The Lonely Planet’s Wise Words.

 

LonelyPlanet1The people from Lonely Planet paid us a visit a few months ago while researching their newly updated guide to Argentina. We are delighted to report we have now received the first guests who have arrived bearing copies of this freshly minted and august publication. What good taste the editors have! They suggest us as one of the four best places to stay in Buenos Aires.

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Here is what they have to say about us;

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Thank you Lonely Planet!

It Just Got Serious.

So we opened! And obviously that involves having guests and seeing whether the fantasy hotelier within bears any resemblance to the real one that now needs to spring into action. And of course we didn’t start with just any old guests but very important ones. A journalist and her boyfriend, a journalist that writes about hotels, stays in hotels, eats in hotels and is intending to write about us….in other words, the sort of person that might notice if we are entirely clueless or have failed to attend to some basic necessity. And to pile on the pressure we had a friend over from Peru and she decided to stay too. That meant 2 rooms to prepare, 2 sets of breakfast to do.

You might think that, for a man who started his working career in front of blinking screens with 3 telephones scrunched between shoulders and ears, screaming down a microphone to the dealing floor, making a couple of beds and frying a couple of eggs should be plain sailing. And its not as though I have to do it all myself, we are a team here. Four people to look after three people. Pretty good odds. But in my days of strange sign language (you youngsters who have never seen a real life and now largely obsolete trading floor may not understand), colourful jackets, and million pound bids to nick a couple of points, it was never my money. It wasn’t personal. And later when I was raising money from venture capitalists for risky technology start ups, well they were big boys and knew the market and anyway it was the managements responsibility to deliver. I just had to bring the money in and count the commission.

Now its different. This is my life and the culmination of a year’s restoration project which quite frankly turned out to be jolly hard work. And I have to make it work as frankly I haven’t got any other means of making a living if I wish to remain in this fair city. Which I do of course because, in case I have failed to mention it incessantly, Buenos Aires is currently the best city in the world.

Anyway, as it was sunny when we were organising said journalist’s stay and Esther Marie was only in the country for the weekend and frankly we haven’t done much entertaining recently, I had the bright idea of an Opening Asado. What could be easier? Knock up a few salads, bung a bit of meat on the grill and have plenty of time to chat to the guests while it sizzles smokily. But then it wasn’t sunny, it was pouring for several days and the asado idea seemed less wise and there was still a dozen people coming for Saturday dinner. No problem, we’d bring it inside, my kitchen caters for 40 so this would be an easy trial run.

Friday was Bacon Panic day. I am intent on offering a proper breakfast at The 5th Floor and that involves bacon and no, this cannot be replaced by Argentine pancetta which shrivels to a fatty nothingness the moment it makes contact with heat. I had ordered early and Larry said it would be no problem and then someone died and Larry the Texan was on the first plane to the lone star state…leaving me bacon-less! Now you might think that a man suffering a recent bereavement would have more important things on his mind than my pending cooked breakfast and quite reasonably so. In England a sympathetic “Sorry about your uncle but what about my porcine comestibles?” would likely be met with either derision or the hard end of a clenched fist. Larry however is a proper friend and realised this small thing was important to me. He was on the blower the moment the wheels hit the tarmac and worked out a delivery solution.

Of course, I’m a guy who likes to be assured. I had already gotten on the phone to Heath, the founder of Baines Best, proper bacon in Argyland. Heath turned out to be holidaying in Mendoza but obviously recognised the urgency. He had a packet at home (out in San Isidro) lurking in the back of his fridge. He rang home with orders that nobody eat it, ordered a reliable taxi driver to deliver it and problem solved. The result, well a bit more streaky than I normally like my bacon, but combined with the Germans’ excellent sausages, some free range eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes, possibly the best English breakfast you will get to eat in BA. The lesson for me? I may be leading a different life but I have amazing friends who will really put themselves out to sort out something that could justifiably be seen as trivial.

Saturday arrived. I decided on a fairly simple menu, relying heavily on my herb garden to wake up the marinades and flavour the sauces. I prepped early, everything under control, ready to cook. And then a nice woman who edits the Lonely Planet guide to Argentina arrived. She said she only had ten minutes but she was interesting and informative and we spent an hour and a bit, so then I needed to get on with things. But I couldn’t because Frank had kindly offered to bake a couple of apple pies and I hadn’t realised that this would involve turning my entire kitchen into a fat enhanced replica of the sahara desert. Not a space anywhere for further gastronomic endeavour! I was told it would be sorted in 40 minutes and retreated. Important journalist arrived with boyfriend. We did the tour and got them settled in. They said they were looking forward to dinner. I didn’t mention that they would be lucky to eat much before breakfast (which would be fabulous of course).

Time to see if my very expensive and frighteningly professional kitchen worked, which it did. Heat cranked up, we soon made up for lost time. And I have to say that the mountain of roast potatoes (what else are you going to feed an English journalist that hasn’t been home for some years) came out to Delia Smith perfection. A starter involving warm brie, confit tomatoes and a severe haircut for the basil plant, pork and oriental cabbage dish, some chickens with roast veg, caramelised onions and the spuds and the now famous apple pies. All good.

And the fact is the place works. Not just the comfy rooms, but the fact that the sitting room really is a place to share a glass with friends and that with the awning extended and the heating on we were comfortable outside into the chilly early hours. Important journalist seemed happy and gave us good to hear feedback.

Breakfast was later completed on the terrace on one of BA’s finest spring days.

So what was I worried about? It all worked out fine. Well the fact is I worry about hundreds of dollars (room rates) now, not millions. I worry about the quality of my ingredients and my ability to deliver the desired product. And if I didn’t worry then I would be unlikely to provide my guests with what they want and if I don’t do that then my enterprise will wither on the vine.

But to sum up, it felt more satisfying to see happy diners and guests out the door knowing they had genuinely had a good time that it ever did simply filling up my bank account. The 5th Floor is open and we will do the worrying to ensure you have the experience of this fine city that you deserve.

A final note, I owe huge thanks to the people who have been so supportive in getting this endeavour off the ground. The idea came to me after some visiting friends stayed at one of the highest rated B&B’s in Buenos Aires. I’d already (in my former guise as presumably rich banker) been introduced  to the property that is now The 5th Floor, but the guys at Abode B&B opened my eyes to the fact that ( a now poor ex-banker with strong views on hospitality) could make a perfectly acceptable living offering just that; Proper hospitality. They went so far as inviting me round to speak to their clients, so I could understand what people were really looking for, and then started sending some of their overflow to us. Obviously helping your competitors start up would be frowned upon in the world of high finance, but they are established. They don’t think of us as a threat, they are established, we are the young cousin making his first few pennies.

And there are many more people who deserve my thanks. They know who they are! All I can say is that you are the reason I made the decision to abandon my former life and reinvent myself as a budding hospitality provider. And so far I couldn’t be happier, though this getting up to prep breakfast is still hard! Especially after extending hospitality until ridiculous times in the morning!!! And of course there is my lovely partner, who ensures that it is a team effort, brings the feminine touch, and cares as much as me.

So thank you guys. Without your support I wouldn’t have the same life and let’s face it, it could hardly be better.

Let There Be Light!

Film living roomThere are actually a few sad souls who miss this blog when its frequency diminishes. Perhaps they find assurance in the fact that there is someone madder than they are, someone who is prepared to take on Argentine bureaucracy and the unfathomable multiply unionised tradespeople, someone who believed that the Architects’ quote would bear a vague resemblance to the final cost or that, as everyone seems to be able to develop a property in London the same would apply here. Some poor deluded fool in other words. Always fun to watch from afar, as his enthusiasm diminishes as fast as his bank account.

Of course a handful of my handful of followers probably thought that now I am once again a workingman, combining this sad state of affairs with my regular cultural excursions and Buenos Aires’ lively social life, must have caused my literary lapse. Not true. Yes, La Doctora and I seem to be getting more invitations than ever but frankly we are too knackered to go out more than a couple of times a week. My greatly diminished waistline is a testament to rebuffing more champagne filled restaurant-opening invitations than I would have previously considered reasonable.

So what have we been doing to fill our fatigued spare time? Praying. Praying that the electrician would turn up, that the builders wouldn’t break the new glass the window guys had put in (they did of course), that the blacksmith wouldn’t ruin the paintwork (he did), that the painters had left enough time for the plaster to dry (they hadn’t), that the new painter could sort out the faults (he could as he is not a painter but a classical guitarist, tai chi master and wooden sailing boat restorer – don’t get a painter to do a painter’s job if you want it done properly), but most of all praying, grovelling and begging to it that must be obeyed, the all powerful granter of Light, the great God, Ede*n*r (name of Almighty Light Provider deliberately obscured to protect the innocent – i.e Me)

Now if you think this sounds a bit exaggerated, you clearly weren’t here last Christmas Eve with 45-degree temperatures and 70% humidity. Or you may not be aware that Light (Luz) means both light and electricity is Spanish. And while I don’t claim I have spent the last months living in obscurity without enough current to chill my fridge, the fact is that that The 5th Floor requires a lot more of the stuff than was previously available. Yes, we managed 30-degrees comfortably over the weekend due to the building’s solid walls and high ceilings, without the need to turn on a single air-con, by just allowing a gentle breeze to run through the establishment. But wait till the thermal effect of high humidity arrives. I don’t want to serve breakfast to sweaty, grumpy individuals who have spent the previous night wishing they had stayed at some generic, ugly establishment with fully functioning cooling. But these machines suck electricity; you can’t run them on single phase. Hence the petition to the all-powerful Utility, master of the local grid.

“Give me 3 phase please oh Great Redeemer.”

Of course Gods are generally cruel or at the least unhurried. They’ve got better things to do. Like drinking mate. But I know the system. We popped in the request a year ago, plenty of time for EdeGod to move in mysterious ways. Except a year later it still hadn’t. Maybe that’s unfair, it had sent an inspector round a couple of times, reported a couple of defects in the electrician’s work (reasonable) and then informed us that it couldn’t be arsed to connect the cable itself and we would have to do it. Even an electrician with balls of well-insulated rubber doesn’t take this lightly. This stuff kills you if the wrong thing touches the right thing. I eschewed this year’s Mr Popularity vote and demanded that the administrators cut off the whole building’s electricity, so no one died. Great, we had a connection but we were still not allowed to turn it on until the inspector called. And when would that be? And how much would he want??

So I got all modern on the problem. Put out a request on Facebook for my friends to put me in touch with their most distant relative, providing he worked for EdyThing. And I had a few “cousins in high places” responses. La Doctora took a more traditional Argentine route. Stressed, she went to see her psychologist. Obviously La Doctora is not mad but here a bit of help with uncertainty is no bad thing. Of course the fact that she remembered that the psychologist’s neighbour was a bigwig at a certain large electricity company might have motivated her. Moral of the story, forget the prayers. Get yourself down to see a professional. Take a box of mangoes (lovers of porteño slang will understand). Problem resolved. My guests will be as cool as cucumbers. And I don’t think I have slandered anyone or cast nasturtiums on the honesty of Argentine institutions.

Which means OFFICIALLY WE CAN NOW OPEN!!!

Yes now I can take people’s money without the risk of having to send it back due to the risk of foreseeably high temperatures. I can honestly say you will be very comfortable here, come sun (always a shady and a sunny terrace) or come rain (plenty of living space) or come global warming style prophecies (though the energy used on the AC may contribute to the latter).

And it has to be said, while no one here understands the concept of delivering on time, the final job is pretty impressive. It’s not a design hotel; it’s a restored 1940’s home.  Golden Era Buenos Aires. From the time the expression “As rich as an Argentine” was in common usage. It’s definitely an urban experience but we are in the best part of town. And it is an Argentine experience; it’s not a touristy area.

We do need your help however. We are massively over-time and have missed the early bookings for prime season. While we may not be every businessman’s cup of tea (proper breakfast starts at 9.00), we know how to have fun in this great city. And we know how to help our guests have fun, whether through exploring the intricacies of the Ministry of Culture’s impenetrable but ultimately very rewarding website, extending invitations to all the private events we are invited to, or simply pointing out where quality lies in the gastronomic realm here. So this is the time to help me by sharing my little blog and facebook page with all your mates who are wondering where next to sally forth and who will look after them when they get there!

We haven’t got the professional photos done for the website yet as we are still waiting to hang the art, but we have stuck our amateur efforts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/the5thfloorba.

So come, enjoy, change money at the blue rate. Marvel that your enormous meal is once again cheap, that BA really does have a Ministry of Fun, that the weather is delightful, that Porteños still have a zest for life and that you can tell if it is chilly outside by how the dogs are dressed. Buy yourself a fragrant peach in one of the veg shops that still grace every couple of blocks, or a charcoal grilled chorizo from some illegal looking BBQ. Go to listen to some music or to a dance event or some art opening that you wouldn’t normally bother with because of the high risk of it not being very good. If its bad, so what? It’s mainly free, transport is cheap, and you can leave and just move onto the next thing. And the truth is sometimes you surprise yourself and trip over something you like.

Above all come (and send all your friends), to The 5th Floor. We guarantee you won’t regret it!

If You Know Where to Look 2 – Ethnic food

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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.

If You Know Where To Look!

As I am fond of reminding some of my expat friends, whose prior shopping experience appears to be limited to giant chain stores and who bemoan the lack of choice and quality available in Buenos Aires (I suspect they only go to the closest equivalent of such establishments here), you can get almost anything here if you know where to look! Yes the pursuit of decent bacon for The 5th Floor, has led me to early morning, back room negotiations, beer in hand, around a monster smoking machine (like Hunter S Thompson I always travel with my lawyer and La Doctora always photographs the evidence).

la foto-26Bacon made by Artisans (is there a reason no one wants to show their face?).

la foto-25Smoked or salted? What’s your fix? Of course like all vaguely illegal things, there might be side effects. Yes you are going to enjoy breakfast at The 5th Floor, but your doctor would not recommend it every day. We can do the fruit and yogurt detox if the below gets too much.

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But there are some things that are a bit more fundamental to your lodging experience than a few slices of bacon. You’re going to want furniture. And you probably want it to be nice? After all I’m selling this place to you on its Art Deco ambiance. You’re going to be pretty disappointed if your room is crammed with Ikea’ish chain store generics. Well, you can buy real 1930’s Art Deco here, but unfortunately I didn’t have US$ 50,000 per room as a decorating budget. Or you can do Americano, some of it very elegant, too much of it and you end up with the set of “Mad Men”. And Art Deco bedrooms were normally made up of matching sets, the same theme picked out throughout the different pieces in the room. But even if you can find this, its unlikely to fit my rooms because most of it was made bespoke.

“I’m going to have mine made bespoke.”

My expats friends looked at me with pity in their eyes. They knew I was heading to the dark side.

“This is the mix I want,” I continued. ” Walnut, Black Lacquer, Birds Eye Mable, that kind of thing. In these designs….?” I waved a grubby sheet of paper showing a few classics I had found on the internet.

“Good luck son,” was the most supportive and least condescending response.

But as my slightly unusual life experience has taught me, where there’s a will there’s a way. I know what I want, I don’t want it diluted, cut or adulterated. I’m not going to take the easy option, pop down to the Recoleta Design Centre or flash my plastic around the boutique stores of Palermo Hollywood. Actually I don’t have much plastic left but I do have 3 kilos of pesos in grubby piles. Enough to tempt the Capos of furniture production to make my own special blend?

Luckily I have contacts. I sidle down to the Fish and Chip shop and agree that they will take me to the source. Then they relieve me of a kilo downpayment and promise the cut will be to my liking. They are going to throw in some coppered glass and some smoky stuff for free. I negotiate an additional desk as well. And I need them to refine some of the gear I’ve already got. They agree.

Then I wait for the contact.

6 weeks later the first of the product is polished. We can have it delivered or see it in situ. I opt for the former. “It’s not where you would normally shop,” they remind me. Well, it certainly wasn’t Florida Street!

So we rendezvoused at an out of town petrol station and followed them down some dirt roads. Yes! This is where you go shopping.

la foto-27Ok, I’ve already paid these guys a lot of money. They are a long way out of town. Now I’m worried about their delivery capabilities. The horse doesn’t look too young.

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Time to talk to the team.

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And inspect the merchanise…..la foto-32Yes!! The enormous buffet that I bought from the Uruguayan gipsies is looking good, or at least one of the doors is.

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And then they pull the covers back from the rest of order.

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El Capo is watching me carefully for a reaction. He tells me that I am the first Englishman he has ever met. I’m thinking about his pitbulls outside. I suspect they eat what they kill.

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But it’s going to be OK. The stuff is de la puta madre. Yes, there’s a layer of dust covering everything, but as they wipe it off the quality of the work becomes evident. Thankfully I’m not going to have to pull my non existent gun and demand my wonga back.

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And they have more where that came from, a load of my walnut waiting to be polished up.

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I have a last little look to check it shines in the sun.

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Happy? Me? I’ve done a few hundred thousand peso furniture deal. I’ve ventured into the hinterland of wood polishers. I have rare breeds adorning my madera. The pitbulls kissed my hand.

We slap backs, we kiss, we exchange compliments. They tell me that the furniture will be delivered at the end of next week. The horse groans. It knows it’s starting off towards the capital tomorrow.

I hope my guests appreciate that this is not just furniture. It’s a furniture story.