Where’s the beef?

2008.Feb.19 Tuesday · 6 comments

in Food & Recipes

“There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, but perhaps our celebrity chefs should learn the first rule of good dining: even the finest food leaves a sour taste if you eat it every day. So move away from the camera, go back to your kitchens, and come back when we can stomach you again. It might take a while.”

– Hugh Wilson, Why we’ve had enough of celebrity chefs

Mendoza, Argentina – So, on to the plates, the food, the meat of the matter. Where’s the beef? That was the question that seemed to come up time after time… okay, we only had two lunches and two dinners offered up, but it seemed that one by one, the star chefs flown in for the Masters of Food & Wine event had opted to share their skill with seafood. Mendoza’s not exactly a big beach community, and from what I was hearing, people were really wondering why virtually no one was taking on creating something spectacular from local ingredients. Instead, the chefs chose to have items flown in, and showcased various vegetables and seafood, and yes, some meats, like goat or lamb, that simply aren’t part of the local fare. Now, in some ways, that’s not a bad thing, and there’s no question there were some tasty dishes, and we all had the option to simply go out to a local restaurant instead and gnaw our way through an asado. But I think it would have been far more interesting to see what these far flung kitchen mavens could have done with, say, the theme of “reinterpreting local cuisine” in their own styles rather than just bringing in their own stuff.

Grilled Octopus with potatoes

With the numbers of people involved, we were split up on the various winery tours and such, so at either of the two lunches or the first evening’s meal (not counting the night of the opening cocktail party, where, had I not filled up on hors d’oeuvres, I probably would have lit out for a local restaurant, silly me), everyone was at one winery or another being treated to the fare of one chef or another. My first lunch was at Nieto Senetiner, where chef Paola Carosella, a porteña chef who moved to Sao Paolo, Brasil to open a restaurant, and was named 2004’s Best New Chef, took the light, seafood based route. Lunch opened with what was essentially a crabmeat and potato omelet with some salad (“grilled king crab with local farm fresh egg and roasted tomatoes”, maybe it started with those, but its not an evocative description of the final dish) – tasty, though soggy – clearly having been made far earlier in the day and simply warmed for service (something which I later found out was true about almost all the food served – the wineries didn’t have the facilities for them to cook multicourse meals like these, so all prep work and much of the cooking was done back at the Park Hyatt, then the food was transported and either finished or reheated onsite). The second course was her real winner – a couple of grilled octopus tentacles – perfectly tender on the inside and lightly crunchy and smoky on the outside, served with warm potatoes and lemon – though, an odd choice to have two dishes in a row atop potatoes. The followup of a scoop of goat’s cheese with candied squash and dried out fennel bread was uninteresting, and the peach, plum, and mascarpone tart to finish could have been from a local pastry shop.

Scallops with grapefruit and cilantro

On the next day, lunch was a duo of presentations at winery Septima, from chefs Brian McBride of the Blue Duck Tavern (Park Hyatt hotel restaurant in Washington, DC) and Adriano Kanashiro of Kanu (Park Hyatt hotel restaurant in Sao Paolo). McBride led off with two courses – this simple, though fresh and tasty, spread of fresh scallops with grapefruit segments and cilantro, drizzled with a little olive oil – not exactly earth shattering fare, but pretty. He followed up with a grilled shrimp and green bean salad that was interesting, though served at room temperature, which somehow just wasn’t right – either hot or cold please… and that was actually the case with all four dishes served at this lunch – all room temp. Kanashiro had a nice reinterpretation… or mild twist perhaps… on a classic miso cod – a piece of grouper topped with bits of cooked squid, wakame seaweed, and the whole thing floating in a bowl of miso tinged dashi (bonito broth). Had it been hot, this could have been the best course. He finished us off with a banana and chocolate springroll accompanied by some chopped pineapple in syrup and a twist of vanilla and green tea ice creams – at least the latter weren’t room temp, though the springroll was…

Sweetbread Beignet

Most foodies have heard of chef Michelle Bernstein, a former dancer turned chef who gets regular raves for her food at her restaurant Michy’s in Miami. She turned out what for me was the best course of the evening at the final night’s “Gala Dinner” (actually, the best dish I tried all week) – a six-course… well, if you count that the hour of passed canapé (and yes, singular, one type of canapé – pickled scallops on toast with flower butter – for an hour, offered up by steadily more frustrated waiters as people simply stopped eating them after a couple of rounds)… and “petits fours and bonbons” that were offered up at the end of the eve. So really, it was a four course meal that led off with a salmon ceviche ravioli that was interesting, flavorful, and smaller than the canapé – “elf food” as it was put by someone at our table. On to the dish I loved, a sweetbread beignet with caramelized vinegar and a sweet potato risotto – just plain delicious – what a great idea, a deep fried doughnut filled with poached sweetbreads… Moving on to the “show”, where two star Michelin chef Nicolas Le Bec basically had roasted some lamb, and then they put on a big production of slicing it at the front of the room, to fanfare and music, which just created ridiculous delays – the dish was to be served with red pepper and eggplant purees according to the menu, but instead came with self serve tureens of mashed potatoes. Who knows? I talked with one of the chefs, Germán Martitegui, who oversees the kitchens of Casa Cruz and Olsen here in BsAs, who said they were required to submit their menus over four months ago, and then even if they made changes to the dishes, which almost all of them did, nothing was changed in the printed materials from the original submissions.

La Albahaca - spaghetti with shellfishYou might have noted that I left out dinner on one of the nights – I simply wasn’t up to the whole hoopla. We’d finished lunch at Nieto Senetiner at 4:15, gotten back to the hotel at 5:00, and were due to head out to dinner at Navarro Correas at 8:00. While the chef was Martitegui, I figured I can try his food here at either of the places, and, as it turned out, rightly predicted that dinner wouldn’t get started until about 10:00 or later, and the group wouldn’t get back until 1 or 2:00 in the morning. Instead, I wandered a bit around the Plaza de la Independencía area right outside the Park Hyatt, which in the evening gets busy with a lot of open air theater and shows; I dropped in on the guys who run The Vines of Mendoza, a combination tasting room (with the largest selection of wines by the glass in Mendoza if not all of Argentina – 93 at the moment), and consulting service for folks interested in starting their own vineyards. We hung out for awhile, and they recommended a casual, no-ambiance Italian spot a block away. So a bit later I found my way to La Albahaca, Espejo 659, a block behind the Hyatt, where I had a simply odd meal. La Albahaca - steak with mushroom sauceThe guys had recommended the bife de chorizo, more or less a boneless porterhouse, accompanied by the grilled fresh asparagus and shaved parmesan. Sounded great, and I asked the waiter if I could get a half-portion of one of their pastas, something lighter, to start – he conferred with the chef, and showed up a bit later with spaghetti and shellfish – actually quite good, if perhaps a tad too al dente on the pasta, but with a great broth and olive oil drizzled over it all, fresh shellfish, and a huge amount for a half portion. He then returned and said that it turned out they didn’t have any asparagus, so the chef asked if I’d mind if he substituted another grilled vegetable – no problem… except on arrival, it was the steak (cooked perfectly, I’ll admit, and quite tasty on its own), but it was smothered in a mushroom cream sauce, and accompanied by… more pasta, topped with some unknown crunchy blackish something – I think it was deep-fried sage leaves. It was simply too heavy of a dish for a hot summer night, and although a really good mushroom cream sauce, just not what I was looking for. I kind of toyed with it, ate most of the steak, having scraped the sauce to the side, and left the pasta. The waiter asked, I expressed what I thought, but, c’est la vie – and no, while it was clearly a completely different dish, it wasn’t a major upcharge. The food was good if not what I’d envisioned, indeed the place has no real ambiance (it’s all a sort of glowing vermillion color, with pine green trim and plastic tablecloths), but they have a balcony on the upper floor, and tables out on the sidewalk (where I sat), which gets you out of the room and into people-watching mode. Oh, by the way, those two strange orange antennae sticking out of the steak? Deep fried spaghetti strands. Yeah, ummm…


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Saratica February 20, 2008 at 09:03

sounds so heavenly to be somewhere on the earth where “cuisine” is an actual word, an event, a thing to be sought… still the thing we are missing here in Costa Rica. sigh. thank you for sharing!

dan February 20, 2008 at 10:36

well, if ya have an extra bedroom, and a kitchen and dining room… we could take Casa SaltShaker on the road and come up there an’ provide some!

Rebecca February 20, 2008 at 14:41

Dan-Even if it was so-so, it would have been wonderful to be there! Enjoyed reading all about it!

Paola February 22, 2008 at 15:28

Wow!! I was reading your review about the lunch you had at Nieto during the MFW, and I would love to say a few things… food and wine are highly subjective issues so I totally respect your point of view and what I want to say does not pretend, and Im sure It wont, change the way you felt about the food you had in Mendoza, but, I would love to say though, a couple of things regarding your observation about the lunch I cooked at Nieto & Senetiner, the crabmeat and potato omelet, didn’t have potatoes in it!! not even one!!, it was just fresh local eggs, fresh kingcrab from Usuahia, and some fresh herbs, and it wasn’t made in advance and reheated, I “built” an open kitchen, just near your table, with a 20 foot cast iron “skillet” with wood fire, and everything was cooked ” a la minute”, I would love to send you pictures of it if you want,of course, this, makes no difference if they were soggy for you, but they were not made in advance and reheated,the peach and plum and mascarpone tart, sorry again if you felt it was bought at a pastry shop, local peaches and plums are really wonderful in mendoza in february, and I really wanted the guest to experience that, serving a very simple super fresh and ripe local peaches and strawberries and plums with home made mascarpone cheese.
the reason why I chose seafood for the lunch instead of beef, is because last year at the masters 2007, I grilled a rib eye for lunch and the same guest had grilled rib eye for dinner that same night!, so I thought that, for an alfresco Lunch, light seafood featuring a great amount of local ingredientes, like the candied pumpking, the fresh local goat cheese and so on, was a good idea. Again, food is a subjective issue, even though soggy is soggy always! (sorry for the soggy eggs).., it is never easy to cook in an improvised kitchen, and i know all the chefs were doing their best in order to please the guests, and make them happy.
Mendoza is a fantastic place in this world, and the Masters of food and wine is a great way to help the world get to know it better, and Im sure it will improve year after year, hope you can go again, and have a better experience, and thank you for posting your comments, im sure they will help us chefs, to do a better job in the future.
Paola Carosella

dan February 22, 2008 at 19:42

Paola, I’ll take your word for it that there were no potatoes in the omelette – it’s interesting that the comment I had above about the repeated potatoes was something that all seven of us at the table felt about the dish – so something in the omelettes clearly reminded all of us of potatoes. I do know you had the outdoor cooking station setup, I have several pictures of it myself, though we weren’t watching to see what was being cooked “a la minute” and what wasn’t. If you say it was all done to order, then the problem was clearly in the speed it was served at – the soggy and barely warm omelettes were once again across the board, at least at our table.

As noted, the octopus was absolutely delicious – it was one of my two favorite dishes of the week.

As to the dessert – perhaps it was having a mascarpone tart following immediately on a goat cheese based course, there was something about it that just didn’t shine, and honestly, if those were the freshest Mendoza had to offer in terms of fruit, they didn’t come across that way – not your fault, you didn’t grow them.

I agree, it’s always difficult to work in a makeshift kitchen, especially when it’s not even your own! It’s one of the reasons I refuse to cater and/or cook at events outside of my restaurant – it’s simply too much of a headache!

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