Bargain Brunch and Remarkably Tasty!



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.



Battles and Bloody Mary

Yesterday was a special holiday, a one-year-only event to celebrate the glorious victory of General Manuel Belgrano in the Battle of Salta, two hundred years ago. As the from-then-on national flag (the celeste y blanca) flew for the first time, the Spanish colonialists and their Peruvian minions were routed and Argentina’s independence asserted. The only way I know to rout my Spanish flatmate is with cocktail creations that cunningly disguise their alcoholic potency. And given we are celebrating a battle, blood was in order, so the only thing to start the day with would be some kind of Bloody Mary. And then I realised that the holiday fell midweek so few people would be scampering off to the country side and the weather was likely to be awful, so a long, late, lunch was in order. I rang a dozen people and a dozen people said yes. I decided on a Spanish theme, a kind of last meal for the vanquished.

The only trouble with making a Bloody Mary here in Argentina, is that you can’t buy tomato juice. Pasata, puré, tinned tomatoes and tomato concentrate are all locally produced, juice no. Most bars simply dilute the puré but it doesn’t work. You end up with a claggy, uncooked tasting (but needing to be cooked), strangely textured brew. When I first got here I tried selecting the ripest tomatoes and simply liquidising them. That doesn’t work either. You end up with a foamy, innocuous, light pink solution that starts to separate five minutes after making your drink. I was served this recently at a restaurant with brunch-time pretentions and while I knew where they were coming from, I still had to send in back. So how do you create a fresh, zingy, flavour rich juice that won’t separate into anaemic layers, from the plethora of natural, sun-ripened ingredients available from your Bolivian brothers?

This brought me back to the Spanish theme and given the date, a Monty Pythnesque “What did the Spanish ever do for us?” Answer, they gave us Gazpacho, the fundamental, no cooking involved, dish of peasant Spaniards with too little money and too many tomatoes. And in my experience it can be served thick or thin, textured or smooth, spiced or not…. Thankfully the only point of the Internet is to fulfil ones private fetishes and one man’s porn is another man’s food porn. I spent a happy couple of hours researching Gazpacho.  Naked of course as the humidity was terrible!

After my unsuccessful fresh tomato liquidising experiment, I was looking for something that would guarantee redness, not just of the juice but also of the drink once colourless vodka had been added in copious quantities. And a strong flavour that would dominate the cheap Smirnoff I was going to use! Basically, this was to be a Breakfast Bloody, vitamins aplenty and with a disguised Vodka kick that would assist with the integration of my disparate group of invitees.  I settled on a roast tomato and red pepper recipe to bastardise in my own special way. I write about it because it is spectacularly easy, tasted excellent, takes little time and I doubt that I will ever buy tomato juice again, even if it becomes available. With the addition of garlic, and a bit of white bread it would also be an excellent Gazpacho, to which I would still add a slurp of Sherry at the end.

To the recipe: Buy a kilo of the best (reddest) tomatoes you can find.  Slash a cross in them and squeeze a little to open up. Yes they look a bit anaemic inside, don’t they? Pour a tiny bit of olive oil into the opening and roast on a medium heat until they feel quite hot. Cover and stick in fridge overnight (I have no idea whether this makes any difference, but I was ready for bed. The next day there was lots of delicious juice in the bowl). Char a red pepper or two and peel (the only time consuming thing). Peel a couple of cucumbers and cut up (I peeled because I didn’t want a green tinge). Cut up tomatoes but don’t bother peeling if you are going to whizz this into a juice (you may wish to for a very refined Gazpacho, but you can always stick it through a fine sieve). You will notice that they are strangely much redder inside. Throw everything (probably two batches for the average size blender) into the liquidizer and whizz adding cold water until you get to desired consistency. Salt and lemon to taste. Chill for as long as possible for the flavours to meld. Makes 2 to 3 litres. Serve as a spiked Gazpacho (it can absorb a lot of vodka without the flavour altering – dangerous) with a bit of black pepper and a light sherry float, or just use it for a trad Bloody Mary mix.

As I use my blog as an aide memoir about what people really liked (if they fight for the last piece of something or demand refills until the supply ends I am a happy guy), a couple of other observations. The BM’s went very well with tostados (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomato) with some good Serrano Ham, which is surprisingly cheap at San Francisco (Thames and Corrientes).

Also, as it was a Spanish meal, we had to have something fishy, always a problem here. I bought the biggest raw (in reality shocked in boiling water to facilitate the removal of their shells) prawns I could find. Not an outrageous price. Made the simplest of dishes, gambas al ajillo; warmed a lot of great olive oil with a copious amounts of large slices of garlic and chilli until the flavours infused. Heat up, and two minutes cooking. The feedback? One of the best dishes of the day and plenty of dipping in the infused oil was done. The secret? I think that frozen prawns have to be defrosted really slowly to retain their texture and cooked very briefly (and don’t bother with the traditional hot clay dishes, they look great but the prawns will continue cooking and turn to mush), and excellent olive oil, which I bought in an unlabelled bottle from Bodega Amparo (Darwin and Gorriti) from a shelf with a hand written sign saying “Excellent Olive Oil.” I presume they buy it in bulk and transfer it into bottles.

Of course there were a number of other dishes and copious amounts of excellent pinot noir (the unheralded star of the Argentine wine scene) but thank God everyone was stuffed by the time we got to the paella, because the rice was a disaster!! Ah well, back to cooking school in March.