So what do you expect for a hundred pesos?

Saturday was a long day. Feeling slightly jaded from the previous night’s Oasis Club 2nd Anniversary celebrations, we went to lunch with the creator of All Things and more specifically the creator of my little hostelry, Jesus, architect extraordinaire. He’d just arrived back in town so we had a lot to discuss, though little that was relevant to the actual project. We just like to talk and we hadn’t seen each other for some time. I suggested fish and chips at the excellent Chipper (Humboldt 1893). It was my second time there so I insisted that both Jesus and Veronica ate exactly the same as I had eaten the first time. Abadejo (cod or as close to it as you can get), chips, tartar sauce and a pint of freshly made ginger lemonade. Everything perfectly cooked, as good as any fish and chips I’ve had in the UK, and the abadejo seems to retain much more of its flavour and moistness encased as it is in a light crispy batter. 71 pesos for this combo meal, including the pleasure of sitting outside in the gentle autumn sun, being waited on by their very amenable staff. That’s value. I have not tried anything else from their menu and have no intention of ever doing so. I don’t really care about the chips even. I am scarred from my many mediocre fish eating experiences in BA, so will be happy to eat this quality-assured treat whenever a piscivorous urge hits me. I would strongly recommend you follow my lead.

I wouldn’t drink a coffee in a fish and chip shop in England and neither would I here; To each his speciality. But Jesus and I had several more hours of important talking to do, so we trotted round the corner in In Boca al Lupo (Bonpland 1965). Strong and short was what we were looking for and what we got along with a little tiramisu to share, just to make a rounded meal of it. Which it did perfectly and if you add the fish and chips and if we had stopped there, we could certainly claim to have eaten magnificently for under 100 pesos. Of course we didn’t stop there. Even though the afternoon was turning chillier, Enrico has added some nuclear powered outside heating to his pretty courtyard and it’s strong enough to banish Siberia’s most brutal chills. So we stripped down to t-shirts and decided to make sure the café served consistent quality by ordering another, along with a sticky amaretto, followed be a little whiskey followed by another little…..followed by a pequeño ultimo…, until it was 8pm and Jesus and I had fully caught up on important world news and the luggage handlers at the airport had decided they were no longer on strike, so he could reclaim his abandoned possessions and we could go home.

Not for long though, because despite the allure of curling up in front of a video for the rest of the evening, Veronica and I had a reservation. And as it was a closed door, invitation only, music event and we had been invited by a friend who was playing double base in the band, and they had made it clear that space was limited, and it was only a few blocks away, and we didn’t want to let the side down, we mini-siesta’d, failed to dress up, and were soon out the door again. Overall, we were glad we did. I understand closed-door restaurants and events used to form the staple of Cuban social life, where setting up legitimate businesses was fraught with problems. Here, it gives people a way to experiment without involving large capital outlays. They range from having the impromptu “onda” of a once a week conversion of someone’s living room, to an atmosphere of more permanence and planning. La Casa de Acevedo was certainly the former; Cuban roots but with a fully stocked bar; No cover charge; Great musicians, even if some of the repertoire wasn’t entirely my cup of tea; A little table for two with our names on. Good, simple, tasty, reasonably priced tapas; 100% Argentine guests (other than yours truly), all friendly and enthusiastic; Mixed drinks with generous pours at just 25 pesos a pop. To sum up, a few hours of solid entertainment, food and drink for slightly less than 100 pesos each (or 8 of your Great British Pounds milord) including tip.

Buenos Aires has two food festivals running simultaneously this week, the idea being to offer affordable introductions to some of the City’s top restaurants. I was charged with organising a lunch venue for myself and a couple of expat friends on Wednesday. Enthused by my prior 100 peso successes, I scoured the participants in the Spanish Ministry of Tourism sponsored festival and alighted on Hernán Gipponi’s eponymous restaurant (Soler 5862). A 99 peso, 3-course lunch being offered at what is reputedly one of BA’s gastronomic pace setters. A result I thought. I might add that while I have never eaten HG’s fabled brunch or idled my way through their 9 course tasting menu, I have attended their famous Friday happy hour, been impressed by the skill and inventiveness of their cocktail barman and eaten some of their excellent tapas, including their fabulous deep fried osso bucco mini-epanadas. That is to say, I was favourably disposed.

So what can I say without banging on like some Michelin inspector with Tourette’s syndrome. HG is a nice venue to go for a leisurely lunch, quiet, relaxed, with a view into the pretty garden. But the key word is leisurely. It’s fine if you have no plans for the rest of the afternoon. Service is unhurried. Linger over your coffee, when you finally get to that stage, for an hour or two if you feel inclined. No one will notice. It is not however, the place to go to eat Fabada Asturiana, which is sadly what I went to eat.

Despite the fact I have never been to Asturias, I probably know more about Fabada than anyone could be reasonably expected to know, unless they were born in Asturias and shared the region’s obsession with the dish. I have almost certainly spent more money perfecting my tutelage of this all-important staple than could reasonably be expected of a self-respecting Brit. I have faced the disconcerted gaze of English postman as they have handed me soggy packages of home made morcilla sausages made from blood, lovingly drained from a family pig, postmarked Gigón, the dish’s capital city.

To explain, I used to have an au pair called Sara. And as I didn’t have any kids she didn’t have much to do other than keep me happy and well fed. And she came from Gigón as did her pig murdering uncle and aunt and her chorizo expert mother. I cooked Sara a Cassoulet de Toulouse once and she got nearly homesick, explaining it was the tomato-ed up, Frenchiefied, version of her hometown’s more pork based delight.

I like anything with beans that have sucked up fat, so this was the basis of a common treaty. Aunty would send her morcillas, a cousin his chorizos, the rest of the family would scour the town for the best of the other ingredients and the poor postman would deliver the fragrant bundle over the course of a week. Then we would have fabada cooking night. Remember, this was before internet and therefore before skype. My occasionally homesick au pair would ring her mum who would relate to me (with Sara translating) in great detail the fabada cooking process: Step by step as if imparting great secrets! Of course, cooking a fabada takes a long time. You can’t hurry the stages.  So Sara would spend a happy few hours on the phone to her mum, with no worry about international call charges, and there was no point in me even writing down the recipe as it had been impressed on me that I would never find a suitable morcilla in London (it’s not available in morcilla-loving BA either), so I was entirely reliant on her family’s goodwill for the perfect product. If I wanted a good fabada, which I frequently did, I had to pay the price in outrageous telephone bills!

I think the above establishes my credentials as a judge of a Fabada Asturiana. So how did today’s measure up? Well, horror of horrors, it was deconstructed. As in, completely not the one-pot dish that it has traditionally been. As in, I think all its separate ingredients were cooked separately. And then served separately. I previously wrote about deconstructed cassoulet ( Deconstructed Fabada is worse. Cassoulet uses a lot of tomatoes in the sauce. Fabada none. Water, sweet paprika and saffron. If your beans haven’t had time to act as little sponges for the flavours of the ham, bacon, chorizo and morcilla, how do you get any flavour into them? The HG solution appeared to be a light vegetable stock, with a bit of the relevant flavourings infused. Cooked the night before, as any self-respecting abuela would do? No chance. Yes it did appear that the morcilla had come from Spain in the diplomatic bag, but it was a one inch slice. The ham was dry and hard and couldn’t be refreshed in the insipid jus.

What annoys me most is the labelling. Why call it a Fabada Asturiana when no one in Asturais would recognize it. You could call it Fabada light, or Fabada diet, or low fat Fabada or Fabada with no bloody flavour. And what is this snobbery that says, we are going to serve what was originally peasant food, a way of padding out the meats with a ton of beans but it will look smarter if it comes on various plates? In Spain it is no longer peasant food. The ingredients are expensive. It’s no longer the remnants of the family pig and the good restaurants cook it 24 hours in advance to give it time to mature. To be honest, there is no way to make it a pretty dish. If that’s what you care about, don’t cook it.

The other big fail on the menu side was the second choice of main course. My friends didn’t like the sound of fabada. Too beany. Fair enough, there was a choice. Sort of, as it was fabes con almejas. Same beans, with a clam and white wine sauce. Also from Asturias. Did I mention it was bean based? My friends certainly did, several times, beans or beans. Not everyone is a fan of beans. They weren’t.

So, disappointing and now despite rave reviews for their daily tasting menus, I’m concerned about going back. Maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m a peasant at heart. Maybe my cigarette and whiskey raddled palate demands strangely un-modern flavours. Does it eschew the light and sophisticated? Am I a dinosaur of reduction and condensation? However, I could still tell that our second bottle of wine was off, which by the way they graciously changed.

I’m tempted to say, well for 100 pesos what do you expect? But then I look back on my week the answer is, actually quite a lot. And I know where to get it.

So if I succumb to boredom this week I’ll take advantage of the BAFICI film festival. 400 films from all over the world, venues all over the city, 10-20 pesos a pop.

That should keep my budget on track!

Coffee? Trust the immigrants!

A common theme in the UK is the “problem” of immigration. Here I live in a city that is almost entirely immigrant. I know few families that can trace their Argentine roots back more than two or three generations. It’s made me realise the problem is not immigration, it’s integration and ask myself how the Porteños developed their own collective identity so quickly?

Maybe this wasn’t so difficult. After all they were mainly European, mainly Christian, mainly looking for a better life in a new home. While my girlfriend’s Italian grandfather habitually went to sip coffee with a large group from his region and converse in his native language, her father never did. In fact the speed Italians gave up speaking their own language is impressive and conflicts with their image as proud and nationalistic. Perhaps it’s an indication of how comfortable they felt as second generation immigrants. It was already their country. And the interestingly Italianized porteño dialect of spanish with its lunfardo slang, was now their language.

But integration has its downsides too. Things get lost. When did the Italians give up their love of crispy, tomato sauce smothered pizza and decide to settle on a doughy, cheese drowned compromise? When did the Spanish decide that the venerable chilli might offend some of their new countrymen and eliminate it from their cooking? When did the French decide their sauces might be too challenging or their baguettes too crispy. And most importantly, who decided that strong flavourful coffee might have too much character to appeal to everyone?

Luckily, as a new immigrant, I’m hitting the city at a time of change. On my frequent visits I would scour the streets for Segafredo or Illy coffee signs. Even then, good product and good equipment didn’t guarantee good coffee. Maybe Nespresso changed things? Idiot-proof but expensive capsules, heavily promoted, awakening some ancestral memory? But what is really driving the change is new immigrants, ones with defined ideas about quality, authenticity, modernity or whatever passion drives them, arriving to find a city that is eagerly searching for a little more diversity.

Buenos Aires is once again somewhere where you can not only go for a coffee, you can go FOR the coffee. So to my favourites:

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Cocu (Malabia and Gorriti) in French, means Cornudo in Spanish, Cuckold in English. A brave choice in a country where you can make intimate reference to the disreputable career of someone’s mother and suggest their progeny make a rapid return to the original orifice from which they first emerged, without said progeny turning a hair. Suggest their wife so much as looked as another man?? Fireworks! Deadly vendetta? Maybe the name refers to the love of food overriding such petty matters? Can one be cuckolded by a pain au chocolat?

The place is already a French colony. There are always so many French people present that they can’t all work there. Even speaking Spanish their accents are cute. Who knew that BA was so Francophile. And they are not the skinny, irritating, we-are-all-models, stereotype Parisian, type of French. They are pretty, voluptuous, sexy types…

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Or unusually tall good looking types, with their hands deep in fistfuls of dough, swelled by some rare strain of yeast, passed down secretly through generations of their family.

2013-03-09 14.12.31And they make coffee that looks AND tastes like this so, todo bien! No need for further explanation, though I recommend a pain au chocolat on the side.

2013-03-09 14.15.43As it says on the sign, you have to order at the counter. Self service in BA? Will it ever catch on? Judging by how busy it was, and how empty the speciality coffee house across the road wasn’t, it already has!

In Boca al Lupo (Bonpland 1965), literally in the wolf’s mouth, is the equivalent of saying “break a leg” in English, a wish for you to have good luck.

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So Enrico is another new immigrant, Italian this time, but with “ganas” to show off the best of Italian bread and desert making to go along with his excellent coffee. The place is a bit more comfortable. A beautiful building sympathetically converted. I suspect he had a bigger start-up budget and it shows, though the same love is also evident. He works with the illy brand and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you know how to work the monster machine.

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Enrico (pictured) clearly does. He used to work for illy and the machine is the Rolls Royce of coffee makers. A lighter, creamier bru than Cocu, a place to go for mid-afternoon coffee with a bit of cheesecake rather than heart starting black vitamins with croisant. The bakery out back is visible to all and well equipped and produces a wide range of artesanal breads. He gave me a big baguette to take away and try later. My bread making instructor (God bless him, he failed me in Panadaria 1 for not having a consistent crumb within my baguette – strong crust and holy air dont cut it here – obviously it didn’t help when I asked whether he had ever been to France), claimed you can’t keep bread crusty here due to the humidity. I warmed Alberto’s for 2 minutes in the oven. Crisp and light.

By the way, I may be doing Enrico a disservice just focussing on bread and coffee. There is lot’s more on the menu but I haven’t tried it yet. Also if he sends you off with a hearty, “in boca al lupo”, the correct reply is “crepi”. If you simply say grazie you are meant to have bad luck.

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The Colombians are coming!

Well in fact they have already arrived. Colombian coffee enthusiasts opened the Full City Coffee House in Chacarita over a year ago. Unfortunately, other than communing with the dead in its amazing cemetery (far more interesting than Recoleta’s señor tourist) there is not much I go to Chacarita for, so I haven’t been there. But you can read the review here, . Where I have been, frequently, is to Coffee Town. It’s a small hut in the centre of the wonderful San Telmo covered market (Defensa and Estados Unidos – like the train stations it was built by the Brits) where you can encounter a cornucopia of veggie sellers, butchers (look out for hanging ham bones to flavour your beans), granjas (the chicken guys) and a variety of other speciality stands including a guy who sells very good quality herbs and spices and an almacen with some excellent hams and cheeses. What could be better than to start and finish your shopping trip with a top quality coffee. No wonder supermarkets will never catch on!

(In the interest of imparting a my guests with a greater level of knowledge I will once again refer to a more extensive post by my fellow blogger; And no, it’s not that I’m trying to endear myself to her, I don’t have a schoolboy crush. In fact I have never met her. And “ojo” as we say here, pointing to our eye in a warning fashion, I only recommend the coffee. I haven’t tried the rest.)

Le Pain Quotidien.

This one hurts me to recommend. It’s a global chain, stores in 17 countries, a Mc Burger King Something of bread and coffee. It’s probably a Starbucks structured tax avoider, siphoning off its profits through franchising royalties and dubious intellectual property payments, into some tax haven located somewhat to the left of Mars. I haven’t tried the new Palermo branch. There were too many people in it. Why? Because by all accounts it’s very good. Like it is in London or Brussels or the 15 other countries. So, some guy from Brussels said, uuugh, the bread’s horrible here, set up a bakery, did it properly, got some international tax advisors and now travels in a Lear jet. If he was a banker I would hate him, but who can hate a baker?

Back to immigrants. Just as they were the original building blocks of this delightful city, the new generation is going to be the salvation of its gastronomy. Yes, there were guys from here who did poorly paid internships at some fine European restaurants before retreating rapidly to their motherland but, with a few exceptions, learning to delicately shape potatoes did not enhance their taste buds. But Europe is in crisis now and Chefs never starve to death. They are hard working types. The interior of a busy kitchen isn’t so different anywhere in the world. Here, if they leave work at 2.00 a.m. at least they know they can get a drink. Or even dinner. Or party till midday. They will come and find miraculously that they can be a chef and still have a life. And Argentines are enthusiasts. If it’s good, they will follow you, support you, love you, at least until something better comes along. No, its not always easy to catch the zeitgeist, and Argentines need to have what they are going to love explained to them. But it does happen,  as you can tell from the prevalence of Sushi in a city that doesn’t eat fish. And they love their immigrants, they even have a holiday to celebrate them.

So to all you new (like me) immigrants. In boca al lupe.

Crepi il lupo!