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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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.

Burger Joint – Cheap can leave you Cheerful!

The UK press abounds with Shergar munching misery. Cheap food surprisingly appears to be made with cheap ingredients. Who would have thought it? The rare-breed, black face, Angus cow that you believed to be in your ready-made lasagne, turns out to have been an early faller in the 3.30 at Kempton races. Neigh, I don’t believe it, I hear you snort.

Well, your average Tesco rump steak costs £15 per kilo but you can buy frozen burgers at Iceland for £2.20 a kilo.  So what cut of meat is 6 times cheaper than rump steak? As they say in the States “you do the math!” And to save you the headache of nodulating over this inequilateral equation for too long, I’ll give you the answer. It’s called filler, something that is such a disgusting mixture of mechanically recovered gunge, dubious species, chemical flavourings, stabilisers and other atrocities, that no right thinking person would ever inflict a cheap burger on his nearest or dearest.

Actually, the horse meat is the least of your worries. It’s generally a lean, healthy, dark meat, though rather strong tasting and sweet for my tastes. Of course, no civilised person would ever eat it, let alone kill a horse (not an unbiased view, I consider myself a horseman after all). Unless of course it was a mercy killing, though thereinafter you are obliged to dig an unfeasibly large hole and erect a massive marble monument. Well, other than the French obviously, but despite our admiration for the rest of their wonderful cuisine, we still have doubts about their intimate shaving abilities.  Says it all doesn’t it? Horse murderers with hairy armpits!

Much has been made of the dangers of Bute, the equestrian painkiller of choice to relieve the swollen joints of the hardworking equine and its potentially toxic effect in the food chain. Well I had an arthritic friend that swore by it, demanding the vet prescribe it for her perfectly sound horse, so she could anaesthetise her own depleted synovials.  Given the small percentage of horse meat found in most filler, you would have to eat a hundred burgers a day to feel the beneficial effects of the Bute as you go for that yoga stretch. And by that time, the rest of the (totally legitimate, cow based) rubbish will have killed you.

Happily I live in Buenos Aires. The best meat at my not-inexpensive butcher costs about 52 pesos per kilo (£4.72 on the “blue” market). I want to make burgers? 70% rump (cuadril) fat left on, with 30% rib eye (ojo be bife). Passed through the mincer twice. While I watch! Like a bloody hawk!! My target is about 20% fat, which will keep the burger nice and moist as it cooks. If the meat is a bit older and has gone that browny-purple colour, so much the better. A kilo will do 8 decent burgers and guess what, it’s top quality steak. You can cook it rare.

There are a lot of theories about making and cooking a “proper” burger. They all have their merits. Some even use filler, but only nice things, breadcrumbs, onions, herbs, garlic, and eggs to bind? Whatever takes your fancy?……… Thin or thick is a reasonable debating point. Thin is about getting that tasty crust on the outside while leaving the inside moist and tender. It’s focussed on the Maillard reaction (nonenzymatic browning) that imparts the flavours that the burger chains try and replicate with their various additives. Done well it’s good, if a little crunchier. Thick is more about the meat’s inherent taste and texture. It’s more complicated to cook. You can squash a thin burger and it seems to “rise” during the cooking process, its texture loosening. Squash a fat one together (perhaps using that abomination, the hamburger press) and the heat penetrates unevenly, leaving you with a solid mass, overcooked on the outside with a cold blue interior.

Heston (Blumenthal) is a cook with an obsessive/compulsive disorder that a Buenos Aires psychiatrist could make their life’s work. It might take you three days just to prepare breakfast according to his strictures. However when he says a burger should be light and airy, I believe him. After all, if you want a steak, then buy a steak. The problem with a light, airy burger, is how do you get it to stick together? There are two things he recommends; one, add quite a lot of salt before you mix the meat (it breaks down certain enzymes and acts like a light glue and appears to render out with the fat) and two, align the fibres as they come out of the mincer, roll them in cling-film, chill, then cut in rounds. I’m sorry, the first I can handle but my butcher already thinks I’m weird (and overly demanding). If I ask him to match up the fibres, he’s going to slip Black Beauty’s nether regions into the mix, just for fun. Though maybe when I have my own mincing machine….?

So my burgers I want quite rare. Thick and loose! And with the full benefit of the Maillard reaction. What’s the plan? Well I mix the above-described mince with salt, very finely cut garlic, a dollop of oyster sauce (and optionally finely minced onions). I kind of throw them lightly between my hands, minimum pressure, hoping the salt has made them a bit sticky. And then I take Gordon Ramsey’s steak cooking advice, which can be summed up as, turn the heat up to inferno temperature and keep the buggers moving. As with a steak you will gradually achieve the lovely brown exterior, but if you flip every 30 seconds, the inside will be evenly done; none of the graduations from grey to blue. And remember, you have just bought quality meat. You could eat it as tartare!

As a side note, English public health fanatics are trying to ban the occurrence of the rare burger, I kid you not;

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9731808/Is-this-the-end-of-the-rare-burger.html )

Hopefully, they may now have something more important to worry about? Neigh?

Anyway, to the point of this ramble; The girlfriend and I went off on one of those long directionless walks and we passed a hamburger joint, called the “Hamburger Joint “ that a Chef friend of mine had recently written up. http://nolachef.net/2013/02/27/ba-faves-burger-joint-palermo/

I don’t always follow Lisa’s recommendations. She’s a yank. I’m not. And while she is a great cook, there is a fast-food cultural difference. She wants better quality fast-food (http://nolachef.net/2013/02/13/burger-bliss/). I don’t care!!! However, this place had a different “Onda” and we were peckish. Surely worth giving a shot?

To be fair, I’m spending a lot of time studying the food scene here. I for one remember how badly you could eat in London 15 years ago. Or how badly you can eat in Sheffield now? I suspect that in ten years Buenos Aires will be the new gourmet venue and I really want to be a part of it. If I ever serve you horse, it will have a family tree back to Nijinsky, and be charged accordingly. And maybe smoked over the tobacco of pure Cuban cigars?

Other than Lisa’s recommendation, the other thing that encouraged me to try the Burger Joint was a complaint on another review site. “It took them 20 minutes to cook my burger,” moaned Mr Never Cooked.  Well of course it does if they have a successful business, people waiting, and cook everything from fresh. What do you want, a pre-cooked horse patty that comes out in 3 minutes?

The place? Scruffy chic, kind of Rock and Roll, who cares? The burger, biggish, a bit more of the flattened ilk, quality meat, looks like beef, tastes like beef, they ask you how you want it cooked but it all comes out medium-well done. Chips that actually taste of potatoes. Nice fresh guacamole, red onions and salad. Big squeezy bottles of different sauces including a picante that is actually picante.

The fact is, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, I went to Wendy’s recently. I heard a lot of ex-pats squealing joyfully about this addition to BA’s cultural continuum. And while I’d tried Mickey D and Burger King in extremis, this sounded different. I don’t think we have them in England. The American dream or at least the genuine diner experience? Turns out it’s the same dross but with a rectangular burger, so it protrudes enticingly from the round bun. Disgusting all the same! And the interesting thing is, is that their equivalent, hyper processed, artificially enhanced, hamburger interloper combo (fries and a drink), is MORE expensive than the same at Hamburger Joint, a place where the potatoes taste shockingly of potatoes.

Hamburger Joint annoys me. It’s a business I’ve given a lot of thought to. Six months ago it wouldn’t have been difficult to compete in a market where it was virtually impossible to find an edible burger. Now, looking at how busy they are for their 55 peso Mexican combo’s, (with real potatoes and drink) maybe I should just ask for a franchise?

And by the way, the people were nice, enthusiastic, no problem changing the mistaken diet coke for the full fat version. I hope they stay that way as success leads to their commercial roll out! I hope they keep the 5 different homemade squeezy bottles of sauce, including a proper picante. More than anything, I hope they have got their numbers right and will stick around.

If so, count me in for the next 5 franchises boys!!!!!

And yes I know I repeated myself about the picante, but it has taken me years to train a couple of Chinese restaurants to up the spice levels to something detectable by the non-porteño human palate. Finding it in a Hamburger Joint, well how rare it that?

(No pictures with this review but you can click through to Lisa’s above; she takes better photos than me).