Buenos Aires – When it comes to buildings, I tend to think of federal style as a mix of red brick and white shutters, everything being a bit blocky in appearance. When it comes to federal style furniture, it’s almost the opposite, with curves and elegance, and fancy fabrics like damask. I’m sure there was no intent to incorporate elements of either in El Federal, San Martin 1015, but I was just going off on a tangent. The room is a big concrete block. The tables are heavy, dark wood blocks. The banquettes are long, backless, leather covered benches. The chairs likewise heavy, dark wood blocks, with the seats being covered with hard-cured cowhide – not just leather, these things still have hair on them, and they’re cured to the texture of the wood they cover. After my Beaux Arts wander that I covered in the last post, I made my way there to meet up with my friend Victor.
El Federal made a name for itself and Chef Paula Comparatore’s regional Argentine cooking over the last five years, as a small venue of a couple dozen seats, located on Honduras in Palermo Viejo. When it was time to expand a couple of months ago, they relocated to the Retiro area, a strange choice given how quiet the neighborhood is after dark and that they no longer have a sidewalk seating area, but they certainly are already doing amazing business at lunchtime. The lunch menu is completely prix fixe, choosing between a full menu ejecutivo of appetizer, entree, and dessert, with beverage and coffee, for 19 pesos, or skipping the appetizer and saving 2 pesos. The choices are extensive, with cold and hot appetizers to choose from, and main plates from pasta to fish to meat. Overall presentation and flavors are quite creative, though tending towards sweetness in the sauces. The dinner menu includes many of the same dishes, though priced individually, and with a few added selections.
Service is erratic, scattered, and a little bit, well, clueless; on the other hand, the restaurant has literally just reopened, with brand new floor staff, and like any new place needs time to train its staff and let them get a feel for everything. It also probably didn’t help that a group of 15 showed up to have a party for lunch (who just shows up with a party of 15 hoping to get seated at a restaurant?) and they were pretty demanding of the time and energy of the staff. The owner/manager, who is a friend of Victor’s, and the chef jumped in to help, and smoothed the experience for everyone else.
We started off with two different selections of empanadas. The first were the repuelgues tehuelches (repulgues meaning crimped, and tehuelches meaning a native of Patagonia), described as patagonian empanadas with lamb and mushrooms. Spectacularly good, the flavors perfectly balanced, the seasoning dead-on, and served with a little semisweet hot sauce. The second were the salteñas picantes filled with “quesillo y verdeo”. Now, as far as I know, quesillo is a Venezuelan dessert similar to a creme caramel or flan, and verdeo is usually used as an adjective, most often after cebollo to indicate green, as in onions, a hallmark of salteñas empanadas. The filling was indeed a trifle custard like, and did contain green onions, so perhaps that was the intent. It wasn’t particularly picante, but the same semisweet hot sauce was served. Although the patagonian ones were better, both styles were quite good.
Moving on to main courses we sampled the most interesting sounding pasta, the ñoquis parrilleros which were described on the menu as gnocchi made of chimichurri flavored dough, with slices of chorizo colorado, a cured, slightly aged version of chorizo, and a chorizo pomarola sauce, which is a classic Tuscan sauce made of slow cooked tomato, carrot, onion, and celery, usually spiked with a little hot pepper, here with the addition of ground sweet chorizo sausage meat. Very good, though once again slightly sweet for my tastes on the sauce. The other dish was a delicious melange of steamed pejerrey, or silverside fish, over a hot salad of various aromatic vegetables and sprouts. It had a nice vinegar tang to it, and a sort of mediterranean feel to its flavors, and was really excellent.
We’d asked our waiter about the sauce on the pasta, and though a little flustered at coming up with an answer himself, he was smart enough to head for the kitchen and bring back Chef Paula in tow. After introductions we had a great conversation about her food, we were then joined by her co-owner and manager, and continued the conversation about the restaurant and its history. Paula asked if we’d mind if she picked a couple of desserts for us, and of course, we didn’t refuse. That led, however, to a succession of plates, as we sampled half a dozen desserts from the menu, along with excellent espresso, and a couple of final glasses of champagne. Not having the menu in front of me, I don’t have the names of the dishes, but, first there is a trio of desserts with a layered torte of dulce de batata, or sweet potato jelly with a cheese based frozen custard, a glass filled with white chocolate ice cream (and they do use ice cream at El Federal, not gelato, in fact, they use Häagen-Dazs) layered with a sort of compote of red fruits, and a take on tocino de cielo, a classic Spanish custard, here intensely flavored with orange and served with orange segments and candied orange peel. Then we were served what seemed more or less like a milk chocolate semifreddo and a pastelita, or small fried pastry, filled with warm chocolate ganache. That was followed by a vividly yellow green honeydew melon and mango sorbet, and then by our espressos accompanied by merengue cookies and biscotti. Nothing like a major sugar fix to finish off a delicious lunch (and, sticking with the theme of sweetness…).