“Where life is colorful and varied, religion can be austere or unimportant. Where life is appallingly monotonous, religion must be emotional, dramatic and intense. Without the curry, boiled rice can be very dull.”
– C. Northcote Parkinson, Historian, Novelist
Buenos Aires – Yesterday started about six weeks ago. I’d gone to that molecular gastronomy seminar, and at the end of the day, happened to notice an opthamologist’s shop nearby, advertising Accuvue Toric lenses. I wear those. They’re supposedly not available in Argentina. But there was the ad in the window. I stopped in and the doctor assured me he could get them, he just orders them from the distributor in the U.S., takes about six weeks. In New York, for two boxes (24 lenses total), I would pay $147, mailed to my house. I normally ordered them from an online service connected to my eye doctor’s office (my eye doctor is a delight, and a regular reader of this blog, and one of these days is heading down this way for a visit…). The local doc told me he could get them for 195 pesos a box, or 390 pesos total, delivered here to Buenos Aires… hmmm… a savings of about $8 a box, and including international delivery… Not a huge savings, but a nice one, and one has to wonder about the profit margin differences here and in New York, since presumeably the online service in the States is buying them in bulk and getting a better price to begin with than a shop here that orders them one box at a time. And that’s how I ended up yesterday over near the corner of Uruguay and Paraguay, picking up my lenses…
Which has nothing to do with much of anything other than it started me walking along Paraguay, heading towards the Centro/Retiro area, where there was a Japanese restaurant I’ve been meaning to try. Along the way, I realized that despite the fact that it’s a pretty major street, and not far from my home, I’ve simply never walked along a whole section of Paraguay. Almost right off the bat I happened across this church, something like the Comunidad Reconcordista (I know I got that wrong, but didn’t write it down…). It caught my eye because of the interesting split arch above the doorway, and a lot of fascinating detail. Inside, it’s gorgeous, but extremely dark, lit only by candles, which, even with flash (I waited until no one was kneeling and praying) I couldn’t get a decent picture of. The ceiling and walls are covered with beautiful frescoes.
A few blocks later I came across this interesting Middle Eastern-ish style building that turned out to be the Lebanese Mission to Argentina. It was so out of character for the neighborhood that it stood out immediately. I’m not sure why I’d not seen it before, it’s right near to a really good tapas bar that I’ve been to with friends, called Tancat. Have to get around to reviewing that place one of these days… But, I was on a mission, of sorts, and tapas is no fun solo, so I didn’t stop, but pressed on towards by Japanese destination…
Which was closed. It wasn’t supposed to be. The sign on the window said they were open Monday through Friday for lunch. But, it was closed and dark. I thought about heading back to Tancat, but as I said, tapas is no fun solo. And then I realized I was literally around the block from a place I’ve had listed as recommended for quite some time, but hadn’t gotten around to reviewing. So, I popped around the corners onto the short cobblestone lined street and got myself buzzed into Empire Thai, Tres Sargentos 427, Retiro, 4312-5706 [Closed early 2011.]. Now, if you were reading along a week and a half ago, you might remember my last “Thai” experience, at Sifones y Dragones (which several people have written to me to say “give them another chance on another night” – so I will). Caramel, caramel, caramel… I know Empire Thai isn’t that way, I’ve eaten here several times.
Now, Empire Thai, or ET as I shall now refer to it, is owned by an expat norteamericano who’s been here for many years. I believe Kevin is from the New York area, we’ve never met. I’ve asked if he was around each time I’ve been there, wanting to say hi, and he never seems to be – maybe he gets too many requests from tourists asking to talk to him and just doesn’t take visitors…? I do know he’s out there on the internet – every now and again when someone comments on his restaurant he’ll post a thank you reply. First off, I like the room – it has a sort of mixed hip, urban feel combined with a very warm touch. It’s done up in a sort of dusty parrot green color, with very cool lighting fixtures made of glass mosaic, along with a huge chandelier made of teardrop shaped lights. Two curved bars line one wall, one around the regular bar, the other around the coffee and wine station. You can sit at and eat at either bar, or take a table downstairs or upstairs. The atmosphere is tranquil during the day, a bit more edgy at night.
The food is good. It’s even reasonably authentic Thai cuisine – certainly more so than any of the other places I’ve mentioned in these pages. It’s one of the few southeast Asian places I’ve discovered here that understands that balance between sweet, salt, and spice. Flavor-wise, it’s a hard to beat spot. On other fronts it has a few missteps, but they’re all minor, and not enough to detract from the experience, though enough to be noticeable. First off, I’ll say that I’ve tried about half a dozen of the different appetizers. They’ve all been good, and they’ve all been nice portions – generally bordering on shareable size – especially my favorite, the satay mixto – skewers of chicken, beef, and pork served up with two different sauces – one a sort of vinegary cucumber dip, and the other a really good lip-smacking hot peanut and chili sauce. I could easily just make that my meal along with a nice cold beer. Oh heck, maybe a double portion. Though by BA standards it’s a trifle pricey for an appetizer (AR$21), as are the others, the fact that the portions are so big and the flavors so good, makes up for it.
The same can’t be said for the main courses. I’m convinced that somehow they’ve got these reversed on the menu, or maybe it’s just that the appetizers are designed for sharing and the main courses are not. But consistently, I’ve found the portion sizes for the entrees to be small, especially in comparison to the appetizers. This green curry, for example, while served in a decent sized bowl, after scooping out all the meat and vegetables, which were a bit, well, missing (maybe a dozen little pieces of meat and four, count them four, cubes of eggplant), was still more than half full with curry broth. And it’s not cheap (AR$31) – the main courses run from low 20s to low 40s, which I guess probably reflects the neighborhood, being close to all the big conference centers and business hotels, but for the quantity of food, here, is out of line (and based on writeups I’ve seen elsewhere, this is a common observation for diners at ET). Still, they are good. This curry, for example, bright with flavors of fresh basil and coconut milk. I would note that it both is and isn’t spicy, though specified as spicy on the menu – it’s timing based. There are slices of fresh chilies added to the curry broth, but they’re clearly uncooked, and probably added at the last minute. So when you start off, the broth is very mild, and the basil flavor dominates. By the time you get to the end of the dish, ten minutes later, the broth has infused with the flavors of the chilies and has gotten to a reasonably spicy level. I’ve tried ordering things just straight off the menu and also specifying that I wanted them extra spicy – they come out of the kitchen identical.
The staff are friendly and helpful, and eye candy to boot, both men and women. You do have to get their attention. They have a tendency to hang out together by the coffee station chatting and paying little attention to customers, especially when they’re not overly busy. A note that probably no one but a wine geek would notice, they have a wine-on-tap system for the bottles of wine being served by the glass, but I’ve never seen it in use – the bottles are all just stuck in it with no corks, and not attached to the system, and get pulled out to pour a glass of wine. That’s an expensive system to install if you’re not going to use it (on the other hand, their wine prices are signficantly higher than most places I’ve dined here, maybe to pay for that system…). Overall, ET gets high marks for the quality and flavors of the food, but I do find it pricey (those two dishes above came to 51 pesos by themselves), and the portion sizes for the main courses small. There’s also the matter of the 6 peso service charge that was tacked on to the bill (which I don’t remember noticing on previous visits) – most restaurants here have what’s called a cubierto charge, usually 1-3 pesos per person that covers things like bread and silverware… (very European), but this could also have been a tacked on gratuity of 10% of the bill. If it’s the former it’s unacceptably high, if it’s the latter, it should be clearly stated that a gratuity is added to your bill, which I didn’t see anywhere on the menu.
Interestingly, of those negative notes – the lack of attention, the priciness, the portion sizes, and the service charge, have all been commented on in multiple places on the internet as detractions from the quality of the experience. I’ve seen a couple of replies from Kevin that he would look into those things, but it doesn’t seem that it’s changed anything. That’s a shame, because ET could easily, with some tuning up, be one of the best Asian restaurants in the city.