Buenos Aires – As anyone who reads this column knows, I am not a vegetarian. I toyed with it a few times in the past, I even trained in a professional vegetarian chef’s program at one point, but the siren call of various and sundry members of the animal kingdom always proved to much to resist. I don’t consider it a failing of character, though recently I had an exchange of postings on a forum with someone who clearly does (in such a wonderfully self-righteous and condescending way that I’m sure people just flock to her point of view…), which merely brought into relief my fascination with things vegetable. Even though I am unlikely to ever give up meat, I love to work in the kitchen with plants.
Years ago, one of the things that caught ahold of my interest like a venus flytrap and won’t let go is the idea of a vegetarian, or “veggie” burger. I don’t mean some soy or seitan “meat substitute” that is meant to help those who are having trouble weaning themselves from meat into the world of vegetarianism, or allow those who have embraced the faith to still pretend like their eating meat without the guilt (which to my mind is fine if you became vegeterian for purely dietary reasons, but if it is for some sort of moral commitment, you’ve still got issues…). I merely mean something in the form of a burger, i.e., a patty that fits on a bun and is topped with various condiments. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of recipes from various chefs and home cooks – made from beans, lentils, grains, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, vegetables, and yes, even tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
I haven’t seen many of them here, and the only interesting one so far was a grain based version at Bio. As I’ve looked for the occasional vegetarian restaurant to try out, I often ask people who recommend the place if they have a good veggie burger. Somewhere along the line I’d put the restaurant Janio, Malabia 1805, on my list – I’d been told that while they weren’t a vegetarian restaurant, they had many vegetarian options, and a “really good veggie burger.” Yesterday I found myself near to the beautiful Plaza Costa Rica, which put me right there – along Malabia, opposite the park, are quite a few restaurants, all offering open air dining and a view of the plaza – a very pleasant area to lunch. In fact, one of the actually vegetarian restaurants on my list is just down the block, to be saved for another day.
Janio is a charming place to eat; they describe themselves as a lugar de encuentro, or meeting place, and indeed it is. There was a constant stream of folks coming and meeting each other for a quick bite, or a coffee, or glass of wine. The crowd leans towards the young and beautiful set, with a large proportion, maybe 1/3 or more, being gay. Of course, they, and others, may be attracted by the rather young and beautiful staff – I’m not saying the waiters aren’t friendly and competent, they certainly are, but they’re also clearly selected for musculature, features, smiles, and how they look in an open, tight fitting polo shirt. I, of course, paid no attention to them, and instead concentrated all my thoughts on the selection of breads and vegetable dip.
The menu is, very simply, not vegetarian. It’s creative and interesting, but it’s packed with meat offerings, and in fact, their “sister” restaurant, Lo de Jesus, a few blocks away, is a classic parrilla. But there are a couple of offerings for those of a vegetarian mindset – though given the rest of the menu, that’d be for those who are not opposed to meat, but choose not to eat it. What they’ve got, is a small section of the menu called “Menu Light” which lists three vegetarian dishes, including the Janio Dojo Especial, described as a soy burger with grilled tofu cheese, accompanied by a salad of mesclun, sprouts, steamed vegetables, and brown rice. That didn’t sound quite as intriguing as it had been made out to be, and a quick questioning of the waiter revealed a lack of enthusiasm, and a burger that is a simple milanesa de soja, something available all over the place, just fancied up a bit and perhaps seasoned better than the usual. I don’t know. At that point I decided not to try it.
Semi-abandoning the whole “check out the vegetarian” options, since the place clearly wasn’t about that anyway, I launched full force in the opposite direction with a plate of the paté casero served with country style bread and dressed with a reduction of orange peel, honey, and late harvest wine. The pate itself wasn’t bad, needing a little salt, but served beautifully, with a layer of aspic shimmering along one edge. The dressing was delicious, and made a great accompaniment to the pate. Good bread too. Much like the various breads in the bread basket – clearly there’s someone paying attention.
I did decide to go with a vegetarian option for the main course, at least sort of keeping on track with my original plan. The “giant ravioli” filled with eggplant and roasted garlic, topped with tomato concasse, basil leaves, and crispy leeks sounded too good to pass up. Giant is a bit of a misnomer, maybe “large”, or “good-sized”, but there were enough of them to be a quite filling meal. The flavors are clear and bright, and I kind of liked the mix of different crispy fried toppings – the thin tangle of frizzled leeks, the basil leaves, and even the translucent and strangely appealing tomato skin. Again, the dish needed salt, but at least that’s one of those kitchen faults or intents that’s easy to fix.
I passed on dessert, knowing that I was just a few blocks away from a heladería that a friend had highly recommended. Always in search of yet better ice cream or gelato, I knew this was to be my later goal. I took some time digesting and sitting in the sun, sipping coffee and watching the world go by, but eventually it was time to move on to Scannapieco, Córdoba 4826, and sample some frozen delights. The place is like an old-time ice cream parlor, with a couple of grandfatherly types (I swear one of them was Mr. Whipple, remember him?) intently working the counter, dressed in whites, the old counterman’s hats perched on their heads, and charming the customers young and old. The gelato is excellent, and they’ve got some interesting flavors – the chocolate holandes is a bittersweet chocolate with candied orange peel (tieing in perfectly with my earlier appetizer and thus completing the cycle of lunch karma) was fantastic. Definitely worth the trip. [Unfortunately closed up in 2011.]