In Comparison to…

2009.Sep.05 Saturday · 7 comments

in Restaurants

“Get to know other worlds, if only for comparison. I am near, too near for him to dream of me.”

– Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet & essayist

Buenos Aires – There should be rule. And the rule would be, don’t tell me that place X is the “best”, “ultimate”, “most amazing”, “stunning”, “incredible” spot to dine, either on one particular cuisine, or another. The rule should stop there, but one might add, “unless you’re willing to guarantee it”. And the guarantee would be, hey, if you insist I go there because of one or more of these superlatives, you pick up the tab if I don’t agree. And I promise to be fair. The real reason for the rule, however, is that despite whatever automatic misgivings such statements produce in my hindbrain, it’s hard to go into such a place without very high expectations. And it’s really hard for any restaurant to meet those expectations, regardless of how good it is.

Now, the rule out of the way, let me say that I didn’t dislike the restaurant I’m about to review. I liked it. I just wasn’t wowed by it. As the title of this post might lead to, in comparison to other restaurants of a similar sort, here in Buenos Aires, this one may just take the top honors. The place, Azema Exotic Bistró, Angel J. Carranza 1875 in Palermo, 4774-4191. It’s sort of Asian fusion, sort of pan-Asian, sort of a mix of a lot of things. No question that “exotic” is a good descriptor, both of the amusing decor that is a mix of old British colonial prints and far eastern kitsch, and the menu, which ranges from Vietnamese summer rolls to Louisiana style barbecued ribs. I like the room, I like the service, which was friendly and attentive, and, for the most part, I like the food. If there was any negative note on the evening, it was pure happenstance, the owner, chef Paul Jean Azema, was having a “water tasting” with a group of culinary colleagues, and it was being photographed, which meant the entire meal was punctuated by bursts of light coming from various angles – I’ll give them that that’s not likely to be an ordinary day, but then again, why do it in the middle of dinner service, even if it was a quiet night? [This place has closed.]

Azema - chinese style dumplings
We were hit with one minor disappointment, the delicious sounding Vietnamese summer rolls were not available, simply, “there aren’t any” – though I’m pretty sure I saw a platter or two of them delivered to the chef’s table later on. We decided on ordering a bunch of appetizers, a couple at a time, and just sort of eating until we weren’t hungry anymore. Our first plate, Chinese style dumplings with sweet and sour sauce. The dumplings, good, well-seasoned. The sauce, well, over-the-top sweet, no sour, like that glowing red stuff right out of a jar. On the other hand, we asked for hot sauce, and the smoky, reasonably fiery blend that was brought to the table was one of the better hot sauces I’ve encountered in Buenos Aires.

Azema - fishballs
Deep-fried fishballs, again, in and of themselves, quite good and flavorful. The sauce was little more than a bit of rice vinegar with sugar, cilantro and a few flecks of chili. A little fish sauce would have been perfect in it, again, however, the hot sauce came to the rescue.

Azema - leek soup
The leek soup, hmm, very classicly French, no Asian spicing at all, which is fine, as noted, the dishes range all over the globe, a tradition that given my style of cooking at Casa S, I respect. But it was a little bland, and needed both salt and pepper to give it much flavor. The croutons were great, the “crispy leeks” on top were simply not crispy, just oily and soft – hotter oil and longer cooking time perhaps?

Azema - tiradito of sea bass
This was the best dish of the evening, even if it doesn’t really fit the what a tiradito is – a Peruvian-Japanese tradition of ceviche style fish that is cut in sushi-style strips (tiras, hence the name), cured in citrus and, usually, olive oil. This was much more like a simple ceviche, but with really nice herbs, fresh chilies, and a good amount of spice.

Azema - pate empanada
This, on the other hand, was a borderline abomination. Billed as an Reunion Island (where the chef’s family is from) style empanada filled with chicken and pork pate, it was bland, dry, the crust barely edible and burned, the filling not remotely resembling any sort of pate, anywhere, just chopped bits of chicken and pork, overcooked, and unseasoned. Even the sort of odd coleslaw on the side was flavorless, pretty much dressed with mayo and nothing else.

We were pretty much filling up at that point and decided we’d leave trying other dishes for another night. And I would go back, because other than, perhaps, Buddha BA, and maybe Sudestada, nobody else is really doing interesting pan-Asian cooking here, and this place is certainly better than the latter, and more varied than the former. It is, however, pretty pricey – not outrageously so, but up there – for five appetizers plus a relatively inexpensive bottle of wine, we hit just shy of 200 pesos. I’d recommend the place, probably more for locals than for visitors, if you’re arriving here from anyplace out there that has an Asian community to speak of, you can probably do better back home, and besides, you came here for the steaks and empanadas, right?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Sternberg September 6, 2009 at 21:11

A water tasting? That should certainly have tipped you off.

dan September 8, 2009 at 23:09

Our question, what do they clear their palates with between waters?

Miles Lewis July 17, 2011 at 20:11

Hi Dan,

I’ve eaten in Azema 4 times in the last 2 weeks and been pretty impressed each time. Between myself and my guests we have managed to get through most of the menu (other than the thai curries as I cook a lot of those myself) and have only been disappointed by the occasional dish. What are the highlights for me?

Even when the restaurant is busy you are greeted by the Chef/Owner Jean Paul Azema, who is always on hand to offer advice and discuss the level of spice in some of the franco asian offerings. And he listens when you say you are a brit brought up on indian curries and you want really picante. And then the sauces come properly made and you don’t get that raw flavor when they dump a load of chilies in at the end. Real heat, properly integrated and not overwhelming the other flavors of the sauce. Bravo.

The wine list is carefully chosen and they don’t look askance when you ask them to pop a pinot noir in the chiller and get the second one on ice to be held in reserve. Cold red and spicy food in Argentina, lovely!

The fish dishes are great, the ceviches being my favorite starters, though a companion was very impressed by the shrimp both in terms of taste and generous portion size.

The non picante sauces that go with the french style dishes are clearly properly made from stocks and reductions, a rare event in BA.

When things do go wrong such as last time when my lomo in a pepper sauce was over-salted, they get sorted out rapidly and with no embarrassing argument and by the way neither the original lomo nor its replacement appeared on the bill. Another rarity!

They also seem to be quick to offer an aperative on the house (last time french themed, either Kir Royale or a Pastis, proper Ricard 51 not horrible Pernod) or a grappa to go with coffee.

They do a great chocolate volcano that comes with a white chocolate cream side in a little glass and a fruity sorbet…excellent.

So to the challenge. I invite you to dinner and you allow me to choose the best dishes for you to try. If you don’t think they are exceptional for BA (rather than just averagely good) I will pay for dinner. If you agree you pay for the food and I will chip in with the Pinot!

My motivation…to make sure this restaurant continues to do well so I have somewhere to go when I’m finding others a bit bland.

dan July 18, 2011 at 01:03

Miles, I appreciate the offer. But if you note, I didn’t dislike it, I just don’t find the place exceptional, even for BA. I’ve been back once, it’s good, it doesn’t wow me. If it had been far better, both service and food-wise on followup visits I’d have upgraded and written an addendum or new review, but it wasn’t, and maybe you’ve been lucky with the chef, on neither visit did he come by the table, nor did anyone ask about spice levels, nor offer either aperitif or digestif. I’m sure they’re not going out of business because I only gave them a Recommended rating rather than Highly Recommended.

I’d also disagree about the rarity of things like properly made stocks and sauces. I just don’t find that to be the case at all.

Miles Lewis July 18, 2011 at 20:13

Hmm, maybe its just that I am very direct and very demanding? I’ve had some of the best food and definitely the spiciest in BA here, and I have been here for a couple of years. I do spend a lot of time explaining what I want though!

dan July 18, 2011 at 22:01

If it’s a truly exceptional restaurant, you shouldn’t have to.

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