There is a good reason why CH has such a paucity of the information on Argentina and Uruguay. Both of these sufficiently attractive countries are not culinary destinations. I will try to summarize my brief culinary experience with a few highlights and some utter disappointments.
First let’s talk about Uruguay.
Remarkably almost all the restaurants in this 3.5 millions country has almost the same menu. We had 2 opportunities to sample food in Montevideo. Random parilla in MAM (Mercado Agricola Montevideo) left rather unsatisfying impression because of fairly uninventive and average tasting typical local fare. It was poor choice on our part because of the time crunch. In the same time I would highly recommend MAM for a visit over the uninspiring Mercado del Puerto.
For the dinner option we were exposed to a local high end restaurant Fransis. We passed on more rustic, but very popular seaside restaurant El Italiano after my inspection of the place has revealed that all the seafood is of “not local”/frozen variety. (Off note: I was shocked by the fact of the absence of concept of cooking fish whole on the grill in both Argentina and Uruguay and was universally viewed as a weirdo by the waiters from whom I requested this fish instead of the habitual frozen filet.) The restaurant Francis had a pleasant ambience with English speaking waiter, although my Spanish is more than sufficient to communicate our needs in restaurants. The menu was about 200% more expensive than elsewhere. The menu - same parilla variety as in any other restaurant with a few very pedestrian fish and vegetarian choices. Nothing stuck in mind. They had a very silly (by northern hemisphere standard) selection of “sushi’, which actually where maki rolls, which we actually did not try.
Punta Del Este
The town is obviously very touristy, which is kind of the point of the place. Plethora of overpriced restaurants with exactly the same menu. We tried:
La Marea - the worst one in Uruguay. It is located by the water in the marina area. Food is bad, but the service is downright horrible. My favorite part: when there was no place for the another dish on the table, the waiter just left the plate in my hands and walked away.
481 Gourmet - in the not touristy part of town. Ranked "number 1" on tripadvisor (was selected for dinner by our friends). Wouldn’t call it bad, but was not very good either. Once again standard menu. Absolutely not worth going off the seaside strip with the twenty similar restaurants.
Punta Salinas - went there because it was recently opened and strived for the clientele. The service was very good, but the menu was exactly the same. Probably enjoyed (or close to enjoyed) the most in town.
I have ventured to Jose Ignasio. It is a tiny ritzy town and beach about 20 miles east of Punta del Este. The home town of, the only ranked in Pellegrino’s List of 50 Best Latin restaurants in Uruguay, Parillla de Huella. I went alone, because my party lost any hope of finding digestible food in Uruguay. I still kept my hope alive. It was rather cruelly crashed right in this establishment. It started with the host very ungraciously assigning me the most inconvenient seat in this half-empty at the time restaurant. I took a liberty of taking a different seat. Unfortunately being alone has restricted my choices. I picked: rabas (breaded fried calamari) - good texture but very salty, deep-fried pejerray (small and usually tender fishes) - hopelessly over-fried preventing me from taking more than one bite, cold apple and cucumber soup (soup of the day) - they simply forgot to bring me one. I have requested a plate of sashimi of local fish. I was brought bizarre combination of raw mushrooms, salmon (which is native to northern hemisphere), over cooked salty shrimp and some local seabassish tasting fish. The service was deteriorating by the minute, as the restaurant was getting busier. I have not seen the same waiter at my table more than once. In summary: I am clueless how they got nominated or included on any list. Underperformed in all areas. They do not seem to care. They are busy anyway…
Here we have reached the locations which I recommend to visit during your visit to Uruguay. Both are in Punta Ballena, a small town 7 (10 km) miles east of Punta Del Este. You need a car to visit both. You need to have reservations for both. Go for lunch. You will enjoy the view.
Club de los Balleneros:
at the seaside. Half a mile walk to the notorious Casapuebla. Dishes: chipirones con cebolla - best rendition of this ubiquitous in costal Uruguay dish we have tried. Ceviche marinated in maracuya juice (very Peruvian) - well done. Delicious brotola (forkbeard fish), which I think the best fish available in the neboughood. Still only filet. No whole fish.
Probably the most advanced culinary location in Uruguay, although not on any fancy lists. Getting there requires a drive up the winding road to the summit of the tallest hill in the vicinity of Punta. FYE that is exactly what Las Cumbres means - the hills. You will be rewarded with spectacular 360 degree view of the region. The real reason to go though is a rather solid food. Clearly made with love and knowledge of the subject. Elsewhere in Uruguay I could not get rid of the feeling that they just throw staff on the grill. Here the cooking is actually thought through. We were very pleasantly surprised for a change. Had our beloved brotola, but cooked in much more sophisticated way. Go there.
Our Argentinian experience was confined to Buenos Aires.
Mishiguene: The place is OK. Not spectacular, but a good change from the generally stereotypical Argentinian fare. There were five of us so we tried a lot of dishes. Rather liberal interpretation of jewish food. Hit and miss. Mushroom burek dish was solid. Delicious Vareniki, but awkward and uninspiring gefilte fish (which I am a big enthusiast of when it is cooked well). Good service. Probably would still recommend it, especially if you are too tired to look at the chunks of meat.
Don Julio: This is exactly the place to look at the chunks of meat. Fantastic service and the wine list. Probably the best place to try Argentinian asado. We enjoyed everything. Since there were 5 of us, once again, tried a lot of staff. Ojo de bife, entrana, bife de choriso ancho, morcilla, molleja. Liked everything. It is touristy, but worth it.
Chori - fancied up to the size of shop Choripan stand. Did not like it. The chorizo itself is very salty (even more than usually). We tried the next to classic variant. Did not finish it. Gin and tonic was not good (although comprised of the same ingredients, Pulpo Blanco Tonic and Apostoles Gin, version in La Carniceria was stunning).
La Carniceria: takes the prize for the best in show. We went for lunch on Saturday. Two appetizers: molleja (sweetbreads) was the best of about 8 we tried between the two countries. Meat ceviche dish was very interesting. Ojo de Bife version was perfect. Delicious side of grilled cabbage. If you have intention to try the meat of Argentina this is the place (Don Julio was very close second and probably more authentic experience).
Tegui: Deserves a special mentioning.
This establishment is placed as a number 20 on Pellegrino’s 50 best Latin restaurants list. I have to inform you that I have been to about a dozen of places from this particular list. Not because of the list, but just coincidentally. Could not tell you that I loved all of them, but usually would agree with the considerably appropriate level of food. This particular restaurant is a spectacular disaster and insult to anyone who enjoys good cooking. Set up as something special along with sparkling wine glass at the greeting. Than you get a menu, which has only prefix option with dishes representing highlighted on menu ingredients.
Amusebouche of carrot with uneatable ingredients wich everyone spits on the plate.
Ricotta - very strange texture substance (certainly not ricotta) in soupy green and sour substance.
Oyster - stinky cooked oyster with disgusting tasting foam of salt water. The worst thing of the evening. People around us were afraid to eat and we noted that many people preferred not to eat it.
Sardine - over-cured, with bones, with watermelon juice!… I am not going through the whole menu, but you get the picture.
Both desert items consisted of pieces of fruit: sliced plum (which you can buy in any store and slice yourself) and 1/2 of the peach without skin. Neither one was particularly delicious. So. You pay $150 without wine/ person for very low quality ingredients used in senseless dishes with pretense of high cuisine. It is truly laughable. We could only laugh realizing how we were taken for a ride.
Proper: another happy departure from the chunks of meat on the grill. There are no reservations. Come before the opening time. There is a line already, but you will probably get in. Not the best food I had in my life, but enjoyed most of the dishes. The plates are small and you can try many.
La Brigada: Back to meat chunks. I suspect it is a popular establishment because of the atmosphere. The meal was nothing special. Made an effort to try chinchulín (fried intestine) but could not handle it. Too chewy. I try morcilla everywhere - that one was not my favorite. Local version of vitello tonnato - el vital tone - very pedestrian. One interesting dish - goat sweetbreads in green souse.
La Mar: Branch of Gaston Acurio’s empire in BA. Happy departure from the meat. Nothing wrong with the food. OK atmosphere. Very pushy waitress who got upset that we did not order thing she wanted us to order and ignored our table from that time on.
As well tried random choripans in few locations. Some really good. Some so-so. All are very salty.
I am grossly biased against empanadas, so will abstain from talking about it.
I have tried few more places, but they deserved no mentioning at all.
1. Argentina (and Uruguay) is not a food destination. There are few exceptions, as you can see from my humble reviews, which just confirm the rule.
2. Generally poor service. Sometimes to the degree of absurd. I could write a separate post about it, but will spare your time.
3. I can understand food consisting just from few ingredients or just one item grilled to perfection. That would work if the quality of the ingredients was high. Not the case in Argentina. As a rule eggplants, bell peppers and other products were just thrown on the grill and even not cooked through even in such respected locations as Don Julio. They need to send their asaderos to Mexico to learn how to grill and char vegetables to perfections. We were visiting in late summer season when the crop quality suppose to be at it’s best. Neither the less vegetables tasted like they were bought in whole sale supermarket after ripening in the boxes.
4. As for the meat. I am not an expert in the meat taste or particular lover of meat. I believe the meat in Japan was the best I have ever tried. The one in South Africa was as well much better to my recollection.
5. I will repeat my mind boggling statement that chefs in Argentina are surprised to hear that the fish can be grilled as a whole, not after being filleted.
The secret how to enjoy your meals: keep your expectations low.