Did Someone Miss the Point?

2006.Nov.21 Tuesday · 6 comments

in Books & Other Media, Life

“These days Palermo Viejo has the same thrumming energy as Silver Lake in Los Angeles or the Mitte in Berlin, and it’s the place where in-the-know travelers and hip locals alike go for their shopping (one section is known as Palermo SoHo) and night-life fix. It’s also home to the city’s liveliest dining scene, but here things get trickier to navigate. The area’s trendy status has brought many restaurants that, perhaps not surprisingly, are more about the soaring interiors and designer cocktails than the food. It’s not that a meal at this type of restaurant is bad, just generic: croquettes with clever fillings, crusted salmon served with a side of puréed something. Sit down for a dinner at Olsen, a fashionable and much-lauded favorite that looks to northern Europe for its menu (and midcentury Scandinavia for its décor), and you could be eating the same food, in the same setting, in London or in Manhattan.

Still, there are great finds in Palermo Viejo, as there are throughout the city, which showcase Argentina’s rich culinary history and its bounty, which stretches from the ocean to the Andes. A handful of these are new restaurants that pay homage to this tradition and draw a crowd less interested in who designed the room than in what’s coming out of the kitchen.

Buenos Aires – This excerpt comes from a report in the New York Times this past weekend by Oliver Schwaner-Albright, who writes in a variety of genres, from food and wine to collectibles, to dinnerware, to well, other things. It’s a well written piece, and he follows on the above paragraphs with some recommendations for his “finds” – all more or less traditional style Argentine restaurants. I realize he’s writing the piece for the travel section of the NYT, and therefore, primarily for travellers and tourists, but my first reaction was that he makes it sound like there’s something wrong with having restaurants other than those of classic porteño style here. A couple of other friends had the same reaction, though another thought he was merely pointing out that there were as many other types of restaurants as there were Argentine.

If, however, he meant the former, I think he misses the point – and it’s something I’ve heard more than once from visitors. There’s an odd view that for some reason, because Buenos Aires is somehow exotic or distant or something, the food available ought to all be local cuisine, and look like they were designed by a grill team thirty years ago. There’s a reason for these restaurants’ existence – many of which I’ve reviewed here in these pages. Speaking from the perspective of someone who lives here, thank goodness these places have opened. Yes, I know, folks on their way here for a long weekend or week – and I have no idea how much time Mr. S-A spent here – want to sample carne, carne, carne. They want those whopping big steaks, fries, and cheap bottles of Malbec and run back home and talk about how inexpensive their dining out experience in Buenos Aires was (he also at one point talks about the exchange rate making dining here very cheap, and it does, but even when the ratio was 1:1 between the dollar and the peso it was less expensive to eat here – not every country seems to feel that the $40 entree is normal). Simply, those of us who live here actually want to eat other things, and we don’t necessarily want to have to sit at home and cook them ourselves. So yes, there are places that serve food that could be found in New York, Los Angeles, London, or Berlin, as he seems to lament. True, the average tourist, and perhaps the average Times food writer, aren’t looking for those…

We are.

If the suggestion is that such places have no place here, that’s akin to suggesting that no restaurant exist in New York other than a deli with pastrami, bagels & lox, and a ruben sandwich, or that all London venues serve nothing but bubble & squeak or toad-in-the-hole…


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ksternberg November 21, 2006 at 19:33

As you know from my recent visit, Dan, when I arrived in BA I was famished for anything but meat. Having just come off nearly a week-long press trip where almost every single lunch and dinner involved multiple courses of large chunks of grilled meats (I did manage to order some wonderful ravioli one evening), I wanted Chinese, pizza, salad, anything but carne. I am second to no one in my love for meat, but even filet mignon gets boring if you eat it every night.

Any travel writer who fails to appreciate BA’s tremendous diversity of cuisines has some kind of issue.

mattbites November 21, 2006 at 19:40

Dan, you hit the nail on the head on so many levels. I felt the exact same thing when I read the article, and found it a bit strange. Why wouldn’t Buenos Aires offer some of the world’s best modern food alongside the traditional offerings? But you said it best when you said “because Buenos Aires is somehow exotic or distant” and it does remind me of my first visit and my initial reaction.

And for the record? I adore your site!

dan November 22, 2006 at 09:59

Aww shucks…

I do know what you mean though, and it’s interesting how many people really do think like this when they visit “out of the way” places. I remember visits with various groups to parts of Mexico, to Alsace, and smaller towns in Italy, and having people obsess about discovering that there were non-Mexican, Alsatian, or Italian restaurants in various towns, as if it was somehow ruining the experience for them.

There was an article years ago in National Geographic where the writer lamented at length the fact that some valley in China was getting things like electricity, gas, running water, etc. – that it was destroying this unique culture where the people lived in harmony with the land… the following month there was a response from a local citizen there who had studied in the U.S., lambasting the writer for daring to presume that some group of people should be denied access to modern amenities, health care, and knowledge, just so that he, the writer, could admire from afar this pastoral, antiquated community.

Similar things happen in the food world!

asadoarg November 22, 2006 at 12:49

Yeah I think he could have explained himself better.

“The area’s trendy status has brought many restaurants that, perhaps not surprisingly, are more about the soaring interiors and designer cocktails than the food. It’s not that a meal at this type of restaurant is bad, just generic”

I think that’s the key.

My impression, from him labeling the cuisine as generic, is that he isn’t saying that modern restaurants don’t belong, just that many should perhaps offer something unique instead of duplicating the norm. A little extra flair that sets this trendy area apart from those in other large cities. That there are more trendy restaurants offering generic cuisine instead of taking Argentinean cuisine and fusing it with modern cuisine from other locales. Foreign restaurants are fine in Buenos Aires but take advantage of this particular trendy neighborhood to show off trendy Argentinean-inspired cuisine. I think that’s the point he’s trying to make.

dan November 22, 2006 at 17:43

Possibly – however, what’s above is only an exerpt from the article. Though he never flat out stated it as a negative, I got the feeling throughout that he was trying to imply that if it wasn’t traditionally Argentine, it was something to stay away from. He may not have intended that, but at least for me, and apparently some other folks, it came across that way.

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