Tuesday 2 March 2010

Dining out

Argentina is rightly famed for its meat. It dominates the restaurant scene. The biggest section of every menu is the parrilla or grill. Every kind of steak you can imagine, in absurd portions. My first meal out was a weak effort on my part. I mumbled a few words and got an overcooked lomo (fillet) with crap chips. Since then I’ve eaten a very average hamburguesa with equally crap fries, and a number of unmemorable lunches about town.

Since I moved into my new pad in Palermo, I have been trying out a few of the local eateries. There’s a fish place downstairs, called Nemo’s that served me a pretty good ceviche on my first night, and stopped me in my tracks with the first really good bread I’ve had.

The following night I plumped for Voulez Bar a corner joint a block away that looked promisingly busy for a Monday night. The pesca del dia was the best piece of fish I have eaten in a long, long time. Fried in breadcrumbs with herb butter, it was expertly cooked and perfectly balanced. I savoured every mouthful, and was happy to overlook the pompous presentation.

Since then I’ve had a few meals of little distinction, one notable mainly for the excellent wine that washed down the forgettable lamb chops - a stunning Malbec called Callejon del Crimen. The name of the restaurant escapes me - anywhere that needs someone that pretty on the door is probably not expecting too many people to come back for the food.

Last night I ate at a tourist trap in Palermo Viejo called La Cabrera. It’s so popular they have two branches within half a block of one another. The ojo de bife (rib-eye) would feed a troop of sumo wrestlers the night before a big fight. It is especially good and beautifully cooked - jugoso (literally juicy, or rare, to use the parlance of our times). But best of all, it comes with sauces.

I’m all for keeping things simple and letting the ingredients do the talking, but if a sixteen ounce piece of beef has to speak for itself all night, it’s likely to get kind of boring. It must have some help. Everywhere else I have ordered steak in Buenos Aires it has arrived alone. A dozen or so different sauces and condiments accompany it here. La Cabrera is a fine place, if you can tolerate the turistos and americanos. And if you can’t, well you probably don’t deserve to eat their beef.

Tonight I returned to Voulez Bar to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming. Busy as ever, I get a spot outside and order the roll de pollo. It arrives, daintily presented. Three separate rolls of butterflied chicken breast stuffed with sun dried tomatoes (unimaginative) prance around a mound of black rice. The rice is very good. But it is fucking hot. It is incongruously hotter than the chicken, which creates an unwelcome and unsettling contrast when eating.

The next unwelcome contrast comes in the form of a piece of the wishbone that has been left in the chicken. I can live with this, but when something foreign and unexpected stops you whilst eating, I always find I spend the rest of the meal expecting it to happen again, masticating tentatively for minutes on end whilst my pollo gets even colder and my rice begins to drop below the temperature at which my amalgam fillings are likely to melt.

I politely ask for la carta, ostensibly to choose a dessert, but really to copy down some more words and check up on their description of the roll de pollo. On opening the menu I notice something that hitherto escaped my attention. It is the name of the chef. His name, believe it or not, is Rafael Ponce.

La cuenta, por favor.

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