Of Lasagna, Lomo and Chiseling

2008.Feb.11 Monday · 4 comments

in Life, Restaurants

“Once again, my life has been saved by the miracle of lasagna.”

– Garfield

Buenos Aires – A curious confluence of events occurred in the last week that brought a particular topic to mind. At first, I didn’t have a term to put on it, but then, my eyes lit upon a passage in the introduction to a new guidebook, which referred to viveza criolla. Literally, that translates as native wit or native cunning – that former of which, to my mind applies to Henny Youngman’s ability to survive a zillion years telling the same jokes in the Borscht Belt, and the latter brought more to mind the ability to hunt down a wild boar on a seemingly deserted island, or perhaps crack open a coconut. But the context didn’t fit at all, and reading through it became clear that what the author was referring to is a problem that expats and tourists alike complain about regularly here – what we jokingly call the gringo tax – prices seem to inflate the more touristy and/or white you seem. I’m not talking about things like the domestic air route price differentials for residents versus non-residents, nor the entrance to various cultural spots that are government supported to one extent or another – that’s a simple break for those who ostensibly pay local taxes to get something for what they pay in (though since neither major domestic airline is government owned, it’s a somewhat specious argument). I’m talking about the simple inflation of a price right before your eyes – which happens in a wide variety of ways.

While I could delve into store prices, taxi rides, hotel tarifs, etc., I’m going to focus on food. Two of the events flowed their way into my life near simultaneously. I met up with a friend at a new restaurant, Rosa Lombarda, which recently opened in the space at Arenales 2659 that up until mid-last year housed Lo de José Slow Food. My first thought on entering was, that other than a coat of fresh paint that covered over all the various angel drawings, nothing has really been done to the space, so what exactly were the construction guys doing in there for the last six or more months? At the very least, we had an immediately attentive waitress, and we’d cleared bringing a bottle of wine with us (a deliciously aged bottle of Michele Chiarlo’s Valle del Sole Barbera d’Asti 1993 – with beautiful dried cherry fruit, spices, and great length), got it popped open and settled into conversation. Just prior to ordering, my friend related a story of going to a new restaurant that just opened down the block from him. He’d ordered a bife de cuadril, a rump steak, as one course in a three course prix fixe menu – only to have the waiter return and tell him they were out of cuadril, but the chef would like to offer to substitute a cut of lomo, or sirloin. Now, remember that this is a prix fixe menu – my friend agrees, and all goes smoothly until the bill, where he has been charged for all three courses a la carte – when questioned, the waiter launches into a long story about how lomo is more expensive than cuadril, and surely the gentleman couldn’t have expected that such a substitution would be included in the prix fixe… you know the drill. The waiter and manager were adamant about this, and finally, worn down by the argument, my friend simply decided to pay the tab, sans tip, and not return – on his way out, in parting shots with the manager, it was expressed to him that as a tourist he simply didn’t understand how things worked – he replied that he lived half a block a way, was a neighbor, and that he’d never be returning. The manager immediately told him to wait a moment, went to the cash register, brought back the change that would bring the price down to that of the prix fixe, handed it to my friend, with a “we didn’t realize you were local.”

Rosa Lombarda - lasagnaSo, here we are, perusing the menu at this northern Italian style restaurant, we order up a lasagna to share as a first course, to be followed by a large mixed salad, an involtini de maiale or rolled pork medallions, and a veal with asparagus dish. A few minutes later, the waitress returned, to say that the asparagus wasn’t avalable as what’s in the market is not good quality (very true) right now, and the chef would like to recommend the lomo con champiñones – beef with mushrooms – in place of the other dish. Now, we could have looked at the menus – they were right there – and there’s no question we had a delicious meal – the lasagna was great, the two meat dishes, while perhaps slightly heavy for late summer, were equally good. And we’d just been talking about the whole “lomo substitution” thing… but no, we didn’t look, and sure enough, when the bill came, the lomo dish was 12 pesos more than the veal dish. Now, it’s not quite the same thing, the prices were there in front of us had we looked, but it was just this little upcharge thing that was “being done to us”. This time, we chose not to fight it, we had some responsibility in the matter, everything had been delicious, nobody had been rude to us about it (and in fact, they’d been very nice, charging us a mere 6 pesos for corkage fee, the cost of a glass of house wine) – but it stuck in my mind.

And it came up again, twice, yesterday – first, brunch with a trio of friends at Olsen, which I’m not going to review at this point as I don’t feel like I got a real sense of the food – though the places reminds me of sitting in an Ikea showroom, and the clientele, at least at brunch were virtually all either norteamericano or english – I didn’t hear a word of Spanish being spoken during the couple of times wandering through the room to check the place out – except for the staff. Sure enough, the waitress tried to bring us food we hadn’t ordered, claiming that we had – we insisted not, and really, my Spanish is sufficiently fluent for this – though she continued to insist. And… while she took the food back, she put it on the bill, and then tried again to insist that it’s what we’d ordered – that it was in the computer – and that we’d have to pay for it. Tired of the game, I simply figured out what the bill should have been, tacked on a minimal tip, handed it to her, told her what I’d done, and we walked out, leaving her to sort it out – no one came running after us – but it was interesting, as one of the trio of my friends felt that we should have just paid the extra rather than argue – which I pointed out just perpetuates restaurants here doing it.

Which brings us to last night, and a return visit to Pinuccio e Figli, with, interestingly, the same friend whom I’d had dinner with at Rosa Lombarda last week. I mentioned when I reviewed this place that one of the things about it is a really crappy wine list that’s barely the usual suspects, overpriced, and simply there for the tourists. For those interested in something better, it’s around the corner to look at what’s on the wine rack – only this time, the guy behind the counter starts quoting stupidly high prices for these bottles after giving us the once over. I commented to our waiter, who was standing next to us, that we weren’t really interested in paying “tourist prices” or the “gringo tax”, at which he smiled, agreed, and told me not to worry. Then he showed up at the table with a bottle of Domaine St. Diego Pura Sangre 2002, one of the wines that we rated in the top fifty this year in the new Austral Spectator guide, and quoted a price of 120 pesos… it probably should have been more like 80-90… we decided to go for it anyway… and, in complete contrast to the places above, our waiter handled things in the opposite way – having told us not to worry, while the charge for the 120 pesos was there for the wine, he didn’t charge either of us for the antipasto bar, nor did he charge us for the three bottles of water we drank during dinner – pretty much offsetting about 50-55 pesos of food and beverage, and bringing the meal cost down to where it should have been without the overpriced bottle. We tipped well, thanked him, and he told us he looked forward to our next visit.

Still, I find myself wondering how many people are out there getting ripped off by little scams like this stuff, and how often I have simply not paid close attention to a bill and been overcharged for one thing or another. As the author of the guidebook mentioned above went on to say, this viveza criolla is one of the biggest threats to the tourism industry here, because sooner or later (let’s make it sooner, I’m ready to start arguing the point, in place after place, how about you?), there will be a backlash, and the real losers will be the ones who are doing stuff like this to visitors in the first place. It’s a very short-term, short-sighted approach to the industry, and one that can’t last.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Corrine February 18, 2008 at 21:14

Grrr. I have been complaining about this for 2 years and my Argentine friends don’t seem to get it. They seem to think this happens all over the world. But I have never had such a strong sense that everyone – from taxi drivers to concierges at the top hotels to high quality restaurants – are out to scam foreigners. If still had my comfortable NYC income it might not bother me so much, but 2 years of teaching English classes at $20 pesos an hour doesn’t go very far.

dan February 18, 2008 at 22:35

It’s an interesting justification to claim, essentially, “everyone does it” – my experience traveling all over the world – this is the only country I’ve experienced it with any regularity. Sure, it happens here and there in other places, but I’ve never seen it as practically a national mission as it often seems to be here.

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