Buenos Aires – There is no proverb that goes “Beware three wise men bearing gifts.” It’s one of those lines that lives, in one form or another similar to that, somewhere in our, or at least my, hindbrain. Not that it’s the last time that three wise men showed up anywhere with gifts in hand, but look at all the problems caused by those three famous ones showing up two millenia ago. My new friend Roberto, who arrived early Saturday to visit various and sundry friends, will probably love being tossed in as the first of the wise men. He has arrived in my life via this blog, of which he is an avid reader, and we’ve been carrying on a long distance chat about a wide variety of topics. Late Friday night my friend Bill had arrived from New York, via a short visit to the wine country in Argentina and Chile, thus justifying his vacation as a business trip. He shall be designated the second of the wise men, but only because his giftage came later in the story.
Henry and I spent the day out introducing Bill to some of the sights of Buenos Aires – we launched into things locally with a tour of the Cementerio de Recoleta, with the appropriate visits to the mausolea of Evita and of Domingo Sarmiento, plus a bit of a wander. Henry’s never comfortable in the cemetery, so we didn’t stay long. From there we continued on to the Centro Cultural de Recoleta, which, unfortunately, has begun a massive renovation project, and virtually all the galleries were closed to the public. That left us meandering the walkways through the artisans’ stalls in the Fería de Recoleta, and by then, of course, hungry. Henry, as per usual, loves to show off Peruvian food, and wanted to return to Zadvarie, where we’d had a delightful lunch a few months ago. We did once again, this time seated on the rooftop terrace enjoying the beautiful weather.
Lunch was followed by a brief stop near the Congreso building, mostly to see if we could find Bill a proper Panama hat like the one I bought a few weeks ago (and in which, I must say, I am stylin’). That was an experience unto itself – my first time in a real haberdashery – a fitted hat that is handmade, and custom appointed with a band of my choice, selected in tandem with the gentleman who owns Maidana, Rivadavia 1923, unfortunately it turns out he’s closed on weekends. The Economist has even written this place up, stating “This hatter seems to have been preserved from a bygone age. The attention is thus impeccably courteous, as the owner either finds your choice of headwear from stock or takes your measurements to make something to measure.”
Enter Roberto. We’d made plans for all of us to hook up at the fancy Faena Hotel bar. The Faena is located off in Puerto Madero Este. It’s a hotel for which words like posh and swanky were created. One enters through a long tiled and curtained hallway… remember Dorothy, the Lion, the Tinman, and the Scarecrow timidly walking down the entrance hall towards their audience with the Great and Powerful Oz? Imagine that, if it had been decorated by Philippe Starck. Oh wait, he did decorate the Faena. The Faena (or “Faena Universe” as their website refers to it), is, as of right now, the most expensive hotel in the city – at the bottom end a “Premium” room runs $350 a night; at the top end, the Presidential suite runs a mere $2,500 a night (it’s possible some of the mansion suites at the Four Seasons run more, but the hotel rooms in general run slightly less, at $310 a night). So, 8:00 found Bill and I meeting up with Roberto and a few of his other friends in The Library Lounge (one of three bars, the others being the Pool Bar and the Cabaret), for a couple of rounds of drinks that ran anywhere from 20 to 30 pesos apiece. We had a wonderful time, the company was delightful, the room was elegant and relaxing, and all those pesos (that Roberto was shelling out for the group) were clearly going to pay for the salaries of the attentive and gorgeous staff.
And, Roberto brought gifts. I’d semi-jokingly mentioned that I miss Kraft Mac & Cheese when he asked if there was anything he could bring me from Miami. He brought. Four boxes of original. Two boxes of the variations (Three Cheese and Velveeta… can’t forget the Velveeta!), two boxes of Girl Scout cookies, two boxes of cereal for Henry, two jars of pinenuts (I’ve said how expensive and difficult to find they are here), and a stack of cooking magazines. Now, that’s a grateful reader!!! So, publicly, Roberto, thank you thank you!
He and his friends were headed off for a casual dinner somewhere, Bill and I had decided to head somewhere in the Puerto Madero area where he could get a taste of local cuisine. (Henry had headed off to La Plata for the evening to his best friend’s birthday party.) We wandered a bit and decided to stray a touch from “local”, ending up at Ayres de Patagonia, Alicia M. de Justo 1798, one of three Patagonian restaurants that have been getting rave reviews from one paper or another. Ayres de Patagonia is a relatively small restaurant for Puerto Madero – probably only seating about 100 people. It is handsomely appointed in a variety of woods, which later on I found out are various exotic woods harvested from Patagonia, like lenga and rauli… Simple leather placemats, decent lighting, and virtually no one in the place. That changed over the evening – despite our arrival after 10 in the evening, the place didn’t begin to fill until after 11! In a purely random move of the cosmos, just as we were leaving later on, Roberto and his friends arrived to begin, having decided much like us, to wander Puerto Madero and pick a place to dine.
Although the wine list is a decent length (though pricey – running almost double local retail prices), I was surprised that it didn’t feature more Patagonian wines – there are certainly at least a half a dozen very good producers to have chosen from. Instead, most of the wines were from Mendoza, which is admittedly more familiar when catering to the tourist world, but if you’re introducing them to cuisine that isn’t local, why not the wine as well? In fact, we tried ordering two different of the few Patagonian wines on the list, only to be told they weren’t available. We ended up with a bottle of quite good Don Nicanor 2004, a Cabernet, Malbec, and Merlot blend from Bodegas Nieto Senetiner in Mendoza. A plate of empanadas de lomo acompañadas de humita en cazuela gratinada con azucar negra, or sirloin empanadas accompanied by a sweet corn pudding topped with a bit of caramelized brown sugar, was excellent. Nice cubes of steak, good spicing, and the corn pudding was truly wonderful – I could have had more of just that, or even had that all over again for dessert.
Our second appetizer was a trifle less successful, though still good. Centolla de Ushuaia, zucchinis, brunoise de manzana, frescas hierbas en masa philo y salsa golf, which is spider or snow crab from Ushuaia (the main city in southern Patagonia), along with a zucchini and apple salad, fresh herbs, and a shotglass of salsa golf to accompany it – was a little too underseasoned. The crab had clearly been simply boiled and chilled, and had taken on that somewhat watery flavor that says fresh, but needs a bit of salt, lemon juice, something. Still, when mixed together the whole thing worked reasonably well – it was one of those dishes designed for someone who wants something light and seafoody and doesn’t want their tastebuds challenged. Interestingly, centolla appears on the menu twice, once translated as crayfish and once as Ushusaia crab – the latter being the correct translation.
Moving on to main courses – we both like lamb quite a bit, so the rack de corderito patagonico y su gigot, dorado en su propio cuero, papines andinos, habas, tomates confit, recula fresca en suave salsa de Malbec – ribs and leg of baby lamb, (it says roasted in the skin, but it wasn’t, unless they removed the skin before plating), potatoes, beans, tomatoes, radicchio, and a Malbec sauce – seemed a natural choice. It was excellent, especially the ribs, which were cooked a perfect medium rare and seasoned exquisitely. The entire dish was a winner, and really showcased both the lamb and the capabilities of the chef.
I have mixed feelings about the second course. The quality of cooking was equally as good. Jabali patagonico con chutney de ruibarbo y uvas, pure de batata, con tomates cherry, salsa de naranja, aceto y miel, or Patagonian wild boar with a rhubarb and grape chutney, sweet potato puree, cherry tomatoes, and an orange and honey sauce could easily have been as good as that sounds. The sauce was a perfect foil for the meat. The chutney was delicious (who knew there was rhubarb grown in Patagonia… I wonder if I can get some?), and the sweet potato puree, though a strange sickly green-orange color (batatas just aren’t the glowing, vivid orange that we’re used to in North American sweet potatoes), was wonderful. The meat was cooked right. It was seasoned right. It was solid fat. That shouldn’t be. Wild game should be lean, flavorful, perhaps a touch chewy. Unless this was just a poorly cut piece, this was more likely farm raised boar that sat around thinking great thoughts, ate from a trough, and probably never got a chance to forage through the scrub brush.
And thus we reach the point of gifts from the second wise man, Bill, who is both a longtime friend and also a daily reader. A second chorus of thank yous go out to him, as he picked up the tab on every meal this weekend (I managed to snag only the chits for a couple of gelatos at Altra Volta and coffee at Café Tortoni), and brought me a copy of the much talked about in the foodie world, Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which I look forward to reading and sampling from.
I await the third wise man…