Buenos Aires – It’s not often that I get sticker shock here. Even at the high end restaurants, it’s rare to see dishes that I find to be priced beyond reach. I’m not including something like a caviar sampler at a fancy Russian place, or the occasional foie gras – which isn’t produced here and must be flown in. But even those don’t seem to head into the stratosphere. So when I see an appetizer for 230 pesos or a main course for 140 pesos, it tends to catch my eye. Especially if they’re surrounded by several other plates that reach towards the 100-mark. Welcome to “the finest Basque dining” in Buenos Aires.
Alas, Vasco Fermin is no more. Apparently, in the history of Basque cuisine in Buenos Aires, this place was legendary, and I’ve had it recommended more than once. But not to worry, things have just been reshuffled once again. At one time, Fermin, the chef/owner of Vasco Fermin, was the chef at Vasco Francés, just up the block. That venue is the dining club in the Club de Lectores de La Nación (the Nation’s Readers Club?), open to the public, though members get a discount. Fermin, or his successor, has just moved across the street and down a bit, or so I’ve managed to gather. The phones at Vasco Fermin are now answered at Iñaki, Moreno 1341, a relatively long, tunnel-like space, brightly lit, high ceilinged, and white tableclothed. It is staffed by a trio of lively waiters who probably arrived with the first Basque immigration to this country a century ago. We were greeted by an elegant blond woman, who gracefully and charmingly took us to our table and left us in the care of an equally graceful and charming waiter.
The name Fermin kept turning over in my mind. I had to wait to do an internet search to immediately be reminded of the Festival of San Fermin, the annual injury fest known as the Running of the Bulls – in Pamplona – an entirely different part of Spain, but then, Fermin is apparently a relatively common name. Iñaki isn’t all that extraordinary either, in fact, the chef at Ayres de Patagonia, where we had dinner just a couple of weeks ago, is named Iñaki Goldin. But back to last night, where we didn’t order the 230 peso plate of angulas, or baby eels (yes, I know, it’s an expensive plate no matter where you might find it in the world).
Angulas: Baby eels, or Elvers, caught at the mouths of the rivers in Galicia and the Basque country. Although eels mature in the freshwater rivers, they migrate by the thousands across the Atlantic to spawn in the Sargasso Sea. The eel larvae make their way back to the rivers of Spain, gradually maturing into elvers, only to be caught by fishermen, who wait for them at night when the tides are out on the mudflats, making them a trifle easier to catch. Angulas are the size of a bean sprout, so catching them is rather difficult to begin with – which makes them a very expensive delicacy. Traditionally they are served in sizzling olive oil flavored with garlic and a touch of hot pepper flakes.
Last night we were guests of a friend in visiting from Canada, whom I met back on a little suburban jaunt to “experience” the cartonero train. Instead of splurging on elvers, we started off with a plate of delicious cured boquerones, small fillets of anchovies, here cured in salt until just slightly chewy, and then marinated in olive oil, garlic, and parsley. We also, despite it not being Basque, just had to have a plate of our favorite jamón serrano, thinly sliced and draped on another plate for sharing. We also ordered a bottle of a quite interesting and very good 2003 Clos du Moulin Cabernet Sauvignon – Pinot Noir from Bodegas Chandon in Mendoza. That’s not a common blend of grapes, so it was intriguing, and I was quite pleased with the choice.
From there we moved on to a platter of fried calamari. But this was not to be a bunch of batter encrusted chewy rings accompanied by cocktail sauce. No. It was a wonderfully delicate dish of very quickly deep-fried whole small squid, each just lightly dusted with flour, salt, pepper, and herbs, and served simply with wedges of lemon. I know the whole-squid thing would turn off a huge number of people who don’t want their food to look like the living creature it once was, but this was so far above and beyond the usual greasy finger food that I don’t know how anyone could resist. Needless to say, we devoured them in a matter of moments.
Our choices for main courses ranged from simple to complex. Our hostess decided on a plate of grilled abadejo, or pollack, sauced with salsa verde. Admittedly, it wasn’t quite what any one of us had expected. But then, we’d already had a couple of surprises, so why not continue? Though described as simply dressed in olive oil, garlic, and parsley, the sauce was a trifle more complex, and bordered on being a cream sauce made with those elements. The texture said it wasn’t cream – I think it was more of a very well made emulsion – and it was quite good. Our waiter had highly recommended the arroz especiale, a dish of rice and mixed seafood, strangely mixed with a fair amount of cheese. As our other companion described it, it was sort of like having a rice version of a large bowl of “mac and cheese”. Not that most bowls of mac and cheese are filled with shrimp, mussels, squid, and fish.
Henry has been wanting to try paella, and Iñaki offers a great option – not only do they have a paella Valenciana platter for the table, but they offer an indivdually sized portion as well. Individual is, of course, subjective, and we all had to dig in to help finish it. It was well made – saffron rice packed with mixed shellfish, chorizos, chicken, peas, and roasted peppers. For my tastes the rice was slightly overcooked, but not badly so, and I wouldn’t hesitate to order the dish again – especially since it’s easily big enough for two people to share, at a mere 28 pesos. It was definitely the winner dish of the evening. No wait, that was the fried squid. Decisions, decisions.
I ordered the one non-seafood dish, just to try one of the specifically Basque specialties. I have to admit, I do wish our waiter had told me that Raxo came with french fries – I probably would have asked for a different accompaniment. They were okay french fries, but somehow seemed out of place with the thin, delicate slices of pork shoulder, deboned, and served in a fascinating sauce that reminded me alot of a red molé from Mexico. Roasted red peppers, some sort of toasted seeds, and a touch of something bitter like cocoa. The sauce was finished with a little bit of something liquor-ish – given the various options on the menu I’d venture to guess a touch of whiskey. It’s one of those things I will find out sooner later…
Interestingly, virtually the entire selection of desserts at Iñaki consist of gelato in one guise or another. Two bowls of lemon gelato and a Don Pedro, which was a whiskey flavored milkshake, hit the table, along with this dish just called Copa “Olga”. It was a truly sublime bowl of a sort of whiskey flavored mousse filled with glazed chestnuts and topped with chopped walnuts. If it wouldn’t have been impolite, I might have licked the bowl clean. Every now and again I can manage to summon up some table manners.