Times are tough in Buenos Aires. This is the first time Ive ever had to overcome a sense of futility in order to write a report for Chowhound. Buenos Aires is suffering through a terrible political and economic crisis. In the course of our four-week trip, Argentina had five presidents. Our stay in the capital was marked by frequent pot-banging protests (cacerolazos in local parlance), looting and vandalism, and the sight of block-long lines in front of every bank as Argentines tried to do business, in spite of accounts being frozen by the government. You can imagine the effects on the culinary world. I never saw a crowded restaurant. Most were quite empty, and reservations unnecessary even at the hottest. An entire restaurant row in Recoleta was just dismantled altogether. Even the little empanada carry-out places were slow, with cash being in short supply. I wonder which of the places I recommend here will be in business three months from now. A year? So Ill post, because information about Buenos Aires is in short supply on this board, but with a warning: I include a telephone number wherever possible, and future visitors are advised to call before they go.
Its my impression that Buenos Aires presents an unusual challenge for chowhounds. Its awash with restaurants, bakeries, and take-out joints, but an unusual proportion seem to be business ventures, first and foremost. For example, a sweet tooth might be delighted to find a bakery on practically every corner, but investigation shows that nearly all of them offer a terrifyingly identical selection of unappetizing, poor-quality pastries. (I postulate the existence of some sort of manual like Industrial Production for the New Bakery Owner.)
The good news is that there is plenty of good food in Buenos Aires. It just keeps a low profile. One book, Vidal Buzzis Restaurantes de Buenos Aires, was a great help to us. Id recommend picking one up upon arrival in BA. Its not the only guide available, but its definitely the most comprehensive, opinionated, and chowhoundish. Its pseudo-Zagat numerical rating system would make it comprehensible even to non-Spanish speakers. Another book of great value to newcomers to Argentina is Dereck Fosters The Gourmet Gaucho. Foster is the food and wine critic for the English-language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, and this book of essays is published in a bilingual English-Spanish format. The essays deal with topics ranging from pre-Columbian Argentine cookery to the empanada. Its not terribly well-structured, but it is an excellent guide to the foods youll find in Argentina, even though Fosters thesis is that there is no such thing as Argentine cuisine, since Argentine cooking is inherited and derivative. The book also includes a glossary of Argentine food terms and dishes.
Now for the restaurants:
PARILLAS: Cabana Las Lilas or Gaucho Grill?
Our search for the finest grilled meat in BA led us to two restaurants. Spurred by public opinion, we tried the famous Cabana Las Lilas (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 516, Puerto Madero 4313-1336); on the strength of Vidal Buzzis praise, the Gaucho Grill (Cervino 3732, Palermo, 4805-4643). We ate excellently well at both, but if I could only recommend one, my nod would go to the Gaucho Grill.
Cabana Las Lilas is probably the most famous parilla in town. Located on the waterfront in trendy Puerto Madero, it draws an affluent business crowd. Given that it was still reasonable busy on a Thursday night at the height of the crisis, its fairly certain to endure.
Theyre terribly proud of their beef, which is raised on their own estancia. The surplus is sold in some BA supermarkets under the Cabana Las Lilas label, with the slogan The Meat of Champions emblazoned on it. Given that the restaurant is all about beef, we were pleased to find that the peripheral items were delicious too. Even the bread basket is worth mentioning. It includes incredible warm and chewy rounds of chipa South American cheese bread, that obviate the need to order an overly filling provoleta.
Along with the bread basket, the staff brings a tray of little salads, dipping sauces, crudites, and a bit of poached salmon. Herein lies my only complaint with an otherwise excellent dinner. As we perused our menu, we noticed an assortment of appetizers priced at $4.50 per person, which strongly resembled it. However, it did not match the description exactly. And because it would be unworthy of a fine restaurant to charge for something brought to the table unsolicited, we assumed that it was not, and we picked at it. When the bill came, sure enough, we had been charged $9. Im half inclined to write them a letter stating my opinion of that shabby practice. On the other hand, we noticed that the staff opened several bottles of mineral water to slake our thirst and we were only charged for one, so the money-grubbing is inconsistent.
For entrees, we ordered lomo, (eye of filet?), and an Argentine cut of beef called vacio, which translates as empty. The lomo was wonderful, preternaturally tender; the vacio well, I didnt know what to make of it. It was a long strip of steak, about one and a half inches thick, and incredibly chewy. (It was all I could do to saw my way through it with the fancy Cabana steak knife, which is listed on their menu with a price of something like $28. In defense of the vacio, the flashy knife even had trouble with the butter-tender filet.) Still, it was strange that this temple to the cult of beef should serve up such a rubbery specimen. I might have inquired about whether this was a usual property of this cut, but I was quieted by its superlative flavor, which rendered the chewing worth the effort.
Id be doing the Cabana a disservice by failing to mention their excellent service. When the headwaiter asked how the beef was, we said that it was good, but our insincere and weak smiles prompted him to root out the source of our secret dismay: that the blood-rare filet did not correspond to our notion of medium. The filet was whisked backed to the kitchen for an additional pass over the flame. It returned minutes later and was accompanied by a fresh plate of the souffleed potatoes we had ordered as a side dish, since the first plate had cooled during the filets brief absence.
Dinner for two with a decent Malbec came to about $90 (This price, like all the others in this report, is at the pre-devaluation rate. Prices will probably be lower in the future, though Im uncertain how inflation will affect restaurant bills.)
The Gaucho Grill offers a different kind of experience. With a less-than-trendy location far from government and corporate headquarters, it was correspondingly quieter in the time of crisis. In certain ways, it seems rather like a US steakhouse. Theres a fine selection of Argentine wines, the beef comes with chimichurri, and very nice French fries are available, but the side menu also features sherried mushrooms and creamed spinach. I like to think that theyve chosen the best accompaniments to fine beef, without regard to national origin. And the beef? I ordered entrana, a skirt steak, which I love for its flavor. It wasnt as flavorful as Id hoped for (one of the best steaks Ive ever eaten was an entrana at the Chimichurri Grill on 9th Avenue), but the quantity! I was served three steaks on an enormous platter! I ate one, and turned the others into a chili-laced salad the next day. My husband ordered the lomo, the best we had in Argentina. It wasnt as outrageously tender as Cabanas, but the flavor was incomparable.
One item of note is the low markup on wine. We ordered a $16 bottle of Malbec, which we later saw
in a store priced at $12. This was far lower than at most restaurants.
Dinner with one appetizer, two entrees, two sides, and the wine came to $57. My husband and I agreed that we enjoyed the meals equally. Given that the Grill is significantly cheaper, it wins our recommendation for parilla in BA.
THE DEFINITIVE EMPANADA AND OTHER NATIVE SPECIALTIES:
During my stay, I also scoured my neighborhood for the definitive empanada. Its hard to describe where the neighborhood is corner of Sanchez de Bustamante and French considered Palermo by some, Barrio Norte by others, and identified as Recoleta on a map.
The bad news for chowhounds interested in this sort of thing is that I never did find a beef empanada worthy of a special trip from out of the neighborhood. (And I tried many places El Sanjuanino, La Reja, El Tata, Tatu, La Querencia, La Cupertina and many more.) What I was looking for was carne de cuchillo, or a tasty filling of hand-chopped beef, al horno, in an oven-baked wrapper of notable excellence. I leave this search to the next chowhound.
I did, however, find the definitive chicken empanada. Its puff pastry-type dough encloses a delicious filling of boiled chicken with onions and bell pepper in the finest imaginable dice. Id swear that the mystery seasoning is cinnamon, though theres definitely no cinnamon powder present. Id guess that the chicken is boiled with a stick or two. Upon biting in, one is reminded of a Moroccan bstilla, sans sugar. This specimen is to be had from a take-out storefront, Empanadas Buen Aguero. (Lamentably, I have misplaced the address and phone number. Its located on Aguero between French and Avenida Las Heras, which narrows it down to a four block stretch. Its worth the search!)
Most Argentine restaurants offer a pretty standardized menu of grilled meats and maybe pasta. A very few dedicate themselves to the countrys regional cuisine. La Cupertina (Cabrera 5296, Palermo Viejo, 4777-3711) is a good place to try some of the typical dishes of northwest Argentina. Its a shiny and cute corner carry-out/bakery with some tables for eating in. Its run by cheerful and enthusiastic ladies who will patiently describe menu items. Perhaps because few others have created shiny, happy places featuring regional Argentine foods, theyve gotten a lot of press, and framed clippings occupy one wall. Still, the lunch clientele apparently includes seniors nostalgic for the taste of home, and workers from nearby auto-body shops.
The only disappointment was that many of their dishes were unavailable. I was told that the hearty stews that make up most of the menu were unsuitable for a torrid summer day; hence, no lentils with cocoa. We ordered the carbonada, a lightly sweet and sour vegetable beef stew, which was delicious. The apple tart was also very good, containing a still slightly crunchy dice of tart apples, strongly flavored with Hispanic cinnamon. La Cupertina also sells a host of traditional sweets. Deep-fried membrillo pastries surprised us by actually being tasty, and the thin, delicate alfajores with white icing were the best we tried.
Wine is another great Argentine pleasure. A place we wanted to love was the Club del Vino (Cabrera 4737, Palermo Viejo, 4833-0048/50), where the lovely patio with a splashing fountain provides the perfect spot to enjoy a bottle on a summer evening. It succeeds wonderfully well as a place to enjoy wine, but not spectacularly as a fine restaurant.
It is actually a club. The wines are custom-bottled with Club del Vino labels, and are listed on the menu with members and non-members prices, but the non-members prices are very reasonable. We had an enjoyable Cabernet-Malbec for $15.
As far as the cooking is concerned, there are bright spots. The chef is known for his artisanal breads, and the bread basket warmed our hearts. In the US, artisanal bread too often refers to a single species: massive loaves, with rubbery, open-textured sourdough flesh, and hides of toughest leather. Here, all was the opposite: close, moist interiors, with soft, rich crusts that appeared to have been basted with oil. Mozzarella with tomatoes three ways (fresh, sun-dried, and confit) was the perfect accompaniment, the tomato confit, with its curried smokiness, proving that the kitchen is capable of conjuring up profound flavors. However, the entrees were surprisingly awful. Smoked salmon linguine: insipid. And the enigmatically named carne especiada proved to be filet mignon with an unappetizing zucchini and red pepper stir fry over barley (!), all of it drowning in soy sauce. All that preserved it from inedibility was the quality of the perfectly cooked meat: a miserable idea, well executed.
COSMOPOLITAN BUENOS AIRES
We also ate well at a number of non-Argentine establishments. The best of these was Oviedo (Beruti 2602, Barrio Norte, 4821-3741), an impeccable bulwark of traditional Spanish gastronomy. The most outstanding dish was an exquisite appetizer of roast piquillo peppers stuffed with shredded pigs feet. The oven-baked merluza with a whisper of sherry vinegar was also marvelous. Dessert was the only weak point, the home-made ice cream proving less flavorful than that available at the corner parlor.
And speaking of Spanish - The Grand Café Tortoni, on Avenida de Mayo, which appears in all guidebooks, and is the oldest café in BA, is home to fabulous Spanish-style hot chocolate and churros. The chocolate espeso is served with a small pitcher of heated milk. I did not understand why until I realized that the already very thick dark chocolate thickens further as it cools, and the milk is needed to dilute it to its proper consistency. It really is some of the best chocolate Ive had anywhere. The café itself is filled with literary memorabilia, so a visit makes a nice morning activity. Breakfasts in Argentina are the dreariest Ive found anywhere, so this may be the best bet for anyone staying downtown.
Centro Vasco Frances (Moreno 1370,Congreso, 4384-2300) hid unexpected elegance at the top of a rickety flight of stairs off a dingy street. Again, its actually a club: signs posted near the restrooms inform us that members more than three months in arrears may not use the ball court. But the members have apparently maintained the vast wood-floored and chandeliered dining room since 1898. Its easy to imagine the power lunches chaired by legislators from the nearby Congress, which was sacked by rioters just hours after our dinner that night.
Food is good and portions are enormous. Anguilas, or fried baby eels, were heartbreakingly tender and sweet. A shared entrée of hake in green sauce brought two enormous filets. The waiter reassured us that it was a single order, split. Rice with squid ink was also delicious. Im not sure whether the good food and historic ambiance are worth the price tag, though. Given that appetizers and entrees both hover around $20, dinner is bound to be costly, though it may be less so in the future, depending on how theyve adjusted prices following the recent devaluation.
Top quality at a much more reasonable price is found at Cheff Iusef (Malabia1378, Palermo Viejo, 4773-0450), a Lebanese place in the middle of a large Arab and Armenian neighborhood. Like many restaurants in the area, they keep their front door locked, I believe in response to a recent wave of armed restaurant robberies. Ring and be patient.
There is actually a grandma in the kitchen here! I saw her with my own eyes, patiently stuffing grape leaves! The food reflects a loving touch: the rice-stuffed grape leaves, served warm, were by far the best weve ever had; ditto, the falafel. We tried a stew of beef, tomato, and the tiniest, tenderest whole okra possible, as well as the lusciously buttery Persian rice.
For a look at BAs new cuisine, which is being created by a small army of graduates from culinary schools, we tried Al Andalus (Godoy Cruz 1823, Palermo Viejo 4832-9286 note: this is a prostitution strip, so most people would feel more comfortable taking a taxi at night) , where we had the saddest and most emblematic meal of our trip. We had read that the chef was reviving authentic Andalus recipes, but that was a misrepresentation. The menu states that his dishes are inspired by his love for Andalucia, where he often travels. When the chef is good, he shines, as in gazpacho with basil sorbet, and the surprising roast lamb with yogurt sauce, which turned out to be a lacquered loaf of braised, boned meat. (My husband considers this the best dish he ate on the trip.) Less successful was marinated raw salmon, with a somewhat insipid orange juice based sauce. A chicken dish consisted of a tasty if un-Andalucian stir fry, surrounded by strange little chunks of glazed boneless chicken breast. It reflected a local culinary tendency to mistake elegant plating for food quality. Dessert, a chocolate tart with cinnamon and candied orange, wasnt stellar, but provided a satisfying end.
Why was this dining experience sad? This is clearly a restaurant that started with a dream, rather than a business consortium, and the staff is giving the enterprise their best effort. In addition to good and sometimes brilliant creative cooking, the restaurant boasts beautiful Andalucian-style decoration, and wonderfully informed and passionate servers. Alas, we were the only customers to enjoy it that night. Finally, just before we left, a party of three arrived and took a table. We were thrilled and then heartbroken when we realized that they were relatives of the hostess. We were offered a 10% discount for a cash payment before we exited into the streets of Palermo Viejo, brightened that night by barricade fires in the intersections.