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.

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Solid Choices

 

olaya1

The 5th Floor is quiet at the moment but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. The rational for staying at a more intimate establishment such as our own is not just the familial atmosphere but also the access to local knowledge and the planning ability of your hosts. Of course The Faena offers you an Experience Manager and most other hotels a Concierge. Undoubtedly she (at least at the former it normally is a she) will be considerably younger and decidedly prettier than myself but does she spend her spare time trawling through auction catalogues to judge the quality of the respective houses’ pre-sale exhibitions or journeying off to the new spaces and events that the Ministry of Culture has just inaugurated? I doubt it, she is probably saving herself for a good evening’s clubbing.

Does she pore over restaurant reviews, agonising about lack of consistency or a sudden change of chef? Unlikely. She probably doesn’t have the money to eat out often nor the international experience to make her recommendations relevant. If you want to pop a few pills and dance till sun-up, a Faena experience manager may be for you. She will know the Buenos Aires club scene far better than myself. If you are looking for solid food choices to fortify you for your daily cultural program, maybe not.

However providing our “Super-Concierge” service is hard graft. We can’t rely on third-party reviews and pretty photos to enhance our list of recommended restaurants. We have to get out there, literally get our snouts in the trough, ignore the perils of piling on the pounds. After all our credibility is at stake! And sometimes it is disheartening. The BA food scene is developing incredibly quickly, but is still too frequently hit and miss. Sometimes I become despondent, lock myself in the kitchen and just cook what I know I like, for maybe a week. However, having had a few good experiences recently after integrating with a voracious group of foodies on Facebook, we were once again inspired and have put in some Serious Eating, obviously “on behalf of our future clients”, sampling the (relatively) new and venturing out to check quality at a couple of the more established.

CEVICHEDoes Buenos Aires really need another Peruvian fusion restaurant? They seem to be popping up like moles on a croquet lawn. We took advantage of the fixed-menu offer during Buenos Aires Food Week to try Olaya, one of the most recent, and then returned last week to confirm initial impressions (yes we are conscientious). It seems the answer is yes, if the restaurant in question leans firmly towards its Peruvian roots. The BAFW menu was plainly Peru. We couldn’t not try the classic Ceviche with its attendant Leche de Tigre. It was probably the best I’ve had in BA. Fresh and zingy, unusually spicy for here, delicious leche, and very ample. Having been offered an amuse bouche of 3 tasty and well made Nigris we could have (should have) moved straight onto dessert (also good) but we didn’t. We deviated by way of an unnecessary and not very interesting main course. La Doctora, who spent seven years in Lima, said it was authentic. That didn’t mean I wanted to eat it.

Tiradito

But the ceviche ensured I wanted to return and so I did. I won’t bore you with the details of each dish, the moral of the story is just stick with the generously proportioned starters, sushi, ceviches and tiraditos. We tried four which were all delicious, washed down with good pisco sours (the Peruvian pisco, not the Chilean impostor) and again one much duller main course (which was by then unnecessary). These guys definitely excel at the fiddly stuff, the quirky blends of textures and flavours, the amplification of the freshness of high quality fish. If I want a stir fry I’ll lock myself back in the kitchen and do it myself but you won’t find me imitating the complexities of the plate below. After all, there is a point to going out.

TACUNIGIRI

Other than that, the place has onda, light and airy, you can see the chefs working and the service is great. Although not the bargain option, I’ll be going back. And by the way, this is an efficient market. Chira opened at the about the same time as Olaya, serving Peruvian Fusion in a too-cool looking locale, with a too expensive menu and the feeling you would be face checked on the door. A five minute walk from Olaya, we never went in. It didn’t look welcoming. Or fun. It appears to have already gone belly up. Another expensive RIP in BA’s restaurant scene.

(By way of an aside, if you’ve noticed that my food photography has dramatically improved i’ll let you into my new strategy. If you like the place and are going to write about it nicely, just ask them to send you their pro photos over. It saves all the fiddling around and looking like a bloody train spotter. You are probably an eater not an artist. Stick to what you know you can do well! Of course if you don’t like the place and are going to write nasty things, it’s obligatory to use your turn of the century blackberry to ensure the food images come out even grimier than your review.)

Also relatively new though with enough history to have overcome any teething problems, is Fukuro Noodle Bar, an altogether braver proposition. Genuine homemade Ramen noodle soup that you eat sitting at a bar. Possibly the smallest menu in the world, 5 items including pudding and not a table in sight. Do they really think this is going to work in BA? They insist it will and it appears they are right though it took me several cups of their very acceptable warm sake to get over the shock. I think it works. Both the dumplings and the steamed buns (the sum total of the starters on offer) are excellent. The sort of thing you could eat all day, given an endless supply of sake. The two soups (porky or veggie) high quality and brightly flavoured, the former possibly lacking a bit of gelatinous depth (I had the suspicion it was a tad too healthy tasting). Good noodles and add-ins. Not designed for a romantic night out but for a more rapid meal, definitely a solid and more unusual choice. And they do have hot sauce to liven up the broth.

The two restaurants above fall into the category of stuff I like to eat but don’t know how to make. I can’t see myself mucking around with the technicalities of sushi, the preparation of the myriad of ingredients that need to be ready and added in precise quantities to add to the flavour blend or indeed being confident in accessing the best quality of fresh fish. And while I suspect I could make a more than acceptable porky soup (maybe I’ll take my own next time, strong deep and gelatinous, and pay corkage?), I have no desire to dedicate myself to the intricacies of noodle making.

The next two fall into the category of stuff I like to eat that is time consuming enough and susceptible enough to the chef’s personal touch that I thoroughly appreciate someone else making it (and sourcing the ingredients) and gladly pay for the convenience of being presented with a menu on which there are lots of things that appeal which I can eat immediately.

Social Paraiso, from outside looks like the kind of restaurant I would set up if I ever decided to take the plunge. Smart enough to know you are in a restaurant, unpretentious enough to feel relaxed and not worry about how you are dressed. One assumes, correctly, that this is about food and not fanfare. Its menu seems to rotate with adequate frequency and seasonality and always has a variety of options I want to try. And this I knew just from walking past. Until a few of days ago I had never been in, for some reason whenever it occurred to me to go I could never remember where it was, got distracted, remembered somewhere else I wanted to experience and filed it into the “another day” category. So I’m glad I finally went.

It’s a restaurant that I don’t want to damn by faint praise. It’s solid, not flashy. The dishes taste pretty much as you hope they will. There’s a decent amount of variety on offer for such a small place. I enjoyed everything I had. While it doesn’t concern itself (and rightly so) with cutting edge techniques, it ensures the right variety of flavours on your plate. Top quality bistro food sums it up. And at Bistro prices, the bill was less pretentious than the place and the wine list a study in being reasonable and offering variety and value. I could cook some of their dishes better than them, some of them worse. It’s probably the restaurant I would end up having if I dared. A proper bistro, reasonably priced. There aren’t many competing for this title in BA so the owners should be proud. I’ll be going back.

Cafe San Juan. Finally, I have to admit it. Despite the fact that we live in politically correct, socially aware, anything goes times, I’m prejudiced. I’m eager to dislike television star, skater-boy, heavily tattooed chefs, who have risen to glory on the strength of their success in one minuscule restaurant where mummy and daddy run the front of house and back office. The “we’re a big family, cuddling spiky haired staff saved from a life a drug addiction” publicity back story, leaves me a bit cold. Plus seen from outside, the restaurant is tiny, packed, and they can’t employ a fat waitress as she wouldn’t fit between the tables. I have long skinny legs and I could hardly squeeze to the bathroom. And it didn’t look cheap! Which is probably why, though I’ve known about it for years, I never bothered going. I knew it would disappoint.

May I publicly apologise to said Chef, Leandro Cristóbal for my narrow minded discriminatory assumptions. If he would accept it, I would happily bestow on him the first winner of “The 5th Floor Ugly Food” restaurant awards. The few that follow my blog understand that Ugly Food is a good thing. The triumph of flavour over presentation; Food you eat with your nose first, not your eyes; Peasant sensibilities over bourgeois bling; Simmer in a casserole over boil in a (sous vide) bag; Don’t be afraid of a brown sauce, flavour is often brown! Those that don’t follow my blog may now have some idea of my kind of food.

So finally I went. Already in ebullient mood from a visit to the recently restored and seriously enhanced Quinquela Martin museum in La Boca (possibly the best collection of figurative Argentine paintings in the city), I was ready to try another classic. First myth to dismiss. San Juan isn’t expensive. You have to divide the prices in half because all the dishes are large enough for two. Second, the “too cool for school” staff are actually very pleasant and efficient (given the place is packed on a Sunday lunchtime), interested and knowledgeable and prevented us making the fatal error of ordering two main courses. My only criticism is that if they had stopped us ordering two starters we could have made it to dessert! And the wine list includes 5 of my favourite lunchtime tipple, Pinot Noir, ranging from reasonable to pricey.

cafesanjuan1

There is a selection of Montaditos, tapas mounted on toasty bread. Given the quality of the bread basket and the sheer size of these tapas I felt more bread was unnecessary. However, the couple next to us, looking for a quick bite, shared one tortilla española with big, thick slices of marinated escabeche style aubergine on top (see pic above) and left happy. And for 45 pesos they should have been! We mistakenly had the same, La Doctora’s order, probably fine if you are sticking to the tapas proposition but it didn’t really fit my theory. And I felt the escabeche dominated the omelette and while that might have been smoothed out by the toasty bread I didn’t want to eat more of the bread. But did I mention the excellent bread basket and quality olives arrive FOR NO COVER CHARGE (very unusual in BA), and anyway I had ordered two dishes that I cook a lot myself so wanted to compare.

Rabo de Toro (oxtail, pic above), followed by rabbit. Two dishes that are easy to get right if you pay a lot of attention and even easier to get wrong. In the first the sauce can come out weedy or greasy, or stick and burn. In the second there is always the balance between extracting flavour and tenderness while tee-toeing round the risk of drying out the bunny. Both were perfect, though very different from my own, natural sauces rather than wine enhanced.

cafesanjuan2

The rabo came au natural, but was at least half a tail. Accompanied by oil-dipped and toasted olive bread (yes I told you you should previously avoid the bread based tapas). Frankly, by itself, the lunch of kings! A generous amount of sauce that could have exhausted your bread basket. At 90 pesos a “light” lunch for two. The rabbit was spot on. Plenty of lovely sauce flavoured with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, crunchy triangles of polenta with ham and herbs (and texture). We made a supreme effort, swigged valiantly at a very tasty (Alberto Roca?) Pinot Noir, and finished it all. But then we were stuffed which was a pity, as the desserts going past looked tempting and ample but we couldn’t stretch further.

We wandered down to Coffee Town in the San Telmo covered market for caffeine recovery.

coffeetown

I have to say it makes me happy to come across a celebrity chef who isn’t a fraud. It seems he promotes the same stuff he cooks. Big flavours that won’t bore you. Presentation wise, well it looks like a nice bowl of food, nothing wrong with that. So while Social Paraiso is damn solid and much more convenient finally the two are equally priced. As long as La Doctora promises to stay sober and drive the car (pobrecita) I’ll be going to San Juan but if she wants a couple of cocktails, I have no problem with SP.

Looks like I’m spoiled for choice now, something I couldn’t have said a few years ago. And as both work out around USD 50 for two, including wine, I only need a few more clients to ensure my happy lifestyle.

Cheers and keeping coming chaps, you get the super-concierge service and I remain well fed and content!

Olaya, Humboldt 1550, Palermo Hollywood, 4843 1751

Fukuro Noodle Bar, Costa Rica 5514, Palermo Hollywood, 15 3290 0912

Social Paraiso,  Honduras 5182, Palermo Soho, 4831 4556

Cafe San Juan, Av San Juan 450, San Telmo, 4300 1112

 

Tarquino. The best restaurant in Buenos Aires?

Last Tuesday was my birthday. I decided to splash out. A nice meal for 2 at what I had been assured was the best restaurant in Buenos Aires. This of course made me very nervous. Not about the money you understand. No, about the potential for disappointment. If you follow my blog you will be aware that my dalliance with “top end” cuisine in BA has hardly been a resounding success and given the self perceived anonymity of my early blogging I didn’t hold back with castigations. Now I am a little more involved in the food scene and a little more public and a lot more determined to remain in this fair city, I wonder whether I could go back to say Paraje Arevalo (they might just have had a bad night) or Hernan Gippioni (it could of been a one-off aberration to try and deconstruct a Favaba Asturiana), without them deciding to poison the weasel Englishman?

My nerves were further compounded by the fact that I have recently become the only English integrant of a group of fine fellows ( the Buena Morfa Social Club) who appear to dedicate an unusual amount of time to thinking about what they are next going to eat, eating it, and then reviewing it in some detail or to be honest in fanatic detail or occasionally irritating detail if you have forgotten to turn off Facebook notifications to your mobile phone. But through this group I have already discovered someone who really does provide French country cooking, another who makes world class chocolates and another who makes Osso Bucco empanadas. Not bad for a few weeks membership.

The problem with this group though is it comprises not only foodie enthusiasts but also a lot of chefs, caterers, ingredient and wine providers and restaurant owners. And judging from one owner’s feedback when a number of integrants criticised his reasonably famous steak restaurant, a little negativity could lead to a full blown drama. Albeit, to give the owner his due, the comments were taken very seriously and his staff were clearly called to account on that particular matter.

So this BMSC had unequivocally recommended Tarquino and guess what, head chef Dante Liporace is an active member of the group. Plenty of room for my little birthday dinner to lead to offence then! When I posted on their Facebook site that I was going the Chef liked my comment. Obviously he had never read my blog! It worked out well though as the Buenamorfenses get a special deal but only for very few of them per night. They were already over their quota but as it was my birthday Tarquino kindly extended the same terms to La Doctora and I. And what a deal it was! I didn’t spend a third of the cash I had stuffed my pockets with, determined not to deprive myself of anything on my birthday night. Which is excellent because it means I can use the residual to go back again, which I assuredly will.

So why do I worry about going to smart places here? Because gastronomy generally reminds me of London 20 years ago, where you ate pretty badly in most places, most of the time. Worse however is the fact that the chefs are frighteningly technically competent. Amazing presentation, spheres and foams, orbs and gels, sous vide and flash chilled…but half of them have never spent enough time eating in decent restaurants to understand that the more complicated the technique, the more you have to ramp up the flavour.

Well this Dante guy actually does. He genuinely understands flavours. His dishes leave you with an aftertaste in the same way a good wine should. And to be fair, while he uses a fair amount of molecular gastronomy techniques, a lot of what he ends up serving could be described as modernised classical. And we didn’t have one dish that could have been described as bland.

Neither did he make the common mistake here, of serving us a sub standard offering because we were paying a sub normal price. In fact I was surprised by the generosity of the portions and the unexpected fact that a very decent cabernet was included in the price.

I didn’t take a camera because I don’t care how food looks. I for one don’t eat with my eyes. Nothing is more misleading in the world of molecular gastronomy or perhaps anything to do with food, than photos. It was all pretty enough though, one desert verging on spectacular, presentation wise. More importantly, the flavours were clear and subtly amplified.

Our menu had 2 choices per course which made life easy. We had one of each. I still can’t tell you which I preferred but they were big enough to share without remorse.

Playful, is a new foodie word that can mean anything from the chef is a moron who should have been a conceptual artist of the type that you have to read an essay to understand each work, to he scattered a few petals over the top and called it “Spring”. Dante is playful in his starters although we were already predisposed to like him due to a fine bread basket served with an intense garlic puree dip. He deconstructed a classic cheesy porteño pizza and served it in a glass as a warm foamy mouse. It worked, much better than the original. The other starter was a “playful” take on Duck a l’orange. Tender and well seasoned (though surely sous vide) duck, a totally classic and not too sweet sauce, and a playful orange budin (sponge cake) served as a semi kind of foam. Damn good.

Main course wise we had beef cheek and Surubi, a meaty river fish. Both excellent. Well sauced, well accompanied. Proper flavours.

And then a twist on traditional argentine puddings for dessert. My only criticism of the meal, my orangey spheres were not as intense as the olive spheres served previously with the bread and therefore a bit pointless.

Obviously it was my birthday and as it didn’t seem we were spending enough (the menu was about £16 per head including wine) it was time to speak to the sommelier. A couple of late harvest sweeties to go with the very fine illy coffee. They had 2 by the glass. We had both. Both excellent.

All in all, nothing not to like. We had the last table, so were sat by the swing doors to the kitchen, but that didn’t bother me. The waitress was excellent, professional and attentive without being condescending (another trait in self professed fine dining establishments that I find intensely irritating). I have to mention that in terms of apron design, the waitresses wear a kind of sexy haute couture version. Looks great on them, wouldn’t look so great on me, but definitely enhanced my enjoyment.

Coffee came with macaroons…perfect.

Yes, this probably is the best restaurant in Buenos Aires. Don’t worry about the fancy techniques, they actually add to the flavour for once. The guy is a peasant at heart (and having spent many of my best eating years in the South of France there is no greater compliment) but with an impressive technical ability. You won’t leave confused or short changed!

How he is only ranked 1,600 out of 2,308 restaurants in BA on Tripadvisor defies imagination. Maybe he needs me to do his PR? After all, if I believe in something I can normally make it happen.

And I believe in this. Proper eating in Buenos Aires! The scene is changing. Tarquino will be the first of many. In 5 years, BA will count as one of the foodie capitals of the world. New things are springing up every day. Who can deny that from grey overcooked “British” food, London now serves some of the most vibrant offerings to be found in a capital city. So given that BA is a city of immigrants, there are plenty of roots to go back to.

Get yourself out there, albeit with a healthy sense of criticism and support it. Life is definitely getting better.

 

 

 

“You eat with your eyes first!” Not in my Gaff!!! And Catalan Chicken?

I had a little argument with a dear friend on Saturday night. She doesn’t think I should call my “Puerta Cerrada” supper club, “Ugly Food”.

“It will put people off,” she explained.

“Not if they read my manifesto,” I replied. “If they understand what it’s about it should make them keener. If they don’t, I don’t really want them as guests because it wont make them happy.”

“Oh, so what is your manifesto?”

“Ah, I haven’t written it yet, but it’s very clear in my head.”

And that is when I realised I had just spent a fortune on designing my kitchen all-wrong! Admittedly, I have eaten in restaurants with open plan kitchens where you can see the nice guys in their white uniforms, slaving and sweating over their hot pots. And frankly it doesn’t do it for me. And further, given that I am not as technically accomplished as most of the prima donnas that wish to be on display, I personally prefer the window that I have put in, that allows me to see out (standing) but not for my guests to see in (sitting).

So why, as an aspiring Chef, am I not interested in watching my peers hard at it? Because you can’t smell anything; Because the modern kitchen has an extraction system that sucks the slightest fugitive whiff of aroma out into the wild blue yonder; Because the modern view is you might actually affront your clients with smells of your cooking; But let them see, yes of course, they eat with their eyes!

Bugger! I have just punched a massive hole through three floors of my building and have a shiny silver chimney that goes to the moon. Why, because I believed the ventilation specialists, who claimed that I shouldn’t assail my customers’ nasal passages with food odours. Fine if I was intending a MacDaddy hamburger and fries dinner club, using rancid oil; not so clever as an ugly food producer. What shall I do? Open my window? Turn off the extraction?

Why do I spend time thinking about such trivial matters? Because I cook ugly food and despite an extensive search on the internet I can’t identify who came out with the folkloric but generally accepted concept, “you eat with you eyes first”. I suspect it was some fast food chain, trying to add premium value to their sub prime offering, with a bunch of easily manipulated focus groups and sadistic food scientists in their cellar.

That being said, attractive presentation of food is nothing new but the French were probably the first to assure that the food looked as good as it tasted. Most former efforts I suspect, achieved the reverse and unfortunately there still appears to be an inverse relationship in Argentina, where technique is still triumphing over flavour.

It’s not really a surprise. Most great French Chefs still quote their mother as their greatest influence. Did they come into the kitchen to be presented with a medallion of this, with a smear of that, and a dribble of the other, topped with lovingly tweezered microgreens? I doubt it. They came into the kitchen to be assailed by the aroma of a big pot of this, and the baking of that and the reducing of something else. Do you think they ever asked themselves, “I wonder how all that is going to look?”

Similarly, I was lucky enough to have a mother who produced consistently flavoursome food. Do you think I ate her bacon-laden lentil stew or her oxtail soup with my eyes? No, no one could have ever called it pretty, but a blind man could have followed the smell.

There is a reason blind wine tastings are done blind. It’s so you are not influenced by the flash or the marketing, the ancestral heritage or the price. Yes, they still let you look at the colour, swirl it round so the “legs” indicate its alcohol level, but the most important thing is to stick your beak into it, then suck oxygen over it in your mouth, in order to ram it into your nasal passages. Only then are you are allowed to use your taste buds. Try guessing what a food is, say a banana or a mango, with your eyes closed (having obviously recruited an assistant to randomly choose and feed you a random food type). Not that difficult. Peg your nose closed as well; Nigh on impossible.

So my manifesto? Flavour before photographability? Stuff that smells? Enough sauce to flavour each bite, not just a decorative dribble?

The first thing you learn cooking as a “professional”, is not to worry about wastage. Apparently man-hours cost more than ingredients. Which implies that lovingly made stocks and sauces are possibly not a profit centre for most restaurants? It may actually be more profitable to concentrate on presentation as long as you fool more than half of the people, more than half of the time.

But I don’t really want to be a restaurant chef. I am a happy home chef, I like to entertain, and most of my guests love three out of four of my courses (or more if you subtract the picante-intimidated argentines). I want to cook seasonal, using the stuff that my Bolivian has fresh. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn all the classic techniques. It does mean that if you say, “this doesn’t look too pretty”, I won’t pay much heed. If you tell me that my food is bland, I guarantee you don’t have to pay! Though your dessert may contain something from my little packet of nuclear chillies that has been sitting in a locked cupboard whose instructions start, “Before opening this packet put on gloves and a face mask….”. Sounds as though they will add a bang to a chocolate volcano!

A long and you may think unnecessary lead-up to a recipe, invented a couple of nights ago that turned out deliciously, and strangely doesn’t seem to have anything like it that can be discovered by a google search of the most obvious terms and ingredients. A further advantage (for my inflation oppressed Argentine friends) is that it provides a hearty portion (mashed potato included) for less than 15 pesos a head. There is however, and for me this justifies a restaurant’s price (any idiot can cut up expensive Foie Gras and stick it on a piece of toast), a hefty investment of time.

It’s winter now in BA, which means it has dropped under 10 degrees C, as in “Summer” for you Brits, as in “estamos muriendo de frio!!!” And both I and La Doctora have been ill. Flu. Obviously, it’s the temperature change, down from 21 degrees three days ago. “Eso te mata, la verdad, te maaaata”. I really hadn’t eaten for a couple of days and was ready for something warming. And strongly flavoured. But I didn’t want to run around looking for ingredients, I was still too weak! So I went to the fridge, to see what was there. Onions. Why is it whenever you go to buy ingredients you never remember whether you still have onions, so you buy more just in case? I was not just suffering from flu after-effects but also from Onion Build Up. Time to rectify both.

The most obvious solution was French Onion Soup, but that lacked protein so the resolution was a sherry, enhanced (Spanish?) chicken dish with a reduced and turbo boosted French onion sauce. Maybe they serve something similar in Perpignan? Let’s call it Catalan Chicken (though if you stop before the chicken and sherry part it’s also French Onion Soup) and here we go;

Drag all your onions out of the fridge, buy some more, slice all roughly, you need several kilos (too many doesn’t exist), then stick them in a big pot with olive oil and go for it over a high heat for at least 20 minutes stirring regularly!…no onion burning required! Garlic and finely chopped ginger will enhance.

Lower the heat, and cook for another 40 minutes, stirring regularly, throwing in a couple of teaspoonful of sugar half way through if they don’t seem sweet enough. Then the secret; For the soup, the onions should have acidity. They don’t have much here, so bung in some apple vinegar. For the sauce don’t be shy, bung in lots. And give it another 10 minutes at least. The truth is, the longer and slower you cook this mountain of onions, the better it will taste. If you want to be El Capo de Capos, you can go up to 5 hours!!

Ok, recipes diverge here. If you are making the classic soup you need beef stock. You remember? The one you made with the bones the Carnicero gave you for your “dog”. Add stock to your browned onions (maybe add one star anise) bubble for a bit, do the crouton and cheese thing, add a swig of sherry and listo…it’s only time invested.

For the chicken dish, use chicken stock, obviously. Three kilos of leg and thigh (pata y muslo) currently cost 39 pesos. Feeds five butchered badly (yes you have to remove the bones and rip the skin off), don’t worry about taking the bones out in a sophisticated manner. The more flesh on the bone, the better the next stock (otherwise you can buy chicken carcases for about 4 pesos a kilo and get your butcher to do the work).

Fry the chicken hot with a bit of soy sauce, cut up when well browned and throw into sauce (maybe with a chilli and another big swig of Sherry) and again, cook slowly (time, time, time). If possible, finish cooking and leave overnight to intensify.

I’m not publishing a photo of the end result, because it looks like so many of the other foods I cook. Brown. My cooking teachers tell me that a bunch of different colours on the plate will make my food more “attractive”.

Would I find my Puligny Montrachet or Mersault de Hospice de Beaunes more attractive if it had some carefully crafted colour layering? Ni en pedo (I bet you can guess what that means)!

But close your eyes and stick your nose into it. Does it smell brown? No it smells like the result of hard labour. Sweetness and acid, meaty sauce soaking into creamy yellow (skin on) mash. Some carrots for taste and ok, they do give a bit of colour.

Un exito! If your friends don’t like this just get new friends. After all, it has taken you hours.

Stuffin’ Chickens

First let me assure those of you that know me, that the title does not refer to some “special interest” group that I have recently found on the internet! Instead it is indicative of the current focus of my Chef’s course, which is all about big knives and getting to grips with dead things. However, if you type the latter into Google (which I just did) you might get an interesting insight into some of the weirdos that inhabit cyberspace. I can certainly conclude that the title Stuffin’ Zombies would have bought more traffic to my humble blog.

Anyway, the equally humble chicken was the focus this week. Having learnt to truss it and portion it, we have moved on to deboning and stuffing it. Sometimes I struggle not to continue thinking like an investment banker. Why, I have caught myself asking myself, would I waste my valuable time on tricky deboning, when my super efficient chicken butcher will helpfully work his way through ten kilos of bird parts in the same time it takes me to get through two? Then I remind myself that I’m no longer an investment banker (I hear few people are these days and most of those prefer to remain in the closet for obvious reasons), and in the time I save myself not cutting chickens up, I generally generate zero revenue. Worse, in the time not engaged in figuring out the intricacies of chicken anatomy, there is a very real chance I will think of some specification upgrade to regale my builders with or a must-have piece of equipment for my little bed and breakfast, thereby diminishing my fast dwindling reserves even faster.

Of course I am a seasoned prevaricator and am able to come up with a number of other reasoned arguments for not cutting up chickens. The first is that I don’t use the breasts much or at least I didn’t in England. Given the choice between horrible, steroid enhanced, water-pumped supermarket fare, or free range, rare breed, sell-your-granny-to-buy-your-dinner priced fowl, I always opted for the legs of the latter which for some strange reason were substantially cheaper (they are the same price per kilo as breast here) and could be slow cooked in a tasty sauce without drying out. However, here the breasts don’t seem to shrink in the same way, even with the farmed variety, though I still think it worth a few pesos more to go for the country guys (pollo de campo).

Anyway, having had a little talk with myself, I reminded me that I was now a person of limited resources (most of which are earmarked to pay for the 5th Floor’s restoration), and that I should start taking my profession of hospitality provider and chef pretty seriously before I go broke. I quickly riposted (to myself of course) that the problem of a chicken is the same as that of a duck. A duck is too much for one but not enough for two. A chicken can just about make 3 people happy, but is a bit meagre for four. My new self argued that I was not making the most of my recent education, and won over the residual investment banker in me, by making the point that whole chickens are substantially cheaper than the prepared cuts I normally demand. In my new life, I need one chicken to feed four, luxuriously! But also economically!! Stuffing is the answer. Cheap but tasty ingredients, things in the fridge you wondered what you were going to do with, the seasonal gluts that lower the price of a particularly wonderful fruit or vegetable. They are all your friends!

So the first thing with a chicken is to cut off the breasts and thighs (go and look on youtube if this is still  mystery). It doesn’t matter if you do this badly, leaving lots of meat on the carcass because you are going to roast that anyway before making stock with it. If you do it really badly, after roasting pick off some of the remaining meat with your fingers to make chicken soup once your stock is ready.

Stuffing? Well it turns out the breasts couldn’t be easier. Get the fat end towards you, stick the knife in nearly to the end (along one side) and make an ark as you pull it out . What you want is small entry wound, big pocket. Stuff with whatever you have to hand (I had a pear that I cooked briefly with a sweet chile in escabeche and then mixed with blue cheese). A couple of toothpicks to seal it but dont brown it as you give it a quick sizzle in a buttered pan, and then poach in your previously made stock.

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The thighs, a bit more complex as you have to remove the femur and then cut the ligaments around the top to move the meat down the bone while retaining the skin, but given the meat is more flavoursome it’s difficult to go too wrong. Classically called Jambonneau (little ham), I stuffed it with some quickly fried red peppers and green olives. If you trying to be a grown up chef you should then sow the thing neatly up with needle and thread, but if you are cooking for friends a few toothpicks and a protective slice of jamon crudo do the trick pretty well. Then roast the little chaps until their skins are nicely browned.

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Reduce some white wine and add a bit of cold roux to thicken the poaching stock while the breasts are resting. Mix and reduce some more. That’s your sauce.

Serve with a bit of garlic infused mash, don’t bother peeling the potatoes, the slight bitterness counteracts buttery garlic, and some brussel sprouts roasted with smoked panceta.

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Plate it elegantly(ish), take a photo, and then add lots more sauce because actually people like sauce. It’s food, not a bloody painting!

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Ugly but good and more than adequate for four, with the added advantage of a couple of liters of left over chicken stock for soups and sauces. Well worth the effort.

Paraje Arevalo – Who stole all the Flavours?

I’ve waited a few days to write this review, hoping a sense of balance or at least forgiveness might return. I’ve already bored my girlfriend with plain anger, biting sarcasm or what I consider bitter humour but she probably just considers bitter. Why do I take it so personally? Why do I feel I’ve been defrauded? Yes, it was an expensive evening. But two fifths of the cost was reasonably expensive wine, so hardly the restaurant’s fault. Perhaps it is my age. I thoroughly resent it when someone steals three hours of my precious remaining time, to subject me to an unpleasant ordeal. I moved to Buenos Aires to escape tedium. This restaurant managed to inflict it upon me.

The evening started so well. Cocktails and Osso Bucco Empanadas at the Fierro Hotel. Well made drinks and delicious tapas, even if this newcomer dish may have been stolen from my blog (I know they follow it). If it was, they had improved it. Miniaturised the empanadas, stuffed them really full, and then fried them. Excellent. Crisp, light, tasty and juicy. I should have just stayed and eaten a dozen of them!!!

Then we went to the Livian Guest House, drank a couple of glasses of champagne in their garden while listening to a good singer/guitarist before cramming into their living room to watch a show by a magician/mentalist type chap. I hate magicians. This one was a mentalist. He picked up on my negative body language immediately and recruited me as his assistant. And OK, he was brilliant. So good in fact that, despite the fact I was starving and very much looking forward to the tasting menu at Paraje Arevalo, I rather resented leaving 10 minutes before the end of his show to catch our reservation.

But I went with enthusiasm and the expectation (I’d read a lot of reviews, several by people whose opinions I respect, and the chef apparently worked at the Fat Duck) that I was going to eat an adult, sophisticated, intensely flavoured meal, possibly with some challenging dishes. In fact I’ve been meaning to go to Paraje Arevalo for some months, so missing the opportunity to see said magician get it wrong and pierce his hand on one of the hidden spikes he uses and has his audiences shuffle, was a small sacrifice.

Except it wasn’t.

El Bulli, Noma, The Fat Duck, Molecular Gastronomy, etc. etc. etc.!!! Liberally dispersed in marketing material of whichever hip new restaurant, but what does it all mean? Well I’ve eaten at Heston’s restaurant and was the proud owner of his cookbook. It weighs more than the Bible, Koran, Torah, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead put together and only covers about 10 recipes. And its focus has nothing to do with molecular gastronomy, if by that you mean weird scientific practices for nebulising, quick-freezing, sous-viding and all of the rest of the apparently indispensable armoury of equipment and techniques of the “modern” chef. No, the reason his recipes take a minimum of three-bloody-days to cook is that they all start with classic (though sometimes enhanced) methods of concentrating flavours. All of them. In often very non technical and highly labour intensive manners. A mere mortal like me may look at some of them and say, really? Will anyone notice? I mean, if I haven’t slept for 48 hours to get this perfect stock ready to cook with, I want my friends to be such gourmets that they really care. Heston presumes they will.

So if you eat at Heston’s restaurant you may love some of the dishes, you may hate some of the dishes or you may be able to appreciate why something is interesting despite not being remotely to your tastes. What you will not think is “bugger, this is bland”. You won’t sit there thinking, this guy is wasting my time. You will never say, hmm, where is the discernible flavour? Because, like it or hate it, Heston specialises in concentrating all the discernible flavours into something that you can’t ignore. Only then does he move onto (for me the entirely optional step) of an eccentrically, science laboratory assisted, presentation.

You may notice there are no photos in this review? Why? Because with food I’m beginning to think there is nothing more misleading. A picture may speak a thousand words, but they may all be lies. You can’t photograph an aroma, a flavour, a foretaste or aftertaste. We all wander around now clicking our food, thereby impressing upon chefs that appearance is 90% of the battle. We are forcing them towards the flim-flam of presentation rather than the coalface of traditional technique. At cooking school recently my teacher explained that he spent a lot of time with books of Salvador Dali to improve his plating art. Fantastic, if he’s already got the flavours going on. Otherwise I’d prefer to be served by a big Italian mama with the plating technique of Jackson Pollock.

I love tasting menus. A friend of mine recently raved about the pillow menu in the last hotel he stayed at. The height of luxury he thought. I can’t think of anything worse. There are enough decisions to take in life, why do I even need to think about pillows? Just give me a good one or leave a variety on the bed. A tasting menu is perfect for me. Give me eight dishes that you are confident say something. I’m happy if four are good. I don’t even mind if one is disgusting, Heston’s snail porridge for instance (even though I love snails), or his horrible egg and bacon ice cream. The latter actually made me feel slightly nauseous but at least it didn’t bore me. I’m happy to give up free choice if I am confident that “el commandante” knows what he is doing.

Sadly, I know I have to get down to specifics. Eight tedious courses of specifics. I’ll be brief. If you are going to serve retro potato chips (crisps in English) please dry them on a bit of kitchen towel first rather than letting the oil run into the bottom of the serving receptacle. Put salt on the witty fresh popcorn.

Raw (and probably pre-frozen) scallops don’t taste of much here unless marinated. Cauliflower crème didn’t do anything to enhance. If I hadn’t been wearing my glasses the dish would have been invisible, slivers and smears of white against a white plate.

Then a tasty, mushroomy, pancake was ruined by an incomprehensible sugary candy-floss topping.

The sous-vide poached egg, then bread-crumbed and deep fried, was fine, but an egg without salt?

Something else??? Certainly there wasn’t a crunchy mouth cleansing salad!

Sadly, the famous Palermo restaurant hijackers did not come through the door at this point, relieve us of all our money and put us out of our misery.

Then steak. An original choice in Argentina? Sous vide, purple rare. Actually very well seasoned. Perfect for me, horrible for a couple of my companions. As you were not asked how you liked your steak cooked, they were thoroughly put off by the purple meat and the bloody juices seeping into the mashed potato. Good for me, I was starving still, so ate theirs. Strangely though, I have yet to meet an Argentinian who would contemplate eating meat this rare.

A couple of puddings, something on a big Chinese spoon, no idea what it was. Then a chocolate desert. Not only the epitome of bland but surrounded by a white sauce that they didn’t have enough of. So they served the last person at our table with the same but instead of the flavourless white crème, they dragged some yogurt out of the back of the fridge and told us it was the same. It wasn’t but sadly it wasn’t better. The waiter refused to admit it wasn’t the same. The cook didn’t dare come out of the kitchen to answer the accusation. However, as it actually tasted of something (old yogurt) it was undeniable.

I seem to have forgotten a couple of courses, but I remember that they cannot have been memorable. Or maybe the greasy crisps were a course? Was the bread basket the other? Who knows or cares? Halfway through the meal we’d all lost the will to live or at least remain sober, hence the size of the bill. Swigging had become a necessity.

It still confuses me how the reality of this restaurant diverged from my well-researched expectations. Perhaps the chef owners had been called away by a sudden death in the family? Maybe they were running low on ingredients? Maybe their food is designed with the photographer in mind, not the diner? Certainly it was not a patch on Las Pizarras (Thames 2296), which produces classic, big-flavoured dishes with simple presentation. I should go back and give it another go. Anyone can have a bad night. But then again maybe the owner will read this review. Better not to risk it!

Paraje Arevalo, Arevalo 1502, ( tel: 4775-7759) in case for some obscure reason you are still interested in going.

Ugly Food!

The problem with immaculate presentation is it raises expectations that only the finest chefs can fulfil. Further, the trend seems to be that if the ingredient is listed in the dish description, it has to appear separately and identifiably on the plate, or the punters will be up in arms. “I thought this came garnished with Kashmiri crocus stigmas?” they moan, not content that their paella’s rich vapour and distinctive yellow hue is due to the prior infusion of said saffron.

More disturbing is the fashion of “deconstructing” a perfectly good dish into its separate ingredients and hoping a clever sauce will somehow meld the flavours together and imbue it with the resonance that good, slow, one pot cooking would have surely provided. There is a reason that certain dishes have stood the test of centuries and the chef that once provided me with a deconstructed Cassoulet de Toulouse certainly deserved beheading by the very brotherhood of French knights whose sworn duty it is to defend this dish, ( see http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Searching-For-The-Secrets-Of-Cassoulet). The excuse given? Well in these health conscious times the chef was unwilling to inflict on his public’s arteries those delicious beans which act as sponges for the duck and ham fats that make this dish so unctuous. So he served the beans on the side, boiled, with some form of warm garlic and tomato coulis, which just rolled off the beans and clashed acidly with the roast duck breast, shaving of ham hock and garlic sausage rounds. The dish looked pretty though.

Of course good looks do not preclude impressive flavour. I ate 18 times in a my 24 day stay in Beijing at the amazing Da Dong Duck.Their coffee-table book style menu includes full page photos of every one of the hundreds of dishes which all come out tasting like your best imaginings of the images’ potential if the chef was a complete genius who ruled his 150 kitchen staff with tyrannical precision. Which he was and he did. (Click on “dishes” here – http://www.dadongdadong.com/en – to a get a feeling for what I am talking about. The only reason to go to that godforsaken city!). While I have never eaten (and will sadly now never have the opportunity) at El Bulli, I have visited the Fat Duck where Heston Blumenthal’s dishes are love them or hate them but guaranteed to elicit some flavoursome reaction. And are of course exquisitely presented.

(Aside – If you share my obsession with good chefs and better ducks you may enjoy this video of Heston visiting Beijing so Da Dong can teach him how to make the perfect Peking duck – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jsc_hR47E0)

Anyway, I hope the above is adequate justification for what you are about to see. It’s not pretty I’m afraid. The only thing I do worse than food presentation is photography. However, at the request of a young American friend who is forsaking us to return to Yanquilandia, Friday night called for big, dirty flavoursome food and I was tasked with a classic Osso Bucco and fresh pasta as the main course.

The starter barely seems worth mentioning. A nice sweet honeydew melon liberally garnished with Serrano style ham. I bother however, just to take the opportunity to point out to my Buenos Aires brethren that the Fiambreria San Francisco (corner of Thames and Corrientes) provides top quality produce at half the price of anywhere else! Buy their Brie, leave it in a warm cupboard for 3 days, decline your maids urgent admonitions to cleanse the kitchen of the foul smelling beast and once it can run as fast as you, France comes to you thus saving you the money and inconvenience of the opposite course of action.

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Shiny, winey, marrow rich sauce with melting meat.

For the Osso Bucco I tweaked the classic Gordon Ramsay recipe (http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785). However, you can’t get veal in Argentina or at least not the pale fleshed kind from some poor animal that has spent all its life in a box and never felt the sun’s warmth before meeting an untimely demise. So you have to use the robust, fully fledged, cook for at least 4 hours until tender version. The advantage is that you don’t need to muck around making a veal stock to cook it in, as it makes its own as it goes along. If you have clicked on the recipe you will see the benefit. My strategy is simply to combine all the goodies in the veal stock recipe with all the goodies in the Osso Bucco one, cheat with a bit of chicken stock and as I wanted a generous amount of sauce for my pasta rather than the minimalist reduction Gordon requires, tip in some tomatoes and a bottle of red (for about 3 kilos of meat) after about 2 hours of cooking. The great thing about slow cooking is it allows you to layer flavours while giving them time to meld. So while I wanted to enhance the umami flavour of the mushrooms with some worcester (anchovy) or fish sauce and salt up the dish with some soya sauce, I didn’t want to lose the mushrooms texture by adding them early in the process. Fried up quickly in a pan with the added ingredients, they tasted horrible when ready to be added to the sauce but after an hour’s simmer reinforced its depth and counteracted the wines acidity. A technique that I have recently learnt at chef school is the use of cold roux for thickening sauces. Add equal parts flour to belted butter, cook up for 2 minutes and then cool and put into the fridge. When you come to use it it will be a crumbly, plastic texture and you can break it into the sauce progressively until you achieve the thickness you require. Unlike cornflour, it adds a buttery sheen and avoids the risk of uncooked floury lumps that other methods sometimes provoke.

The result? Artery clotting goodness, but sadly not enough bones to suck the marrow from.

Anglo Argentine Cake

Puddings are something I rarely eat. Other than their magnificent ice cream, Argentine preferences verge on the sickly sweet. But as I have no choice but to study Pastelería as part of my course, I went for a simple sponge and some anglo argentine flavour layering. A filling of fresh peaches, quickly cooked up in a liquid of hesperidina (bitter orange) liquor topped with the classic Eton Mess, whipped cream, strawberries and crumbled meringue.

“Eton Mess” topping

Certainly looked a mess, but managed to be surprisingly light and fruity. Now I have to work out how to deconstruct it to rectify its hideous appearance!!