Buenos Aires – I am saddened to have to pass along the news of the demise of a long cherished friend. The best pastrami in New York is no more. For those who’ve been reading the last couple of weeks, I very well may have been the last food writer to review the 2nd Avenue Deli, as it now passes into oblivion. If you haven’t caught up on the story, the new landlords of the building raised the restaurant’s rent from $24,000 a month to $33,000 a month, and basically were non-negotiable (I heard rumors that they were willing to “settle” for a mere $30,000), and the family decided they couldn’t afford the increase; one can generally tell in New York when landlords have new plans for a space… I’m almost tempted to call for a boycott of whatever may open there in the future! On the flip side, one hopes that, even if it ends up relocating, the Lebewohl family will reopen the 2nd Avenue Deli on 3rd, or 4th, or 5th, or… maybe even better, here in Buenos Aires…
The first time I visited Buenos Aires I’d asked my friends Juan and Nestor, the owners of the B&B where I stayed, for a recommendation on a really great parrilla. One of their favorites in the San Telmo neighborhood was El Desnivel, Defensa 855, but unfortunately it was closed for renovation throughout my stay. I’ve passed on that recommendation, sans any personal thoughts (not having been there), to several friends over time, and all had reported back good things. Some just simply liked it, others raved. Somehow or other, I’d never made it there until last night when friends Ed and Lisa of my friend Maureen (who visited back in August), blew into town and wanted to check out a really good parrilla. I figured it was worth taking the chance, and, in many ways, it was.
The idea that this place was closed for renovation a mere year ago is funny. Really quite funny. If they did any renovation it must have been carefully done to keep the appearance of old tiles, smoke stained plaster walls, borderline functional fixtures, and what not that had been there before – perhaps they replaced a light switch somewhere. Every expense has been spared on decor, which basically consists of random photos, pages from magazines, and maps tacked up on the smoke darkened walls. The heavy wood tables and chairs are thankfully sturdy, as the wear and tear on them would have collapsed any lesser piece of furniture. You enter by squeezing between the grill itself and a few scattered tables, to find yourself in the main dining area so packed with tables that even the most crafty New York maitre d’ couldn’t place a hatrack, let alone more seating. If you have issues about your personal space, El Desnivel (which means, by the way, social or class inequality, or the gap between the rich and the poor, a strange name for a restaurant in my view) is not for you. Service is friendly but somewhat abrupt, however, considering the number of people packed into the room that each waiter had to deal with, they were probably as attentive as they could possibly be. English translations on the menu are odd, some of them correct, others bear little or no relation to the food being offered – still one of my pet peeves – if you’re going to go to the trouble of translating your menu from one language into another, have someone who actually knows do the translating.
We ordered a bunch of random things from the grill – salads, empanadas (they only offer deep-fried, ground beef versions), a provoleta (grilled slice of provolone cheese brushed in olive oil and herbs), some chorizos, chinchulines (intestines), bife de chorizo (more or less a NY strip steak), a tira de asado (one strip of crosscut ribs), and a bowl of ñoquis (gnocchi) with bolognese sauce. We made a brave attempt at ordering wine, only to be informed, bottle after bottle, that they were out of it (each order entailing the waiter making a trip to the bar to ask). Finally, I got up, went to the bar and looked at what they actually had, and then picked one, a decent, though nothing special bottle of San Felipe Malbec Roble 2004. Food was delivered at random – the empanadas within seconds of ordering them, the salads and chorizos dropped off at one point, then the pasta, then the ribs, then the steak, then we had to remind him about provoleta and chinchulines. It’s just one of those places where that’s the way it is, and you can either accept it, or go somewhere else. We had a good time, enjoying the ambiance, watching the place fill up rapidly, and a line form out the door and onto the street. We decided to share one dessert of panqueques de dulce de leche, crepes filled with delicious milk caramel.
In summation? The pasta was at best, edible. The salads nothing special. The empanadas (I still prefer baked ones with cut beef rather than ground), chorizos, provoleta, ribs, and intestines average. The steak, absolutely fantastic, and one of the best bife de chorizos I’ve had here. It was tender, flavorful, and perfectly cooked. The panqueques one of the better examples of this dish I’ve had. All around, a fun place if you want an “old-style” Buenos Aires parrilla experience, and a really good steak.