives of my Buenos Aires friends and my future guests. And while the latter may not imagine coming to Baires to eat Vietnamese food, by day three they may feel a sudden urge for a meat or pasta free experience. And of course they will get the chance to meet and mingle with all the great people that I know who live here, rather than just speaking to a waiter in a restaurant. So everyone’s a winner, especially me and La Doctora who will have prime asian food, fresh out of our kitchen with little effort other than hosting a great party, once a week!!

Works for me.

Fish Corner

la foto-23It’s winter in Buenos Aires. Except it’s not really. Yes we had three days where the temperature dropped to nearly zero. I used to laugh at the whining Argies in their polar outfits, claiming they were about to die. Now after four years here I have lost all resistance to climatic adversity, so I cry along with them.

Thank god it was only three days though, because this weekend involved a lot of parties and a several of them were held outside. While no Englishman would plan such a thing in the depths of winter, they are a bunch of optimists here. And obviously Papa Francis had got on the hotline and said hey, how can I explain the purgatory thing is only metaphorical if you keep punishing us with this diabolical cold? Basta! Turn the heat back on!! And so it warmed…. delightfully.

So despite Guantanamo style sleep deprivation, we were up again with the larks. Well around 2 pm actually, still in time for a nice shower and a walk to a suitable brunching spot. And it was sunny outside with that crisp cool seaside air that puts you in mind of crisp, cool, white wine and a bit of fish….or maybe a lot of fish? After all we’d danced off a billion calories at least.

As readers may know, my go to place for fish is the estimable Chipper, the only place in Buenos Aires where you can get crunchy battered, moist fish with all the trimmings and order seven desks, ten wardrobes, 7 bedheads and 14 bedside tables, to be delivered within six weeks please with a side order of pickled eggs. Actually, possibly the only place in the world you can do this!

But we walked a little vigorously, overshot the cross street and ended up approaching Chipper from the other side, which meant we had to pass La Pescadorita, situated a mere 50 yards away, on what now may reasonably be described as Fish Corner (Humbolt and Costa Rica). And we saw people eating a range of fishy delights and the corner was still bathed in sun and a chardonnay was definitely going to taste better drunk outside, so while we felt a little guilty communing with the competition, we rapidly rationalised it as entirely supportive market research and bagged ourselves a table.

If I seem a little effusive about encounters with piscine comestibles, it”s because it’s easier to arrange a Mormon marriage with Paraguayan triplets here, than find someone that can source a decent fish and then not destroy it in the cooking process. Other than the aforementioned, only Marcelo’s, Crizia and Damblee have ever tickled my fancy. However, one of my favourite food writers, Dan Perlman ( http://www.saltshaker.net/), had recently given LP a thumbs up for their seafood parrillada. I’m happy to report, strictly in terms of disciplined market research you understand  (I will never go there again unless heavily disguised), that La Pescadorita delivered in spades.

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A light, fresh Rutini Chardonnay, fit the bill. 2012, 9 months in French oak, not overpowering, well priced at 150 pesos. Just what we wanted (and you will notice from the photo that I don’t look too bad for a man that has partied for 30 hours out of the last 50???).

And while Dan had commented on the abundance of the parrillada, he’d eaten alone. We went for a little starter of chipirones, though we were so hungry we forgot to photograph them until they were nearly gone.

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Did I mention it was winter? And 4 pm? And still sunny? Like this…

image-10And so to the parrillada. Highlights were the abundance of juicy prawns, a perfectly cooked salmon fillet blasted with heat from below (crispy skinned, soft juicy flesh), more mini chipirones with tiny crunchy tentacles, a fat octopus tentacle (luscious) and a variety of fish fillets and scallops. More than enough for two for 240 peso and well seasoned with a variety of strongly flavoured sauces. We regretted having the starter as we failed to finish.

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Obviously we were feeling pretty content after such an admirable spread, so I popped over to Chipper to invite the guys over to share a little liquid desert of coffee and Amaretto. LD staff remained charming even though the place was officially closed, when we asked for another.

Conclusion? If you are looking for for marine sustenance, pop down to fish corner. All your needs will be catered for there, though when I asked my LD waitress whether she could knock up a bookcase for me, she looked a bit blank. Some people still don’t understand customer service.

Un Día Peronista or Argentina’s Got Talent?

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Today didn’t start well. Waking up with a bit of a hangover, I was immediately presented with the realisation that I am gay. You may reasonably ask whether this was inspired by some experimental activity undertaken in a dark corner of the smart party in Recoleta we attended last night, or by a sudden flash of attraction that I felt for some dark Argentine boy across the dinner table at the delicious (albeit vegetarian) dinner we went to prior to that. But no, it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with interior design. My first waking thoughts were about ceiling lights. I’m getting obsessed with colours and glass. When I should have been thinking about greeting the new day and La Doctora with a manly awakening, I was actually contemplating the best way to restore my Vitreaux! Further, I am boring the pants off everyone with talk of vibrant colour palettes and having to seek out the company of gay men, as they are better at pretending to be interested.

What to do? As La Doctora’s head emerged into the chilly air above the duvet, I decided to come out immediately. She looked a bit for confused for a moment, mulling over the predicament. In Argentina you can turn virtually any noun into a profession by adding the suffix –ISTA.

“What you are in danger of becoming my dear, with your new Murano mania, is a Lamparista.”

Sounds painful, but even I knew she was trying to fool a naïve Englishman. You can’t turn a light (lampara) into a profession. La Doctora handed me a business card from the nice man at the flea market who had relieved me of thousands of pesos for one of the aforementioned. Sergio, Mercado de Pulgas, Lamparista! Well at least he’s out of the closet and happy with it.

“Are you ready to go shoppin’?,” La Doctora asked me sympathetically. And liberated by my confession, I was, eager to jump back on the horse of pendants and appliques, sconces and standing lights.

But then Jesus got in contact, a quick call to say bye-for-now and during the course of the conversation I realised I was starving. The problem with vegetarian food is that it digests too quickly. You wake up in the morning feeling like you haven’t eaten for a week. It may even have been the insufficiency of red meat that had led to my self-doubt and rapidly to-be-forgotten gay phase. I explained to Jesus that his packing and paperwork could wait, as could my lamparas, and that chorizos, morcillas, bloody steaks and pinot noir were the order of the day. If God is as easily persuaded as Jesus, there may yet be a place for me in Heaven. We arranged to meet at Minga, my favourite winter parilla, in 30 minutes. It is entirely coincidental that Minga’s staff are 100% gay and lesbian as far as I can tell.

Marching orders received, La Doctora turned on the radio. According to the DJ it was cold outside, meaning possibly less than 10 degrees C. Anyone who has lived here for a little while, will understand that Argentina has a completely different and far more dangerous, form of cold to anywhere else in the world. Firstly, the cold always comes with an Ola Polar (Polar Wave). This kills you (Te mata!) explained the DJ. “Si te Maaaata”, agreed her colleague. Then of course there is the effect of the humidity that on a hot day can add lots of degrees to the temperature (last Christmas night was apparently 45 degrees, or 55 according to some DJ’s) or on a cold day subtract them. “Te moris” (you die), explained the DJ. “Obvio, te moriiiiis,” agreed her colleague.

“Estar abrigado,” means to be well wrapped up. “Estar re abrigado,” means very well. I’m a canny Englishman. I’m not going to let this lethal Argentine brand of cold catch me off guard and kill me, literally, obvio! I left the house re-contra-mil-putas abrigado. I will leave that to your imagination but suffice to say that with my boina (beret), layering and scarfs, I could have survived a sneaky ice age that surfed in on a polar wave. Outside the door it was bright sunshine, blues sky, and about 12 degrees. Spring to us English or actually most of summer. A bead of sweat formed under my boina before I had got to the corner.

Luckily we were running late so took the car. If I had had to walk, I would have lost more weight than Franckie Dettori in a 5 hour sauna, while wearing a wetsuit and sticking charlie up his nose. And guess what, it was Un Dia Peronista. This term, literally a Peronist Day, is used with and without irony depending on the political views of the person using it, to describe a perfect day. It involves crisp sunshine, lack of wind (no maldito ola polar which kills you), no humidity to confuse the temperature (remember, you die). We get to the restaurant. The tables are full outside. We get the last table on the upstairs terrace. The sun’s still bright so we take off some layers.

A quick shout out (God I hate that expression, but it has snuck into my vocabulary, though I’m not even sure whether I use it correctly), for Minga (Costa Rica side of Plaza Armenia). While in the UK a minga is an ugly girl of uncertain cleanliness, our lesbian friends are smart, clean and efficient. The morcilla (crunchy exterior and creamy interior) is better than the chorizo. Steak, excellently juicy. Chips hand cut. Salad green, but I didn’t feel the need to taste it, having eaten vegetarian the night before. A pinot noir, Padrillos, very acceptable at 110 pesos. Coffee good and served with chocolate covered dulce de leche bombs. Service pleasant and attentive. What more could you want on the second day of winter, sitting on an (unheated – they have a smoker friendly heated terrace downstairs) terrace, soaking up red meat and sun?

Then kisses exchanged (yes you do a lot of kissing in Argentina but kissing a Mexican apparently does not make me gay), it was time for lamp shopping. Except it wasn’t, as on leaving the restaurant I heard a distinct riff emanating from the square.

“Hey, someone’s playing a bit of Muddy Waters. Doesn’t sound half bad. Let’s go and investigate?”

“I suspect they won’t be playing blues,” says La Doctora.

“Ni importa, at least the guy can play guitar,” says I.

So Argentina’s got Talent. And what’s more it doesn’t wait to get selected for a TV show. No, it loads up its kit into a van, buys some petrol for the generator to drive the amplifiers, and sets out its stall in the plazalita. Obviously, it has practiced for at least 5 years before assailing the public with its renditions. Its timing is tight. It realises that to make interesting music you need at least six people in the band. And a guy doing the mixing, not too loud but crisp. And its out there playing, reliant on the approval of a random audience and the fact that small children will dance ecstatically in front of it.

So what would Simon Cowell have said? I suspect he might have mentioned that the lead guitarist (who had a real Santana onda), shouldn’t have worn the cardigan that his granny had knitted him. But then Simon doesn’t understand Argentine cold, so would almost certainly die here due to inappropriate clothing choices. Simon wouldn’t have liked the bongo player. Why? Too dark skinned, huge hands, an afro hairstyle, TOO stereotyped as a bongo player. But the guy played great bongos. Or the “indigenous” percussionist? Sitting on his beat box, shaking gourds, rubbing gourds, bashing the box. But he had the best voice of all of them. Would Simon have liked the authentically cheerful ambiance, the fact that all the musicians could actually play a wide range of proper instruments, the fact that there was nothing to manufacture, because these guys already know what they do for fun?

I doubt it, but I do.

So we thought we would sit on the edge of the fountain and listen for a couple of tracks, but the band was better than that. Forget the shopping! Lighting will still be there tomorrow, the band, maybe not?

Mala Macumba (sort of bad magic) it’s called. Here is a link to their stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipetzX3uCEQ

Pretty jolly? The kind of band I want at a party. The kind of band that will get everyone up and dancing (como locos). A band that distracted me from my interior design. Made me think that maybe I’m not gay. The kind of band that has a nice chap wandering around with a hat collecting money for the petrol for the generator.  We paid him a twice when we realised we were staying for the full set. The kind of band that makes a perfect day. And given there was some strange (possibly autistic) artist type doing cartoon versions of the kids (which they were loving) seemingly for free, it wasn’t just a perfect day for me.

Gracias chicos, sos capos! You are why I live here!!!!!

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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.