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.

Green Fingers and Fresh Herbs.

la fotoI’d like to be able to say that I lovingly nurtured the pictured greenery from seed, cooing and gurgling at them like Prince Charles until they accelerated the growth of their tendrils in a vain bid to escape. However the truth is I bought a garden. The lemon trees were looking a little lonely on my terrace. The view, though typically urban BA, needed softening.

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And I have to admit I didn’t get the best deal. Yes I bargained a bit, got them to throw in some additional shrubs, but finally I went with the nursery around the corner. After all what could be more intimidating than an Englishman that lives a block away, who is likely to pop in and see you on his morning constitutional and talk loudly and in excruciating detail about plant mortality, specifically his plants, specifically your responsibility. You see where I’m coming from?

Sometimes price isn’t everything. Dying plants look pretty sad. These guys may have made a good sale but are very aware of the long tail of the care chain that it involved. So the plants arrived, big healthy looking specimens, carefully chosen for an exceedingly sunny existence, probably prayed over the night before. Possibly blessed by the Papa?

Plants are all very well of course, they lend a bit of colour, homeliness, encourage bird-life, refresh the atmosphere but you can’t eat them. So level 2 is my wall mounted herb garden. Don’t put your cigarettes out in these chaps! My lower layer is all-comestible. Cuban style urban gardening! Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Mint, Chives, Cherry Tomatoes.  A veritable house party of flavours. And a big pot of Basil to move around in order to dodge the sun.

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So, it all needs a bit of time to settle in, to meander its way down the walls, to get over the shock of moving and accept its first harvest. But Daniella is cultivating a few chillies and some decorative varieties and she is German so you know they will do as they are told!

Hopefully the end result will be fresh herb enhanced food at The 5th Floor. Let me just pop out to hug my lime tree and play it a little Mozart!

And the lemon trees are looking happy with the company!

 

 

 

 

Exterior Comfort Control

You may think from the title that I have just invented a new sports bra or a garment to discipline and smooth your wobbly bits, but no. What I am referring to is the finally completed installation of the devices we have purchased to enhance, my supposed future guest, your appreciation of the good airs of Buenos Aires. The 5th floor is the proud possessor of 5 terraces, but the most prized is the Andalusian patio, which will shortly be verdant with plants and herbs to complement its cheerful Spanish wall tiles and its new lemon trees (whose numbers are threatening to reduce themselves as one is rather sickly and I may have to put it out of its misery).

If the sun is out, then it’s shining on this terrace and warming it to at least 5 degrees above street level. And of course the patio sports the traditional ample parrilla for family and friends style BBQ’ing and due to its positioning there is rarely any wind so we have enjoyed regular open air asados throughout the winter.  But of course the wild outdoors can be just that. Savage. I foresee problems. 5 degrees above a sunny spring day equals the best an English summer has to offer, 5 degrees above a hot Buenos Aires summer day and you may well expire with heat stroke. So look at this.

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At the top of the picture is what we call a Toldo here (I’ve forgotten the English word), whose electrically driven, remote controlled blackness will silently slide out to cover half the terrace and protect you from the killer rays. And as we have ensured the wifi signal is suitably strong in this area, the toldo will also save you from that other modern frustration, wanting to be outside but having too much sun to see your computer screen.

But what I hear you ask is that brutal looking object hanging below the toldo? Well that is the latest and most effective equipment for exterior heating, because yes even in BA occasionally it does get cold, sometimes into single digits celsius, occasionally for several days at a time and as any porteño will tell you slightly hysterically, “el frio te mata”. The cold kills you, its as simple as that here. Furthermore, by near consensus we have banished smoking from the interior of the 5th floor. But we are not discriminatory, we love smokers as much as non-smokers, we want them to share the same level of comfort. And understanding that more smokers now die of weather induced pneumonia in London caused by huddling outside their buildings in inclement conditions, than of the previously common smoking related illnesses, we wouldn’t wish that on our valued clients. After all, where am I (I obviously mean you) going to sip, my evening gin and tonic while partaking of its accompanying nicotine, without having the embarrassment of watching my long suffering partner, swathed in woollens, shivering while accompanying me.

Fear not, at the 5th floor we just crank up the 5 metre gas tube, strip off out protective layers and warm ourselves to the degree that we need more ice in our drinks. And luckily, I have purchased a nice ice making machine to provide for this eventuality.

So, if like me you are a fan of the great outdoors, as long as it can be partaken of within the confines of a suitably large and cultured city and has immediate access to comfortable facilities, then our terrace will certainly fill you with joy. Stick a big juicy hunk of cow over the smouldering embers on the parrilla and you will feel as close to raw nature as you ever need to!

Menu Trial – Argentino Irónico

With 6 months to go before the opening of The 5th Floor, my valiant co-chef Rudie and I are working on some menu ideas for the proposed puerta cerrada restaurant, trying them out on groups of friends of varied nationalities. Every Chef in Buenos Aires will tell you it’s easy to frighten the typical Argy. A mere wave of a chili will have him crying to mummy about the “jodido picante de la re puta madre”, that has left his delicate palate with 3rd degree burns. Many Chefs will also contend that any form of strong flavouring will also have the average punter running for the hills, or at least to the nearest provider of choripans, milanesas, or good honest, un-messed with wood grilled carne. So, what do you do if you don’t want to ostracise the locals from your culinary exploits. Trick them with ingredients that will remind them of their abuela’s cooking, and then bomb them with the strongest flavours you think they can tolerate and see what happens! This is after all the development stage and given a few puerta cerradas like the very excellent Cocina Sunae (http://www.cocinasunae.com) have generated a substantial and loyal local following for the well spiced, if not too spicy, I am keen to do the same. So menu 1, typically argentine produce presented in unusual (at least for Buenos Aires) and hopefully delicious combinations. ImageFirst up, Morcilla, the staple starter of all great argentine asados, only this time on a crunchy base (rosti next time), a slice of caramelised apple, topped with a pickled quails egg, a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a spray of passion fruit vinegar. The presentation was inelegant, the towers too tall and we could have gone madder with the vinegar which added a delicious touch (tested by spraying it directly into some of the guinea pigs’ mouths), but a surprisingly interesting combination. A keeper, albeit with re-engineered architecture.

Second, and luckily no one took a photo of this one, was Caracú. Beautiful roast bone marrow in the classic St. John style (https://www.stjohngroup.uk.com/) with a parsley, caper salad and lemon dressing. Except it wasn’t beautiful. Undercooked! A schoolboy error!!! Yes it looked great and rather archetypically carnivore until we scooped the pink (yes it should have been white) marrow onto the tostados. Would anyone even be brave enough even to try this or should I bin the lot? I kept quiet long enough to see. Surprisingly Tez, an American led the way and pronounced it delicious and after assurances that they were unlikely to die from mad cow disease everyone else tucked in but I was still kicking myself. This was meant to be a dish that was unchallenging for an Argentine (they still eat bits of offal that I haven’t got to grips with) but novel for most of the foreigners. I think the varied opinions were provoked by the unappetising appearance rather than the flavour and it is easy to perfect this dish. It is also economical as your friendly butcher will give you the marrow bones for free. However the decider is that you only get 2 decent pieces of marrow bone from each leg so getting hold of this in bulk is going to be too tricky. OFF the menu and to be reserved for a quick decadent snack with a close friend (normally red and liquid). ImageCourse three, for me the biggest success of the evening, big Sorrentinos (possibly, I can never remember pasta shape names), stuffed with Osso Bucco in a clarified consomme-like reduction of its cooking sauce. Everything cooked according to Gordon Ramsey’s fantastic recipe ( http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785) until the meat was stuffed into the pasta and the sauce clarified into a soup rather than reduced into a syrop. Rudie’s pasta came out light despite the facts he had to use tequila rather than the white wine he was reserving, that I had thrown into my sauce and that the sun was blazing onto his preparation area. This was as good as anything I have managed to produce. ImageThe main course required this, an evil looking meat syringe that my friend Tez has just brought me from the good old USA, land of the BBQ competition.   A glorious 5 rib bife de chorizo marinated inside and out with an asian marinade, sliced thin and served over a spiced noodle salad. Great taste, but plenty of mucking around pan frying the slices for those that don’t like rare meat. While they wont have the same visual impressiveness 2 lomos (fillets) cooked to different levels of “doneness” would make life easier in the kitchen. A MAYBE until the next trial! And while the dressing was lightly picante we forgot to filter it thus causing the immediate death of one of our Argentine guests as he bit into a minuscule slice of chilli.

If he had still been alive I am sure he would have enjoyed the cooling properties of the mango ricotta cheese cake with a mandarin and hesperidina reduction (which I wont put cinnamon into next time). A bit heavy after 4 courses, and actually much more delicious the next day when the flavours had a chance to meld (and the day after, and the day after that). But not a keeper.

Alcoholic Tres Leches Cake next time?

And the added bonus? What do you do with the remaining Osso Bucco and its jelly that has solidified in the fridge. Well if you are in Argentina there is only one option.

Unreliably claimed by my friends to be the best empanadas they have ever eaten.