Buenos Aires – I set out on this little jaunt with the intention of writing what might be the most unfair review of my writing career. Not unfair because I had some predetermined plan, or because I thought the restaurant I was headed to was bad, or good, but because of how I thought the restaurant was run. A few blocks from my home, at Pacheco de Melo 1887 [This restaurant has moved to Junín 1460, and opened a second branch at Thames 1795 in Palermo.], is L’Ecole de Gastronomie, The School of Gastronomy. A four story building, the upper floors of which are a cooking school, the ground level and basement, a restaurant. Past experience with cooking school restaurants in New York and elsewhere says it’s just not kosher to review a cooking school’s restaurant. Sure there’s an instructor, or even an executive chef, supervising the kitchen; and experienced managers are watching over the dining room. But the staff are kids, really, in training to be chefs, some of whom are rotating through learning about what it’s like to be a waiter, some are back in the kitchen attempting to execute the menu. Food and service are bound to be uneven, and change depending on who’s doing what on any given day. Plus, the menu often changes nearly daily, based on what’s happening in the school, leading to an all around sometimes very pleasant, and sometimes truly awful, meal.
L’Ecole is done up in various shades of green, mostly somewhere in sea-foam and teal-ish sort of colors that would have been better left as paint chips. It’s a bi-level restaurant with a lot of open space, a wide, curved staircase dominating the center, and a huge bar and waiter station right in the middle of the staircase. Very strange, almost as if the designer were a student as well. There’s no ventilation. Really. I was at one table, two ladies were smoking at a table on the opposite side of the room, and the smoke was visibly present wafting through the room, which smells like people have been smoking there for years. None of that should be the fault of the students. And the room seems full of them – a trio in the kitchen, a quartet in the dining rooms, one behind the bar, all mostly standing around looking a bit lost – all of whom look barely out of high school. But where are the supervisors? The managers? The executive chef watching over everything?
They’re simply not there, and for a very simple reason. Despite the fact that L’Ecole de Gastronomie is the cooking school above, and the restaurant below, they are independent businesses. They are owned by different people, who, although father and son, run them completely separately. Those fresh faced student types in the restaurant are paid staff, and do not attend the school above, nor do students from above even come downstairs to put in internship time. Or at least, so claimed my waitress. So this review won’t be the unfairest I could write.
The menu, at least at lunch, leans towards the salad, soup, and pasta world. I think it’s the same as the evening offerings as well. There’s a very nicely priced 2 or 3 course lunch menu, at, respectively, 15 or 17 pesos. I opted for that, and began with a bowl of cream of carrot soup. Rich in carrot flavor, a bit of onion, spiced with a bit of what I’d guess was curry, and topped with crunchy croutons. It had immense depth of flavor, someone in the kitchen really knows how to ring every bit of flavor out those vegetables, and it was a nice sized portion as well. Completely impressive, I was wowed, and then the entire operation stumbled down that wide, curved staircase.
If you’ve been reading along, or if you care to go back and look through posts on the subject, I have a bee in my bonnet, as they say, about pesto here. I’ve had it as bad as a few flecks of dried basil and some roughly chopped garlic all more or less burned in oil and then dousing spaghetti. The closest I’ve seen to a real pesto was at a restaurant that included dabs of pureed basil and garlic on top of the pasta. Yet, I keep hearing, over and over, from locals that there are plenty of restaurants that serve “real pesto”. Time after time, however, I find something similarly awful – a mere imagining of what pesto might or ought to be. Really folks, I’d love to find a place that serves the real thing, but out of dozens of Italian and Porteño restaurants offering it, I haven’t. This bowl is easily the second worst, and possibly the worst only because it’s in a setting where they ought to know better. Limp, gooey, stuck together spaghetti a la chittara – completely overcooked, that probably had just been sitting in a bowl somewhere adhering to itself when the “chef” decided to warm it up. Topped with way too much olive oil, flecked with, well, flecks, of fresh basil, and nothing else – no garlic, no pinenuts, no cheese, no salt, no pepper. The plate’s rim was garnished with a dusting of smoked hot paprika, unrelated to the dish.
I nearly don’t want to comment on this feeble excuse for a flan. Advertised as a coconut flan topped with dulce de leche and a puree of red fruits, it was, well, to be kind, a reinterpretation. A tall, gritty, almost coconut flavored pudding, with a density that approached saltwater taffy, it bore minimal resemblance to the simple, classic dish it was called. The dulce de leche? Remember my little demo of how to make it the other day? Clearly they erred on the undercooked side – this was a runny caramel syrup. They got the fruits right, that squiggle of red was the only thing on the plate worth eating.
I really hate to trash a restaurant this badly. But given the setting, and the thought that I think most people would have, as I did, that there is a connection to the school above, and that haute cuisine might be expected, the place deserves a firm thrashing. I can pimp for the carrot soup, the waitstaff are charming and good-looking, though not much more, but I can’t recommend the restaurant.