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!

Eyes Gently Shut

With Spring in the air, pleasant clients out and about and all good with the world, we went for an early afternoon walk. Which soon led to hunger which soon led us to Palermo Hollywood. And while heading to Chipper for fish and chips, we passed another favourite that was offering an excellently priced set menu and we sadly got diverted. And while more of this in another post (once the management has had a chance to respond to my note to them), after settling down with two excellent pisco sours, we realised that everything that didn’t come out of a bottle had gone to shit. Yes I am afraid there is no more accurate (or polite) way to describe it and please bare in mind that even your granny would say “se fue a la mierda” here.

To say we were disgruntled is an understatement. We were actually sad and angry. To lose a favourite is like a bereavement. And it also entails more work and expenditure to find a replacement recommendation for our guests. Of course it could just have been a bad day, chef absent due to death in family sort of thing but I kind of suspect it is more serious. The atmosphere had changed. It’s a restaurant based on expensive primary ingredients. Inflation at 35% is probably killing them. They may have been scrimping over the set menu but they will kill their trade like that. Their staff will soon leg it back to Peru.

So how to recover the beauty of the day? I’m not rich anymore so we can’t afford to go out wining and dining twice in a day. I summoned up the email that the Ministry of Culture sends me every Friday, telling me how to spend the following week. What ideas did they have for me? Quite a few as it seemed but I’d already seen the DUDANDOT project at the Sivori Gallery. Fun but not twice, though there is also an amazing ceramic sculpture exhibition that is worth a look.

The huge itinerant exhibition (1500 pieces/450 artists) of masters of Ibero American art (I’m not even sure what that means but it seems to be modern artenesal), has apparently just arrived in BA but is spread out over 2 museums and I’d already walked for a couple of hours. Better to leave that for another day or two or three and anyway it’s on for a few months. A couple of things didn’t start till midweek. A couple of other things seemed too complex artistically for my simple mind. Fusions of film, music, history and performance that risked simply confusing me. And then I hit on the perfect suggestion. A solo performance by the renowned Austrian violinist Édua Zádory, playing everything from Bach to some more modern Austrian/Hungarian composers topped up with some recent Argentine works. In the lovely concert hall at the Usina del Arte that only holds 250 people and is acoustically designed for un-amplified performances. It sounded simple. One woman, one violin and some music that I would be entirely ignorant of. For a grand cost of nothing to go and see, other than making the effort to drive down to La Boca. So we did.

To say it was exceptional might be a case of a MacDonalds habitue suddenly being confronted by Heston Blumental’s food. I’m really not qualified to judge. Was she an amazing violinist? It seemed so to me. She seemed to be able to move across the centuries with verve and precision but then I’ve never been to a solo violin concert before. Frankly I didn’t even know how many sounds one violin could make…many of them simultaneously! But La Doctora is a bit more educated than me. After all, free concerts in Buenos Aires are nothing new. She’s been popping into the Teatro Colon for their free afternoon offering for years and she said it was impressive and who I am I to disagree. And so while we spent the afternoon walking back from the cheap but awful meal, bemoaning the plague of inconsistency of Argentine restaurants, we then spent the drive back from La Boca elated by the fact that we could risk seeing something that we had no idea about, because the city was happy to educate us. We had a world class experience that quite frankly we probably wouldn’t have risked if it had come at world class prices.

My strongest impression? I spent most of the concert with my eyes gently shut. After all it was one woman, one violin, dim lighting. Not much to see. But I did wonder afterwards, when was the last time I was out in a public space surrounded by a couple of hundred people with my eyes shut, only really using one of my senses? Life seems to have become multi-media. What, they just listen? What do they do with their eyes? They’re going to get bored! Don’t they need something to take photos of? No, why don’t we do a wine tasting with carefully chosen electronic music that goes with each grape type? And no I’m not making that up, I got the invitation. It’s a pleasure, a relaxation, to give yourself over to one sense. I can imagine my granny with her first decent record player. Obviously you don’t stop thinking but the thoughts sort of drift over. I was obviously still thinking about food and my normal bugbear, food presentation. I was thinking about dinner blindfolded. Obviously taste is both oral and nasal but the blindfold would get you back to fundamentals. Apparently there is a place in Almagro that does this. I’m going to go. What happens to all these modern cooking techniques if you can’t see them? is a sphere or a foam diminished or intensified? More surprising or less? 

So God bless Buenos Aires. They make it pretty difficult to have a bad day here. It’s tricky not to stumble across something that inspires you if you make half an effort. Sometimes if you really want to relax you just have to opt out. “Hacer fiaca” is the official name for deliberately not doing anything. It’s perfectly acceptable as an excuse in a city where “i’m broke” doesn’t cut the ice. But hell, I’m English. I’m genetically programmed to get out of the house and do something the moment the weather is vaguely nice. I have a terror of the next 44 days when it wont be. Will I exhaust the possibilities that the city offers me? Well I’ve been here five years and it still seems fresh. I’m not a long term guy but you won’t see me budging for the next five!

I apologise for the lack of soundtrack while reading my blog. A bit of Pampa Trash would have been nice. And the visuals, pathetic, no photos, not even a cute cat! If you didn’t understand it because it wasn’t divided into a list of the “5 Unmissable Things in BA”, mea culpa. I’m not very modern. But if you want to appreciate the exhaustive and exhausting cultural and social life of BA, come and stay with us. It’s an old fashioned city with old fashioned values, even applied to the modern. Last week’s Cigar, Chocolate and Wine tasting did work. 

Not all multimedia is bad.

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.

 

 

Death and Life

Death and Life

The wonderful Martin Miller died yesterday. A true renaissance man, I was proud to count him as one of my closest friends even though we were not the sorts of mates to conduct a long distance relationship. However he was my first call on arriving back in England and the pleasure of chewing the fat over a glass of the Gin he lovingly crafted (Millers Gin of course) had lost none of its allure. His mind, like his filing cabinet, was always brimming over with new projects, business plans or literary plots. He was the ultimate conversationalists and lavished his time generously on his friends.

Sadly, I didn’t even know he was ill; he wasn’t a guy who broadcast his problems. I hope his amazingly active brain and ready wit sustained him through to the end. What upset me more than anything is the fact that I never got to show him The 5th Floor, for which he was largely the inspiration and certainly one of the main reasons that I had confidence that a not very successful but reasonably socially adept ex-investment banker, could create a slightly strange niche within the hospitality industry.

I will always remember the first time I was invited to one of the frequent cocktail parties at Miller’s Rooming House, his Notting Hill Bed and Breakfast. Situated over an Arab restaurant, you entered through an unmarked door and climbed a narrow staircase, attempting to avoid incinerating yourself on one of the hundreds of candles that Martin always insisted gave the best light. You wondered if you had come to the right place, until you arrived in his capacious sitting room, with its eclectic mix of antiques and brocade, sculptures and knick knacks, which always gave the effect of looking sumptuous and homely at the same time. Of course Martin knew what he was doing. With his first wife he founded Millers Antique Guides, one of the world’s most successful antiques publications. I once asked him if he worried about these treasures being damaged. Not at all he replied, as antiques they are all fatally flawed, cheap. But he certainly knew how to dress a room.

And so I met the man, hosting an equally eclectic mix of people, by now squeezed somewhat tightly into his living room. He was the consummate host, but not someone who flitted from group to group. No, if he was having an interesting conversation he had the ability to draw you into his crowd, so you never felt ignored but neither was the conversation interrupted. We soon became firmest of friends and it wasn’t long before I started suggesting to my more open-minded clients that they might like to stay at a little Bed and Breakfast in Notting Hill rather than the Lanesborough or the Savoy. They loved it, especially when they ended up having breakfast with Mario Testino or Marian Faithful (regular habitués), or had spent the night drinking with Eric Clapton’s ex or some famous rock band.

So I have tried to take a leaf out of Martin’s book and create a place with the same “onda” (as we say in BA), where intelligent people will feel well looked after and hopefully feel fast-tracked into the social and cultural life of Buenos Aires, possibly the world’s greatest city. We have been open six weeks, appear to be getting busier and busier (though it is high season) and have so far exceeded our expectations. Maybe this a suitable time for a bit of reflection on our new life?

Well both Veronica and I come from backgrounds completely unconnected with the hospitality industry, so we don’t really know what we are doing. We have to make it up as we go along. And the first thing we have noticed is how incredibly supportive people have been. Not just our friends but also potential competitors, suppliers, journalists. Buenos Aires is truly a place for offering something a bit different and fresh.

And so far our clients have been charming to a fault. We were about to sign up to an electronic booking engine but at the last moment it didn’t feel right. We want to know that our clients will like our other clients. You can’t do that by allowing easy access for every random stranger. How do you know they have even read your website? That they understand what you offer and what you don’t? Yes we might be busier, but with who? So we binned that idea and now if clients want to know our rates they have to scour through our website which hopefully makes the above pretty clear. We have also been running Puerta Cerrada (closed door) restaurants about once a week. Vietnamese, Vegan, Texan BBQ, and my own Ugly Food, dinner party style.  All stuff that is not easily accessible in BA. As we are in learning mode we have been doing them at cost. Obviously that leads to a big waiting list!

More importantly it has also led to a random pair of tourists who came to dinner ending up with a whole bunch of new friends in a city that they had just arrived in. They sent me a tongue in cheek email complaining that with all these people to see, they had no time left to see the sights. Hopefully they will be back and the next time staying at The 5th Floor???

Can you really pick your guests and have a successful business as well? That I still can’t answer. It certainly seems that the extra effort required to find us and book with us, is attracting people whose expectations have already been conditioned by our public information. They seem to be people who would be pretty comfortable having dinner together. Generally people substantially more intelligent and better educated than me. Which is a bloody relief…I hate being bored!

My biggest cock-up so far? I need to put more salt in my roast tomato juice (probably celery salt too – hey I listen). My Bloody Mary may be the best in BA but it can still be improved on. Mexicans know about this stuff! So not fatal unless I have some fussy Mexican capo in the house.

I’d like to finish with a huge thank you to all the guys who have supported us, including all our initial clients. This is my life now. I’m no longer some self-important financier. I’m the guy that cooks you breakfast. But you have all been so nice and such good company. If my friend Martin could come now, he’d have a great time with my guests and I think he would be proud of the fact that we have ignored most of the ABC’s of marketing, to try and ensure a more pleasant experience for our clients. Actually, I doubt he ever considered marketing in his life. He was a brand in himself.

So goodbye to a great friend but forward with the life he helped inspire.

Rest in Peace my friend.

 

 

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.