Perfect Prawns?

Gambas

Seafood in BA is frankly irritating! It’s not as though Argentina suffers from a lack of ocean frontage, a paucity of territorial waters. It’s just that until recently the Argentines only ate fish of religious duty and with somewhat less fervour than they follow the tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of the month. Why go to all the effort of pursuing slippery marine creatures when a decent and affordable dinner was happily chewing the cud not so many metres away? Why not just license out the fishing rights to the Japanese or Spanish or some other fish obsessed culture or if you really must catch it yourself be sure to export it rather than burden the local population with the chores of gutting, scaling and filleting.

The popularity of Sushi, despite its unholy pairing of fish and philadelphia (cheese) is beginning to change things, though there is still an incredible lack of quality and variety, think flabby Chilean farmed salmon or sea bass that should have indulged in a bit of physical activity during its short but greedy life. So other than the thrice weekly deliveries to China Town which provide the most acceptable supplies available, where else can one go to find decent product?

Last week we came across the Pescaderia Mellino, a fish shop in front of the venerable Mercado del Progreso in Caballito that seems to offer a very decent alternative. Here is their website http://www.pescaderiamellino.com. They are a pretty inventive business, offering various “packs” of nice fresh produce, the baseline starting at less (one peso less of course) than 500 pesos for 7 whole kilos of fishy delights. They call this the family pack but I can’t help thinking you will need a pretty big family to get through this lot in short order, so some of the benefits of its freshness will be diluted by the fact that you will have to freeze half of it. However, at around 4 of my Great British Pounds per kilo, delivered to your door anywhere in Capital and given the fact that they sell Norwegian salmon which has got to be better than the Chilean rubbish, it had to be worth giving a go. Not convinced? Well for those of you who are prepared to drag yourselves to Caballito on a Saturday morning there is another treat in store. Because on Saturday they apparently whiz the order that you placed during the week, up from Mar del Plata early in the morning and sell it to you at knock down prices. And as you will then get the opportunity to wander round the excellent Mercado del Progreso first and stock up on other hard to find produce, it has to be worth the effort.

Last Saturday, we went to see. I don’t know why it is so hard to find decent prawns here but it is. Fresh or frozen, they don’t seem to be very robust little creatures. They don’t seem to have much flavour either. So we booked Mellino’s special offer, 2 kilos of decent sized fresh ones for a mere 150 pesos. And they looked good, smelt good, we were hungry, so we rushed home to try them out. Recipe time?

Well, however good they were I knew they weren’t going to be some big robust indian ocean affair with superior musculature that could survive any serious cooking. Recipes that work here are those that heat them until they firm and colour, without any serious calorific challenge. Also, and I have no idea why this is, prawns here definitely need to be cleaned. Don’t even think about cooking them in their shells. And don’t go to a restaurant that does. These chaps have some serious intestines to deal with.

What could be easier than Gambas al Ajillo? Good olive oil, large but fine slices of garlic and chili, warm to infuse, heat up a little (halfway between poaching and frying temperature), in with the prawns and the moment they firm up and show the right colour tip the lot into a cold dish and serve with warm slices of baguette to soak up the sauce. Yes, that’s right, a cold dish. Don’t go with the lovely traditional spanish clay dishes that you cook in and then they retain the heat and keep cooking your prawns, unless you want Argentine prawn mush.

In the evening we had a couple of friends over for an impromptu dinner, and we still had plenty of prawns. Another simple and very tasty dish, which makes a great starter. Finely cube a few inches of a fairly fatty spanish style chorizo and fry until your pan is quite oily. Turn the heat up, bung in halved cherry tomatoes, then a few minutes later, turn the heat down, garlic and chili as above, a bit of white wine and then the prawns and some fine (and obviously recently cooked) pasta. A few fresh herbs and pepper and the flavours are remarkably sophisticated for such little effort.

And of course, having cleaned them, you still have the heads and shells. Fry them up with garlic and fennel and a tomato or two, cover them in some water and bubble for half an hour and you have a tasty stock (and from 2 kilos of prawns quite a lot of it), the perfect base for an asian soup or a French sauce. I used it in this Thai fish coconut noodle soup.

Thai Prawn Soup

So the prawns, quality wise? Pretty good actually. Sweet flesh, good texture, I’d go back.

And reasonably priced fish, delivered to your door in BA. Without cream cheese? You know it makes sense!

 

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.