Bargain Brunch and Remarkably Tasty!

 

Oasis

With the brunch culture now firmly embedded in the porteño psyche, even if the timing has been delayed by a few hours to compensate for the late night jollity (think a 2.30 start rather than midday), a profusion of places have sprung up to offer an often confusing variety of options. Varying from the basic but good quality and plentiful (Oui Oui – unfortunately you have to get there ridiculously early by BA standards to avoid the queues) to the molecular gastronomy inspired (HG restaurant in the Fierro Hotel – I can’t vouch for its quality yet because it all seems a bit much of a performance for a Sunday hangover to cope with), to the expat pseudo americano (Magdalena’s Party – acceptable if you like that kind of thing, but sorry, I lost my tolerance for unpleasant toilets somewhere in my teens), we are all out there bruncheando as long as the weather is fine. As you know, no self respecting porteño ventures anywhere if there is the threat of rain. Life as one knows it is “suspendido por lluvia”.

But last Sunday was fine, “un dia peronista”. The sun came out into the fresh blue sky, the temperature ramped up from a chilly 7 degrees to 20 in a couple of hours, my terrace was toasty by 11.00 and the air smelt like Switzerland. A perfect day to brunchear outside.

But where?

I was a founder member of Oasis Club, one of the few private members clubs here. And then I wasn’t, as they declined to renew my membership. I was never sure why. It might have been due to political incorrectness, being too opinionated, or not being adequately preppy, yanqui, or socially desirable. However La Doctora had joined shortly before they failed to appreciate my virtuosity in the story telling department and as they had finally decided to start encouraging proper Argentines to be members, they were reluctant to bar her from the premises….after all, she actually went for the interview! Whereas when they suggested this to me I simply asked if they were f**king joking. Their mistake for not insisting. If they wanted young white collar Harvard failures (after all, the successes are on Wall Street rather than lurking in BA) they should have said. I’m an exile, not an expat. I ran away from that life.

However times change. More importantly management changes, and they have actually managed to put together a club with some suitably pleasant members and a decent mix of expats and locals. I go as La Doctora’s guest more frequently than their rules allow but they can hardly ask me to reinstate my membership having summarily dismissed me. I consider myself an honorary member now, one who has witnessed the growing pains of a young enterprise, given a more than decent amount of financial support to their needy barmen, and importantly I’m still around after 5 years, whereas most expats have a short lifespan here.

So La Doctora commented they had a good looking and very reasonably priced brunch menu. And as Sebas, the head barman, has a lot of initiative and could probably fabricate a decent Bloody Mary despite the alleged restrictions on Worcestershire sauce imports, we decided to go. And the fact is that it was very satisfying. All kudos to their (relatively new) Chef. He doesn’t complicate things, they aren’t fancy, he is not a prima dona, but he does know his flavours. Proof that simple does not need to equate to bland.

We walked down in the sun marvelling that, like lizards, the porteños had already slithered out early to appreciate the weather, populating every bright corner long before their normal hour. Patios and terraces “a full” before 2pm. Oasis Club empty. Why? Perhaps because their beautiful garden whose cool is to be appreciated in Summer, gets virtually no sun at this time of year. But as you will see from the above photo, it does have a very pretty autumnal tree.

And it does have a damn good and reasonably priced brunch. For 190 pesos (or 230 for non members), you get 4 courses. A choice of granola and yogurt (too breakfasty for me) or brie and ham, as a little welcome taster. A small soup of the day (pumpkin) with a good homemade bread basket and a cheesy chive dip. Five mains of which I chose a juicy, flavoursome, kind of pastrami sandwich (more a slow marinated then slow cooked tapa de asado with pickle and dijon mustard) in a great homemade focaccia. Then a choice of well made puddings. Plus a real coffee (Illy thank god) and a proper drink (Bloody Mary for me obviously) included in the price.

You need to get yourselves down there. Why? Because if it remains empty they won’t be able to continue offering such value. They will go bust. They will have sad ingredients languishing in the fridge until expiry. Why wouldn’t you support someone offering excellent and incredibly reasonably priced food if you could wait for it with a large cocktail in hand. Lack of sun. OK, you can eat inside. You are not a member? Ring us (I’m sure they would prefer people to poverty, and potential new members at that)! Or come with us. Or if you have other places that offer better value in BA tell us!!!

Did I mention the mains are served with papas rusticas, basically baked skin on spuds, then deep fried. And they offer you a suitably spicy dip. Yes, I’m sure you are convinced now.

 

 

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Another dreadful photo but a surefire way to cook chicken breast.

 

la foto-66

Should I even write about this? I mean what could be duller than a chicken breast. You know, those dry, chalky slices that leave you begging for more Cesar dressing when they turn up in your salad. Or the dehydrated lump in your curry that leads you to believe you are not the chef’s favourite person. But it’s leaner aka healthier, all chickens have them so it would be rude to throw them away, and while they will never live up to the succulence of the leg meat that can withstand lengthy cooking in a rich sauce without giving you that “eating cardboard” sensation, you have to do something with them. And as we all know they have less fat (aka less flavour) so my more health conscious brethren will continue to demand them…like a kind of penance!

Of course, any chef worth his salt will know that his entire clientele will instantly die if he doesn’t cook his chicken till the juices run clear. A hint of pink, say bye bye to your glorious career. What they don’t realise is that the juices can run clear (clients live to fight another day) while the breast meat can still retain a hint of pink. Chicken isn’t that dangerous. Let’s face it, even if you choose the worst quality chicken, it has probably taken more antibiotics over the course of its very short life than you will in your entire existence. Factory farmed chicken may have cured you of many diseases that you didn’t know you had.

While cooking the whole bird (preferably one that has lived a gloriously privileged free range life eating the finest comestibles), there are all sorts of strategies that can be applied to prevent “Sahara breast effect”. Basting, buttering, tenting with foil, or even hacking the bloody thing in half and starting the breast part later. But if you give me a pair of fillets, off the bone, what do I do? Well the only reliable advice is brining, but frankly that takes a lot of forethought, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

Then I came across a recipe (with its appropriate condiments) for Thai Chicken Rice. And she uses the breast (though this is not obligatory). And it provides the basic principle for cooking the perfect chicken breast. Basically get your preferred liquid up to maximum heat (I used my rich chicken stock), submerge breasts, boil for 4 minutes, slap on a tightly fitting pot lid, turn off the heat and WALK AWAY!  FOR 50 MINUTES. As cooking people do, she recommends various other steps, rubbing the thing in salt, cooking on the bone, shocking it afterwards in freezing water. Well you can play with these things afterwards but as far as I can see they make little difference. It’s all about faith. Four minutes seems to be enough for the residual heat to finish the cooking process while leaving the breast as moist as you can imagine, maybe with a tinge of pink, but definitely the juices run clear. 5 minutes was too much! And don’t even think about giving it a little warm up half way through the process.

If you want to go traditional (Thai), you then cook the rice in the stock and make a range of lovely sauces as per her website. http://highheelgourmet.com/2013/07/20/thai-chicken-rice-khao-man-gai/

Once I’d mastered the technique I just bunged all the flavours I wanted into the stock, soy, sweet vinegar, ginger, garlic and mirim, and once I had extracted the perfect chicken, reduced it down to a thick dip.

So have you got this? Cooking time for a chicken breast is 4 minutes! No more, and only less if you are feeling adventurous. Use the liquid of your choice. Make a nice sauce from it afterwards. But don’t bloody touch it for 50 minutes! No longer will you inflict sawdust chook on your unsuspecting guests and as the thing is only tepid when it comes out of the water bath you can use it in salads and sauces with impunity. Just don’t cook it any more.

So simple I am embarrassed to write about it….but then why are so many restaurants still getting it wrong?

If You Know Where to Look 2 – Ethnic food

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If there is one thing London can provide, it is a panoply of asian and oriental food. New York even more so. Buenos Aires, not at all so some would have you believe. Can this really be true? Of course this may be largely irrelevant to the beef munching tourist. And there are other ways to take a break from the caveman diet. Good Italian (my favourite is Marcelo), Spanish (Tancat), Pizza (Siamo Nel Forno), Armenian (Sarkis) Syrian/ Lebanese (Club Sirio – and the building is spectacular) or more problematically Fish (Damblee or Crizia, both have oyster bars). Further, there are all sorts of traditional “Bodegons” serving the local dishes, such as suckling pig, lentils, puchero or locro. So no, as a tourist here for a few weeks, you won’t have time to get bored.

But what do you do if you live here and have only spent 2 weeks outside the country in the last 4 years (trust me Chile and Uruguay don’t count when we are talking food variety – Peru of course does, but I haven’t made it there yet)? And if you were bought up by  a family with Indian roots (albeit rather colonialist ones) and ate papadums from the age of 6 months sitting on the counter of the local curry restaurant? It is certain that at some point you are going to seriously miss the lack of spice.

Well, first option is Peruvian or Nikkei, the Peruvian Japanese crossbreed. And for that you get yourself down to Osaka or Sipan where you will eat international quality food. What you won’t get is much picante though. For that you have to go to one of the barrio restaurants around Almagro and explain that you are not Argentine and therefore will not die if they put chilli in the ceviche (while we used to go to Mochica, it appears Elvis – the prior owner – has left the house! The last visit was disappointing , you are just going to have to do your own hit and miss research).

You can also go for Korean. However this involves persuading a taxi driver to take you down to Korea town in Bajo Flores, a rather dangerous part of the city (actually we drove and found that the streets were being patrolled by an admirable amount of policeman, so after dinner we still had a vehicle to drive back in – of course this may say something about the quality of La Doctora’s car). There is no doubt this is the real Korean deal. 200 Koreans can’t be wrong! We were the only non-Korean faces in the incredibly crowded place which drew some attention. But once you played with a few babies and chatted with the locals on the heavily armoured smoking terrace, they turn out to be a friendly bunch. And for a very reasonable fixed price they will bring you as much of any dish as you fancy, be it the cheaper meats or soups or the more expensive oysters and prawns. The only drawbacks are that you have to cook it yourself on your tabletop BBQ, and swear on your European passport that you are not Argentine – so please bring the bloody chilli sauce.

But as a Brit, Peru and Korea never really crossed my gastronomic sightline. What I miss is a Ruby (for those who don’t speak the Queen’s cockney rhyming slang, Ruby Murray was a jazz singer and her surname nearly rhymes with Curry, which is why a Londoner goes for a Ruby). There is only one place, Tandoor, which is genuinely good. Luckily it’s round the corner from The 5th Floor but I still feel we have an inadequate curry supply in Capital. What to do?

Asian is the same. Green Bamboo nearly gets it right but while the cocktails are great the food is adapted to the Argentine palate, as in dulled down. Cocina Sunae (a puerta cerrada), seems to have taken the other tack, starting small and educating it’s customers about the food. Much better and the only place we go regularly to eat east asian food.

But things are changing here. Argentines are beginning to crave more than meat, salt and smoke. My bet is in the next ten years gastronomy is going to take off. Their wines are evolving fast, their food tastes are sure to catch up. My plan is to be involved in the next developments and try and de-risk the start-up of some cutting edge new restaurants, be they bacon and sausage sandwich joints, noodle bars, or full on Vietnamese cuisine. Damn, the Mexican food here is so awful that my Mexican Architect can’t recommend anything. And where can you buy decent chocolate? We need to deal with these things as well!

So obviously I was a venture capitalist during the internet era. I “incubated” a load of companies (in partnership with multinationals like Sun Microsystens and Fujitsu), that provided fantastic services that people didn’t know they needed. The incubation part of the plan was brilliant. The failure was that no one actually needed most of the stuff we incubated. My shame is that my voice integrated software for surfing the net, is now forming the base of a lot of the voice responsive interfaces when you ring your bank. And the f@&King thing still doesn’t even recognise my voice!

But here I have a genuine reason to incubate businesses. While I only have to produce breakfast for 14 people, my kitchen is prepared for 50. Why? Because there are a lot of people out there that know how to cook something different, but don’t have the facilities or the experience to do it. The incubation process was meant to be about taking someone with a great concept, facilitating the delivery and adding any business skills they didn’t have. I think I can do that!

So I put it out on the internet. “Who wants to collaborate? Who wants to take advantage of my facilities? Who wants to make participate in a culinary adventure? I got various replies. A guy from Vietnam, a woman from Pakistan, a German lady who is fascinated by traditional South American cuisine and refines chocolate to 90% purity (another of the apparently undiscoverables here) and who as you might have guessed, is now working with us at The 5th Floor. A friend who does Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw food thinks she might like to do something (and while I’m prejudiced against that stuff, her food is strangely pretty delicious).

Of course, the hardest part of being a Venture Capitalist was the endless hours spent listening politely to enthusiastic entrepreneurs with hopeless business plans containing endless zeros after the £ sign. But here we are talking about food. The worst that I will have to do is spend endless hours eating and if the food is bad I can simply up my wine consumption speed, to ensure that the presentation is at least tolerable.

So I am proud to announce that we have just completed our second round of due diligence / eating a lot, with Thomas the chap from Vietnam, and the investment committee (we will still have to invest time, facilities and marketing skills) has approved moving on to the next stage in the incubation process…namely organising some trial dinners. “Thomas at The 5th Floor”, will shortly be bringing authentic Vietnamese and Thai food to the heart of Alto Palermo!

As always I travel with my lawyer “por las dudas”, as they say here. And La Doctora is establishing a healthy sideline skill in ipad food photography. Unfortunately, at the first tasting her enthusiasm for a bit of spice (while she is Argy, she lived 7 years in Peru where they do know their chilies) somewhat got the better of her and she wolfed down the salmon in coconut curry soup and the chicken satays, before remembering we were serious professionals who needed photographic evidence of our travails. All was not lost though, we salvaged a few shots and this time she behaved like the consummate professional, snapping hastily away before consuming the evidence. So a few shots of dishes that may appear at “Thomas at the 5th Floor”.

A fresh mango prawn salad, sharp, sweet and citric with the saltiness of fish sauce:

imageSeared, marinated beef (calm down my little Argy friends, that’s my portion. We can cook yours until it will be impossible to know there is blood inside a cow), served with sticky rice and a darkly soya/sesame oil/spring onion and spice dipping sauce and a cold lemon grass tea to accompany:

imageFresh summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce:

imageNote fresh pickled chilli and homemade sriracha sauce in the middle:

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Vietnamese spring rolls that you wrap in lettuce with mint and coriander then dip:

imageA delightful chicken broth with wontons and 5 spice pork:

imageA dessert of steamed plantains, tapioca and roasted peanuts:

imageSo by all accounts, another hard day suffered by la Doctora and myself in order to bring a little more diversity to the lives of my Buenos Aires friends and my future guests. And while the latter may not imagine coming to Baires to eat Vietnamese food, by day three they may feel a sudden urge for a meat or pasta free experience. And of course they will get the chance to meet and mingle with all the great people that I know who live here, rather than just speaking to a waiter in a restaurant. So everyone’s a winner, especially me and La Doctora who will have prime asian food, fresh out of our kitchen with little effort other than hosting a great party, once a week!!

Works for me.

Cocina Sunae – Getting it Right!

I had to go out for dinner on Thursday night.  We had a party to go to and here in BA no one goes to a party before midnight. The hours are complicated for an Englishman. I could have cooked at home of course, but home has comfy, after dinner armchairs and I imagined my motivation to attend festivities evaporating over a sip of whisky and a good book. Once I’m in, that’s where I tend to remain, but if I’m out, I’m out. I don’t want to turn into one of these whinging expats, perpetually moaning that the locals ought to learn to adhere to my more “civilised” timeframes. “How do they work the next day?” you hear. “That’s why the service is terrible,” is a common refrain. So no, I have determined to be as porteño as a porteño, perhaps a little bit more so. A little bit sleep deprived, a little bit hung-over, just enough to stand dreamily in a queue having vague thoughts and not noticing that something that takes 5 minutes in the UK takes 10 to 15 here. After all my time isn’t that important, I’m not a banker anymore. It’s a bit like a conversion to Buddhism, without having to spend a lot of time holding your breath.

The difficulty was where to dine. I hardly ever eat at a parilla anymore. My butcher is the maestro of meat, the capo of “cortes”, his ojos de bife or cuadril are “de la re puta madre” (a good thing I assure you). I adhere to the blazing hot pan, flip every 20 seconds, and then let rest for 10 minutes school of steak chefs. I can’t think of anywhere that betters my home cooked bifes. There are a couple of places that I like to eat pizza and one for hamburgers along with my new favourite for fish and chips, but this is quick food. I needed to be out the door at nine and happily occupied until eleven thirty. A menu of several courses was required. And herein lay the problem; my recent smart restaurant, multi course, tasting extravaganzas have been dismal.

I consulted La Doctora, as the girlfriend hates to be called. Confusingly both medics and lawyers are called doctor here. Just be careful whom you wave diseased body parts at when attending social events. “Why don’t we go to Cocina Sunae?” she replied. “You are always happy there.”

Obviously she was right. I’ve been to Cocina Sunae a number of times. The weekly menu is published on Facebook and when it tickles my fancy I sometimes make the trek. It’s not actually far from Villa Crespo where I live but for a Palermoite, Colegiales feels like a different world. Where are all the bars, the restaurants, the clubs, the lights? This is somewhere where people live, not where they go out. Do I need spear-carriers or Sherpa guides?

Of course, this is the point. Cocina Sunae is a “puerta cerrada”. A closed door, fixed menu, reservation only restaurant, which operates three nights a week from someone’s home. And that someone is Sunae (also known as Christina) and this is her cooking, just as it says on the label. I would suggest to my limited band of followers, that this is possibly the only place to go in BA for Thai/Vietnamese/Indonesian / Philippino influenced food, that won’t leave you scratching your head, wondering what connection the dish you just ate had to do with anywhere in Asia.

Luckily La Doctora doesn’t drink much and has a car that you would have to pay someone to steal, so it only took ten minutes to get there (they actually have security outside so you can park a more desirable automobile without risk). It being a beautiful evening and my eagerness to get out of the house meaning we arrived earlier than our friends, we enjoyed a nice pinot noir on their pretty terrace while we waited.

Then onto the food. No smoke and mirrors, no pretentious presentation, no dry ice. Just nicely plated, solidly constructed dishes, that appear as you expect from their menu description; presented by a properly trained waitress who explains the dish and how to eat it in case you are unfamiliar with this kind of food, which due to its scarcity here many Argentines probably are.

Nice and simple and correct. Excellent crispy Vietnamese spring rolls to start with, to wrap in a lettuce leaf with some sprigs of mint and coriander, and dip in the appropriate sauce or in the home made chilli sauce (there is a secret patio upstairs with a veritable chilli farm soaking up the sun).

Followed by a tasty Thai prawn and grapefruit salad with a citric dressing.

While there is a choice of two, we all chose the same main course. A classic Indonesian Redang. Slow cooked beef with everything, by which I mean all the classic herbs and spices that meld into the coconut milk. Robust, fresh, lingering flavours redolent of the best of home cooking. Did I have a complaint? Well of course I did. It came with a generous portion of steamed rice but not enough sauce, so we asked for more. It duly arrived, we all soaked our rice, we all ate all our rice and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then arrived at the conclusion we were too full to eat a dessert, so I can’t comment on the last course. Rather amateurish for a food writer I admit. And by the way, for those who crave photographic evidence of the universe’s existence, there are plenty of photos of their food on their site (http://www.cocinasunae.com/).

My English master always told me that every piece of writing needed a conclusion, so what is mine? Well in fact I have several: Cocina Sunae’s popularity (and believe me its busy, and with a high percentage of Argentine habitués) proves that even when providing food that the local audience is unfamiliar with, success is attainable providing you stick to what you really know. Forget all this fusion nonsense unless you have an intimate understanding of all the cuisines you are trying to fuse. Go for the genuine article.

Also putting you own name to your restaurant can either be a designation of your passion for veracity or an intimation of excess of auto-esteem (a problem that psychiatrists tell me is uniquely common in Argentina).

I’ve always had a fear about dumbing down flavours for the Argentine palate.  CS has been in existence for longer that most of the closed door restaurants I know, and appears to have educated their patrons’ palates. Possibly when they started, they did have to dilute the flavours for the local crowd and they do ask you about the level of picante you enjoy. However I suspect they now have an Argentine following who will eat the pretty slice of chilli as a badge of honour or sophistication.

Finally consistency. While I only go when I like the sound of the menu, Christina is always there, supervising, cooking and even serving. You might like some dishes more than others but the quality will remain the same because she is the proverbial chef who eats in her own restaurant.

It sometimes depresses me to have to write honest reviews. There is a sense of enthusiasm in the gastronomic scene here, a desire to break out of the meat and charcoal encased mold. I feel I should be more supportive, after all things don’t change overnight, and the courageous new wave of chefs are taking risks both in the kitchen and financially. It’s important they succeed. The problem is that too often the escape route is technique based; sous vide, foams, gels, incomprehensible fusion, presented blandly so as not too be too challenging. When I want to eat, what I want is a solid rendition of the dishes description, something that adheres to its roots and ethnicity. No more, no less. With a lack of availability of so many cuisines it would be marvellous if Argentines or new immigrants like me, focussed on genuine renditions of a national cuisine be it Indian, Chinese, Malaysian or even some of the more regal slow cooked Mexican dishes (as an Englishman I’m a bit screwed here), rather than just adding a “toque”, a diluted nod in their direction. The reason many of the best restaurants in BA are Peruvian fusion is that the Peruvians and the Japanese have had decades to perfect the integration.

Luckily I have no such reservations with Cocina Sunae. Out of all the puerta cerradas in BA, Christina is the one who is certainly getting it right.

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).

Tiger’s Milk

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When my father behaved badly, which was not infrequent and invariably booze fuelled, my mother would undertake a subtle but cruel revenge the next morning. All in the interest of his health you understand? If my youthful memory serves me right he would be presented (obviously feeling a little worse for wear), with a strange witches brew of live (read fizzily fermenting) yogurt, mixed with all kinds of other well-being inducing but totally unpalatable ingredients, with a couple of gloopy raw eggs stirred in at the last minute. “Tiger’s Milk” she called it. Maybe there was tabasco, maybe not. That could have been the Bullshot. A consomme and egg yolk concoction which was as close as he came to eating solids before midday.

So imagine my consternation when stumbling puffy-eyed around the bedroom, squinting through the window at the bright blue sky and the first shimmers of midday heat, wondering how I was going to get through the cultural agenda that I had enthusiastically planned the previous day, before getting intimate with a Mr Maker and his Mark via a succession of Old Fashioneds and the girlfriend suddenly says;

“I think you need some leche de tigre.”

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I’ve never thought of her as sadistic, not even passive-agressive but images of my father’s sad face as he swigged his penance flooded back.

“Was I really that badly behaved last night?” I mutter.

“No you were fine, unusually charming for you, but it will set you up for the day. Why don’t we drive down to Abasto and visit Mochica?”

There is not much I like about Abasto apart from the fine Art Deco building that was converted into its central shopping center. From the outside only you understand? And the idea that a restaurant had institutionalised morning-after punishment, failed to fill me with joy. But much gets lost in translation and the girlfriend has spent 7 years living in Peru. Perhaps my panic was premature.

“So describe this tiger’s milk.”

“Its a creamy mixture of the juices that ceviche is cured in. You’ll like it. We’ll ask for it spicy…and they do a great pisco sour.”

So all of a sudden this is sounding an enticing option. Presumably if you get the milk you get the ceviche it came from. And other than the fraudulent Chilean variety which only makes me sad, I haven’t drunk a decent pisco for a year, sour or otherwise.

“And the owner’s called Elvis,” she tells me. Sold! I love restaurant owners with ridiculous names.

So we wander down there around 3.00 pm and find ourselves in a vaguely smart (if this were the 70’s), airy restaurant packed full of Peruvian families tucking into mountains of food. They have extreme fighting on a couple of TV screens. My head still hurts a bit and I wonder whether it would be acceptable to try a couple of the moves on some of the noisier kids who are running around unchecked (normally I would find this sweet and tell the girlfriend glowingly how the UK is so child unfriendly and how wonderful it is that families can socialise together).

The girlfriend turns out to be well-known. Ordering is not complicated. The big house-special mixed ceviche, extra leche de tigre, Peruvian spice levels, after all we are not Argentine’s who will cry like young girls at the first hint of chilli. All the same, as I dip my bread into an innocuous looking dish of green chilli sauce, the waiter hurls himself towards us with cardiac resuscitation equipment. Maybe I’m beginning to look like an Argentine. I regale him with stories of mutton phal down Brick Lane. It calms him.

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So the ceviche? My father would have probably actually enjoyed it, even though it contained solids. A great selection of fresh (this is a high throughput restaurant, it doesn’t hang about in the fridge) white fish, prawns, squid, mussels and clams, though strangely also those weird-coloured artificial crab stick. Fresh citric flavours, undertones of coriander and smooth green-tasting spice. And a big cup of leche de tigre whose creaminess toned down the acid assault on my delicate stomach lining. Plus a proper pisco, single distilled and matured in those strange looking clay vessels.

Taste buds zing, vitamins flow into the system, spice inspires a gentle sweat, pisco smooths out the remnants of abuse.

Truly the breakfast of kings!

If I was a proper food journalist I’d be able to tell you about the history, the menu, the other dishes. I can tell you about the price though. About 200 pesos all done, including the artificial looking, but apparently completely natural drink made from purple corn, that Veronica drank. While we shared a starter between two, believe me it was enough (believe me? How old fashioned. These days we have photos). I did stroll round the tables though. Frituras of fish, copious enough for four. Chicken and rice, kind of Peruvian paella style. Sadly not a Guinea Pig in sight.

So yes, there are the fine tiraditos at Osaka, and vibrant ceviches at Sipan, but if you want a man’s breakfast, a meaty portion not a minimalist art work, something that will chase your hangover to the next week? And while for an expat it isn’t that expensive, for its Sunday regulars its probably a treat and they know what their cuisine is all about, so you have to accept that the flavours are the real deal. Veronica confirms as much.

Sorry my pictures aren’t great but hope they say enough.

Menu Trial – Argentino Irónico

With 6 months to go before the opening of The 5th Floor, my valiant co-chef Rudie and I are working on some menu ideas for the proposed puerta cerrada restaurant, trying them out on groups of friends of varied nationalities. Every Chef in Buenos Aires will tell you it’s easy to frighten the typical Argy. A mere wave of a chili will have him crying to mummy about the “jodido picante de la re puta madre”, that has left his delicate palate with 3rd degree burns. Many Chefs will also contend that any form of strong flavouring will also have the average punter running for the hills, or at least to the nearest provider of choripans, milanesas, or good honest, un-messed with wood grilled carne. So, what do you do if you don’t want to ostracise the locals from your culinary exploits. Trick them with ingredients that will remind them of their abuela’s cooking, and then bomb them with the strongest flavours you think they can tolerate and see what happens! This is after all the development stage and given a few puerta cerradas like the very excellent Cocina Sunae (http://www.cocinasunae.com) have generated a substantial and loyal local following for the well spiced, if not too spicy, I am keen to do the same. So menu 1, typically argentine produce presented in unusual (at least for Buenos Aires) and hopefully delicious combinations. ImageFirst up, Morcilla, the staple starter of all great argentine asados, only this time on a crunchy base (rosti next time), a slice of caramelised apple, topped with a pickled quails egg, a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a spray of passion fruit vinegar. The presentation was inelegant, the towers too tall and we could have gone madder with the vinegar which added a delicious touch (tested by spraying it directly into some of the guinea pigs’ mouths), but a surprisingly interesting combination. A keeper, albeit with re-engineered architecture.

Second, and luckily no one took a photo of this one, was Caracú. Beautiful roast bone marrow in the classic St. John style (https://www.stjohngroup.uk.com/) with a parsley, caper salad and lemon dressing. Except it wasn’t beautiful. Undercooked! A schoolboy error!!! Yes it looked great and rather archetypically carnivore until we scooped the pink (yes it should have been white) marrow onto the tostados. Would anyone even be brave enough even to try this or should I bin the lot? I kept quiet long enough to see. Surprisingly Tez, an American led the way and pronounced it delicious and after assurances that they were unlikely to die from mad cow disease everyone else tucked in but I was still kicking myself. This was meant to be a dish that was unchallenging for an Argentine (they still eat bits of offal that I haven’t got to grips with) but novel for most of the foreigners. I think the varied opinions were provoked by the unappetising appearance rather than the flavour and it is easy to perfect this dish. It is also economical as your friendly butcher will give you the marrow bones for free. However the decider is that you only get 2 decent pieces of marrow bone from each leg so getting hold of this in bulk is going to be too tricky. OFF the menu and to be reserved for a quick decadent snack with a close friend (normally red and liquid). ImageCourse three, for me the biggest success of the evening, big Sorrentinos (possibly, I can never remember pasta shape names), stuffed with Osso Bucco in a clarified consomme-like reduction of its cooking sauce. Everything cooked according to Gordon Ramsey’s fantastic recipe ( http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785) until the meat was stuffed into the pasta and the sauce clarified into a soup rather than reduced into a syrop. Rudie’s pasta came out light despite the facts he had to use tequila rather than the white wine he was reserving, that I had thrown into my sauce and that the sun was blazing onto his preparation area. This was as good as anything I have managed to produce. ImageThe main course required this, an evil looking meat syringe that my friend Tez has just brought me from the good old USA, land of the BBQ competition.   A glorious 5 rib bife de chorizo marinated inside and out with an asian marinade, sliced thin and served over a spiced noodle salad. Great taste, but plenty of mucking around pan frying the slices for those that don’t like rare meat. While they wont have the same visual impressiveness 2 lomos (fillets) cooked to different levels of “doneness” would make life easier in the kitchen. A MAYBE until the next trial! And while the dressing was lightly picante we forgot to filter it thus causing the immediate death of one of our Argentine guests as he bit into a minuscule slice of chilli.

If he had still been alive I am sure he would have enjoyed the cooling properties of the mango ricotta cheese cake with a mandarin and hesperidina reduction (which I wont put cinnamon into next time). A bit heavy after 4 courses, and actually much more delicious the next day when the flavours had a chance to meld (and the day after, and the day after that). But not a keeper.

Alcoholic Tres Leches Cake next time?

And the added bonus? What do you do with the remaining Osso Bucco and its jelly that has solidified in the fridge. Well if you are in Argentina there is only one option.

Unreliably claimed by my friends to be the best empanadas they have ever eaten.