Buenos Aires – Anyone who has more than a passing interest in tango knows the name Carlos Gardel. Think, the Buddy Holly of the tango world. He even died in a fiery plane crash. Actually, Buddy Holly is an unfair comparison, because let’s face it, other than rock afficonados, no one knows who he was – here, some days it seems near impossible to turn a corner without seeing something related to Carlos Gardel. So it was inevitable that one day we would find ourselves at Gardelito,
Humboldt 1668 Thames 1914, in Palermo “Hollywood” (Viejo for those who aren’t into all the new real estate boundaries). An old style, almost pub feeling place, decorated with memorabilia from the golden age of tango, along with a smattering of odd household and workshop objects from the same period (one nook contains a photo of Gardel, two irons, a toaster, and a welding torch, all from the early 20th Century). We arrived early, at about 7:45, and were informed that the kitchen wouldn’t open until 8:30, but we were welcome to come in, sit down, relax, and have some drinks. Once we were seated, a couple of other folk wandered in, so the chef decided to open the kitchen early, and they started taking orders.
The menu is pretty classic porteño style – parrilla and pastas – but has some interesting and creative variations on some of the dishes. It’s also got a short list of inexpensive wines, and it’s not just the usual suspects. Spotting one of my favorite grapes for casual drinking, I ordered us a bottle of Don Bosco Lambrusco Maestri. Now, before you go… “ewww, Lambrusco”, and think I’ve either lost my mind or should have all my wine credentials pulled, you should know that that screwtopped, sweet, frothy stuff from Riunite that became so popular in Middle America back in the ’70s is not what Lambrusco is all about. Not that there’s anything wrong with the amabile style when you’re looking for something fizzy and sweet, but the real classics of the region (part of Emilia-Romagna in Italy) are medium bodied, dry red wines with soft tannins and very forward fruit, a great match with things like an antipasti platter, pastas, and lighter meats. This was a pretty darned good bottle of Lambrusco, and made a nice change from all the Malbec and Cabernet we are flooded with here.
We started off with a round of appetizers. The first was a plate of chambota, a fairly classic jumble of vegetables preserved in olive oil. If I followed our waiter’s rapid fire description of their version, they add a bit of port to the cooking liquid to give a touch of sweetness and balance off the vinegar. It definitely worked, and we were soon happily piling slices of eggplant, onions, and bell peppers on bread and munching away.
Of course, one appetizer for five people isn’t near sufficient, and the veggies were swiftly followed by a plate of vitel thoné, another classic Italian dish (where it is, of course, called vitello tonnato). This dish is a personal favorite from Italy, though the Argentine version always leaves a little something to be desired. The sauce here is fine, essentially a puree of tuna and anchovies in mayonnaise (okay, it’s a little more complicated than that), served over thin slices of herb poached veal and topped with capers. The problem here is that veal is a little older and tougher than what is typically used in Italy – instead of a pale white to pink, it’s red meat, and it usually seems to have been dry cooked rather than poached. Still, this was a decent version, and it quickly disappeared. I’ll also put in a plug for the chorizos, a couple of which were added to the selection on the table – I’m not sure if it was in reaction to the truly awful chorizos we’ve had at the last few restaurants we’ve tried them at, but these were spectacularly good. In fact, I’d put them up as pretty much the best chorizos I’ve had since arriving here.
On to the pastas, and this delicious dish of malfatti in salsa rosa. First, these are plump pillows of “malformed” (malfatti) pasta stuffed with ricotta and herbs. Second, the sauce is a very good rendition of the standard mix here of filetto, or tomato sauce, and blanca, or bechamel sauce. It was also a very large portion – in fact, two of the folk at the table shared the plate (which ran a whopping 9 pesos).
Any regular reader of this blog knows that I’m always game to try something offbeat, and that I tend to love offal, or organ meat. Still, there are a few things that I rarely make a point to eat, just because, well, I don’t know – I’m sure there’s some psychological reaction going on in the back of my culinary file cabinets, but I just don’t. Which brings us to raviolones de seso, or giant raviolis with brains. Not in the thinking sense, but in the filling, as I’m fairly certain that few ravioli spend much time considering their lot in life. In fact, I’ve only had brains (to eat) a couple of times in my life – once in a scramble with eggs, and twice at Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York, where he, too, puts them inside of ravioli. If I remember right he calls them “lamb’s brain francobolli”, and, indeed, they are postage stamps – mini-ravioli, maybe eight of them laid out in a pretty pattern on a plate, with just a sliver of creamy lamb’s brain inside and some sort of simple butter sauce if my recall is good. These, on the other hand, are large (not giant) ravioli, packed full of a puree of presumeably adult cow brain, spinach, and parmesan, and topped with a choice of sauces, our waiter made the excellent recommendation of a verdeo a la crema, or green-onion cream sauce. Not delicate and melt-in-your-mouth like Mario’s, this was a hearty, earthy dish, that we only made it a bit over halfway through, and brought the rest home for later.
Two other main courses rounded out the dining table. One was a simple entraña, or hangar steak, served with a dice of fried potatoes – a rather large version, easily a one-pound steak; the other this quite good, if a bit heavy, lomo guisado al champignon, or stewed sirloin with mushrooms. Thin slices of sirloin were cooked in a rich gravy of mushrooms, potatoes, vegetables, and cream, and then mounded in a serving dish. Also a huge portion, and again, we barely made it through half of this and brought the rest home. Needless to say, we were a bit too full to even attempt dessert, and headed out into the night to walk it all off.
In sum, a nice, casual venue, with friendly and reasonably attentive service. Very good food, some of it quite creative, though all a little on the heavy side. Huge portions and very inexpensive – with wine, bottled water, and three appetizers and four main courses, we only spent 115 pesos for five of us, including tip.
[Note: this restaurant has closed.]