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.

 

 

 

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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.