“The ideal customer doesn’t come to El Bulli to eat,” Adria has declared, “but to have an experience,” inadvertently revealing not just the purpose of the operation, but also that there is an ideal customer, which may very well not be you, who merely wants to eat. The fact that eating is rather low down the priority list of molecular cooking is evidenced not just by the proliferation of foams and froths, crumbs and powders, but by the global obsession with serving a multiplicity of tiny courses, for which the inaccurate analogy is usually Spanish tapas.”
– Stuart Walton, Restaurant Revolutions
Buenos Aires – Having just gotten into the whole last post on ethics and disclosure and all that, let me start this review off by stating, upfront, that I’m not the ideal customer for molecular cooking. I find it an interesting curiosity, a conceit at times, a fun little fad, and, in the hands of a truly good chef, an amazing adjunct to the cuisine. In the hands of the average cook it is about as appetizing as the cheese powder that comes in a blue-box mac ‘n cheese, a canister of foaming non-dairy whipped topping, or a piece of fruit rollup that’s been sitting on the candy shelf since last John Frum Day. Experimentation for experimentation’s sake is all well and good when you’re sitting alone in your apartment, trying out ideas, but when you stick it prettily on a plate and charge people a pretty peso for it, it better be past the experimental stage.
I admit to a secret passion – I love watching all those various types of competition cooking shows. Some of them for the sheer interesting creations and inspirations – the original Iron Chef, Iron Chef America, The Chopping Block – come to mind. Others, because they push people to do more than they’re used to doing – to get them out of their complacency – Gordon Ramsey’s shows are probably the best exponents. I may not particularly care for his made up persona on the air, but when I’m sitting in front of a plate of some god-awful creation that’s wrapped up in a bow and that everyone is oohing and aahing over, I keep hearing Gordon’s voice in my ear screaming “But did you taste it first?!”
So, if you want to save yourself a bit of reading, and looking at dimly lit pictures, let me state upfront that it would take a major payment of some sort (small unmarked bills, non-sequential serial numbers, no dye packs in the package please) to get me back into La Vinería de Gualterio Bolivar, Bolivar 865 in San Telmo, 4361-4709. If that makes me unpopular with those who think it’s the most amazing thing since sliced bread, so be it. I’ll go hang with Stuart Walton (quoted above) and have some good food. At a minimum, that gives you two extra seats in the restaurant that you’re welcome to. [Closed in April 2013. It’s telling that a restaurant that just a few years ago was “the” spot on everyone’s lips, I didn’t hear about the closing until December of 2013, and only then from some people visiting Argentina.]
Let me start with what I expected: An overwrought room. Lots of foams, froths, crumbs, powders, gels, etc. Lots of interesting, very intense flavors. Really small portions and probably leaving hungry. Waiters (and chefs) who think that not only do they know more than you, a mere customer, could ever know, but defy you to do anything other than what you’re told to. Pretty much the experiences I’ve had in other temples of molecular cooking. Here’s where the problem starts… expectations, you know?
The room’s not overwrought, in fact, it’s quite a charming little space. While there are lots of foams, froths, crumbs, powders, gels, etc., they’re not the principle components of any of the dishes, they’re accents, little surprises. Hey, they’re doing well so far. Indeed, really small portions – in fact, our waiter upfront told us that if we didn’t order the full 11 course tasting menu (160 pesos) and settled on the 7 or 9, we’d leave hungry. While friendly about everything, he kept trying to change what I wanted to order for wine (options are by the bottle, or by the glass from anything that’s on the bottle list – but everyone at the table has to have the same glass of wine at the same time – charge is for 1/4 of the bottle, the pour is about 1/8 of the bottle – it’s hard for me to pay 20-30 pesos for a tasting sized glass of wine, especially when I serve some of the same wines in the same portions and only charge 8-10 pesos – and I’m buying retail!). Only twice did he try to tell us how to eat what was on our plates and he wasn’t pushy about it. On the other hand, I had to argue with him about slowing the pace down – as five plates had already hit our table within the first 40 minutes from the moment we’d arrived – his initial response, “If we don’t, you’ll be here more than 2-1/2 hours and that’s not acceptable.” It took three requests and a threat to send a plate back if it came quickly again to get the kitchen to slow down.
Here’s where the problem is… the food itself. Pretty, interesting presentation and touches, and with only a couple of exceptions, underseasoned, off-balance flavors, and, simply, poor choices of combinations. Gordon’s whisper popped up into my head repeatedly….
I was worried that this first thing to be plopped on the table, was a “course”. My dining companion felt not, and he turned out to be right – not because it was “too small”, as several others were just as small, but because this was the bread and olive oil, the latter whipped with glycerine in order give it a sort of strange slimy texture. The breadsticks, well, let’s just point out that that’s a shotglass they’re in. No seasoning. Oh, and we got a cocktail – a shot of cachaca flavored with ginger, honey, and passionfruit – I think they forgot the honey, there was no sweetness, just acidity – and very watered down, they’d done it as a frozen drink, probably blended with ice, and it was… insipid.
No, this was the first course, the apertivos, a trio of: unseasoned, refrigerator cold salmon gravlax; the best thing we were served – a liquid center ball of spinach soup surrounded by a crust and topped with caramelized lemon peel; and, a “bonbon” of foie gras pate that was fine. Ordered a couple of glasses of Quara Reserva Torrontés to go with the first couple of courses – amazingly rich, deep, complex torrontés with wildflowers, peach and apricot, and a touch of oak.
Missed the photo on the next course, a salad of cruciferos – some cold, chilled, undressed brussels sprouts, kale, and a couple of other greens with a puree of lettuce off to the side and a faint dusting of paprika and pepper in one corner.
The only other thing we really liked during the evening (I should point out, my dining companion had not been to any molecular cooking spots before and wasn’t coming in with the same preconceptions, yet we agreed on almost every dish, point for point) – the egg toast – an egg yolk wrapped in a thin bread crust and fried, served with a sheep’s milk cheese foam, a drizzle of chicken jus and some freeze-dried truffle. Flavors great, doesn’t stand up to the truffled egg toast at ‘ino on the Lower East Side, but then, what does?
About this time, the chef wandered in, bag over his shoulder, waved to the guys in the open kitchen, went over and chatted with a couple at one table who were clearly friends or regulars, and then went upstairs, returning only about an hour later, with an empty wineglass in hand, chatted with the same table, looked into the kitchen again, and left. Our waiter, on prompting, admitted that the chef never actually cooks in the restaurant except to introduce a new dish to his staff, then leaves them to deal with it. Guess he’s too important to actually work. Sorry, snarky moment.
The surf and turf of the evening, or mar y montaña as the combo is called here – on the menu listed as “scallops and lamb” – a few scattered bay scallops and some lamb’s tongues, both poached, little seasoning, and served with a spoonful of sickly sweet squash puree. Ordered a couple of glasses of the Cruzat Rosé Brut sparkling – 100% pinot noir, rich, ripe fruit, tangy acidity, great finish.
Overcooked to the edge of that squeaky point piece of salmón blanco, not really a salmon, but behaves kind of like one, in what was purported to be oyster consommé, tasting of, maybe, the water that some oysters were soaking in, and black tea “noodles” – overgelled to the point of being rubbery, and with almost no discernable tea flavor, and garnished with some scraggly, borderline rotting, pieces of dill. No seasoning on or in anything.
Missed another photo – a confit of rabbit – dried out shreds of rabbit that were actually dry to the point of being crusty in points, like the shredded meat’s been sitting in the refrigerator for a couple of days, without plastic wrap. Served in a tasteless foam of green apple over a tiny baton of green apple gel that at least had some flavor.
Ordered a couple of glasses of Finca Morera Cabernet Franc 2002 to go with our two meat courses – smoky, bacon fat, black olives, dark red fruit, everything a Cab Franc should be, and inexpensive (at most places, not here) to boot.
Remember Clara Peller, the “Where’s the beef?” lady from the commercials? I want to title this dish, “Where’s the lamb?” Offered up as a “remembrance of Bahia Blanca 1991”, apparently having something to do with the chef’s father, and stated as “Lamb and Peas” – it’s a crispy springroll shell filled with layers of, from the bottom up, fava bean puree (unseasoned), barely cooked peas, a single baby carrot, and a crouton. A teaspoonful of sauce in the bottom, on questioning, turned out to be the “lamb” in question, in the form of a jus.
A very nicely cooked piece of medium rare to rare rib-eye, though, a trifle chewy we both thought, served up with a Malbec reduction sauce painted on the plate – way too sweet, almost barbecue sauce level. The “turnip and ratatouille” turned out to be that postage stamp sized packet off to the side, an ice cold bit of finely chopped, overcooked peppers, wrapped inside a thin sheet of raw turnip – okay, probably not completely raw, but just blanched enough to make it pliable. Did I mention ice cold? Or flavorless?
Another couple of photos missed – the pear and spice bread “pre-dessert” was a small square of pear (cut cross-section, meaning it included the seeds from the pear in it – kind of weird and unpleasant), sandwiched between two tuile-thin pieces of “spice bread”, some pear “caviar” – gelled pear juice that couldn’t have been recognized as pear flavor if we hadn’t been told, and a streak of anise caramel that tasted like jagermeister or something similar. That, followed by a classic of the molecular cooking world – some brownie “crumbs”, a scoop of gelled yogurt, some chocolate cream, a goat cheese ice cream (the best thing on the plate), and a chocolate foam. Yawn.
Finally, and yes, this was a course, the petits fours, served up in an old saccharine pellet dish – one each balls of sweet chocolate ganache, each topped with a flake of Maldon salt. Oh the daring….
Let me just say, harking back to the whole thing about the chef – it’s great to have confidence in your staff – but, if, and I have no way of knowing since he wasn’t cooking and apparently rarely does cook at the restaurant anymore, if he’s a far better chef than what this food indicates, his confidence is misplaced and he needs to spend some time back in the kitchen getting things back on track. The biggest tell, dish after dish, was the complete lack of any seasoning, even something as basic as a sprinkle of salt. They have, by the way, an open kitchen, and not once did I ever see anyone taste anything, they were just pulling stuff out of containers and out of pans and arranging them on plates.
Did I mention you can have my seat at the table if you like?