Unknown Flavors

2008.Apr.13 Sunday · 3 comments

in Restaurants

 There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

– Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense

Buenos Aires – Don really shouldn’t get credit for the above quote, though he’s listed all over the internet for saying it. I don’t know who originally spouted that one off, probably some philosopher many, many moons ago – I know Werner Erhard used to use that in part of the est training, decades ago – and much of that sort of stuff he got from the writings of folk like Martin Heidegger, so that might be a good bet, though there were others… but, back to the point. This post is not going to be so much about the food of this particular restaurant, though it was quite good. It’s going to be about the attitude. Remember attitude, that I posted about two weeks ago in regard to another restaurant? A post that generated more commentary than any other restaurant review I’ve written, and a whole bunch more e-mails. This is about a near diametrically opposed attitude.

A friend of mine suggested we head to a place near to him in, once again, San Telmo, not far from “the other place” – he’d been one of my dining companions there. This isn’t a place people are talking about all over and having discourse as to whether it’s the best thing since sliced bread or should be banished to the dust bin. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even on local online restaurant guide, GuiaOleo, it’s listed under its former name, La Oveja Negra (the Black Sheep – which brings back pleasant memories of the old Black Sheep Tavern in Manhattan), despite having changed its name to La Cueva Negra (the Black Cave, apparently there was some dispute with another restaurant that shared the old name), Bolivar 860, 4300-1691, a bit back. I also like their tagline – Los Desconocidos Sabores de San Telmo, the unknown flavors of San Telmo. But, once again, I’m here to talk about attitude. [What a shame, this place has closed.]

La Cueva Negra - fresh marinated sardinesWe headed there for lunch last week, and walked in to find only two people there, a young asian woman off to the side sipping a coffee and reading a magazine, and a scruffy young man busily banging away on his apple laptop over on a low table and sofa, the laptop festooned with stickers for Global Voices Online, so perhaps he was reporting on the vastly important doings in Buenos Aires. Or maybe he just likes the site. He was still there when we left an hour and a half later. No one else was in the room, though after a moment, one of the two cooks from the semi-open kitchen popped out and said hello. We asked if they were open. He apologized, and said no, they weren’t open. We clearly looked disappointed, and he explained that the waiter hadn’t shown up for the day, nor the owner or manager yet, so it was just he and the other cook. We started to turn and walk out, and he said, look, if you don’t mind that I don’t really know how to wait tables, we’re here in the kitchen, so we can cook, and I’ll do my best to take care of you.

La Cueva Negra - gazpachoThat’s the attitude that, as far as I’m concerned, wins friends, influences people, and builds loyal customers. At that point, it wouldn’t have mattered if the food he served up was absolute crap, I’d be a regular customer, at least for a glass of water. And you know what? The food really was quite good, and he did a very passable job of serving us – water, bread, our food, checking up on us to see what else we needed – other than being a bit awkward at it, he was actually more attentive and concerned than most waiters I encounter here. And, he knew something about the food. We started off with a couple of appetizers, some marinated fresh sardines in a tomato and garlic sauce. They could have used a little more time marinating, they were a bit more like sashimi than what I was expecting, but perfectly fresh and tasty. For our other, a bowl of gazpacho – the pureed style, which isn’t my favorite, I like some bits and pieces – but the flavors were all there and it even had a bit of a zip to it.

La Cueva Negra - Andean spiced Rib-eyeWe were debating over the various menu items, and he approached the table and asked if we’d be interested in trying something that he and the other cook were experimenting with – not yet on the menu, but a dish that they were thinking of offering that evening? I don’t mind being a guinea pig, and neither did my friend, and we ended up ordering two of the rib-eye steaks rubbed in “Andean spices”, perched atop garlicky mashed potatoes and topped with a little arugula salad – well, mine anyway – my friend is on a no papas, pizza, pasta, postres diet, his “no p’s” – and without a flinch, the young man offered up that he could leave the potatoes off and make a nice side salad for him. And, we ordered the steaks, respectively, very rare and medium rare, and they both came out cooked perfectly, and spicy and delicious.

We had a couple of coffees, paid the bill, left a generous tip, and found our way back to the sidewalk, happy, sated, and totally impressed with the attitude and professionalism. If he’s any example of the rest of the place’s staff, we should all be lining up in front of the place to eat.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Sternberg April 13, 2008 at 11:12

Wow, Dan. This place sounds great. From your comments about service in many of your other posts, it’s hard to believe a place like this exists. Do typical restaurant goers in BA even care much about the quality of service? Is it a factor at all? Judging by some previous posts, it often seems like a waiter could slap a guest in the face and still get a tip.

dan April 13, 2008 at 16:40

Well, actually, rude service is rare, which is what made the other place stand out in my mind. Inattention or just sort of a lackidaisical attitude is typical, but not as in indifference, just more of built into the culture as a casual level of service. It’s not that unusual in lots of parts of the world, especially in cultures where meals are expected to last the entire evening – and restaurants don’t expect to turn tables. The flip side is the customer base, who reserve for “some time this evening” and show up whenever they feel like it and stay as long as they like.

dan April 18, 2008 at 10:07

I just received a note from the young man who took care of us at the restaurant – it was eloquent, well written, and, at his request, I’m not going to “approve” the comment to be added, as he doesn’t wish it to be. Suffice it to say that his/their passion for food and commitment to customer satisfaction came through loud and clear – now in word as well as action.

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