“What were you just thinking?” — Jenna
“In that particular moment, I was reconfiguring the warp field parameters, analyzing the collected works of Charles Dickens, calculating the maximum pressure I could safely apply to your lips, considering a new food supplement for Spot…” — Data
“I’m glad I was in there somewhere” — Jenna
– from Star Trek Voyager
Gird your loins, I headed off to another molecular cooking spot, or, if I must follow the chef’s dictum in this case, “tecno-emotional cuisine”, as the restaurant card says (beyond the grating phrase, an odd juxtaposition of Spanish and English … let’s make it either “techno-emotional cuisine” or “cocina tecno-emocional”… please). I can only assume that the intent is to let us know that his use of the latest and greatest in lab techniques in the kitchen is supposed to create a moving, touching, poignant experience.
Actually, you can relax those loins, a bit, I’m not going to trash the place. I actually, kind of, enjoyed it. I headed off for lunch with my friend Humberto, chef of the now just closed Amaranta (more news later when his next project is ready to be revealed), to Moreno, in the hotel of the same name, on the street of the same name, at #372, in Monserrat, 5291-2380. For H, it was his first full-on molecular gastronomy experience, so I was curious to see his reactions and compare them with my admittedly hypercritical prejudice on the genre. [This place closed in late 2010 and was replaced by Aldo’s Restoran & Vinoteca.]
I’d been told by several people that the food is actually quite good, that it far outshines that at the super-hyped La Vinería de Gaulterio Bolivar, that the chef has a real touch for balancing good cooking with touches of MG techniques rather than focusing on the latter. All true. In fact, in a couple of the dishes, the techno-bits wouldn’t even be noticeable unless they were pointed out (which, of course, they were). Our, my, experience at Moreno was, in many ways (not in all), the polar opposite of that at the other spot.
Let’s start with the logistical stuff. For the most part, kinda hate the room. Really. It’s near monotone in browns, cold (in the emotional sense), poorly lit, and not well laid out – the tables are so far apart you may as well be eating in a different restaurant from other diners – not that there really were any – there were the two of us, two guys at a table about 15 feet away (the next table over, I might add), and a woman having coffee at the opposite end of the room. The waitstaff, not rude, but not welcoming – two people who stood by the bar, didn’t bother to ask if we had a reservation, the guy just glanced up from his conversation with the gal and said, “sit where you like”, while she made a sweeping motion across the room with her hand. They didn’t budge. The service never got much more than that, it was perfunctory, as if they’d both been assigned these tasks and were carrying them out because they had no choice. Dishes were dropped on the table, delivered with a report as to what they contained, and then whichever one of them had done so, simply turned and left. No smiles, no conversation.
Let’s jump into the food and wine. Menu – a mix of a la carte (good move, versus La Vinería’s no a la carte dishes, no special requests approach) and two different length tastings, 7 or 11 course. The prices, well, the 11 course runs a whopping 300 pesos (nearly double that at La Vinería), the shorter one, 220, which we opted for. A la carte, similar sorts of heights. But we’d known that before coming. The wine list basically starts at 75 pesos a bottle and goes up. Fast. And, we quickly discovered, they were out of a lot of the list. We finally settled on a bottle of Sur de Los Andes Bonarda Reserva 2005, a wine I quite like, but would have liked to try something new, had there been something else in the lower price range that was available. Our waiter tried to steer me to some suggestions of his (the sommelier only works in the evenings), all of which were well over 200 pesos a bottle, which, “you’d enjoy more than what you picked” (am I allowed to bitch-slap a waiter? (Can I use the term bitch-slap?) One who actually knows we’re both chefs and that I’m a sommelier and friend of the restaurant’s sommelier? And speaking of which, though not necessary, given that we were basically their only customers, and the chef came out into the dining room a couple of times, why not stop by and say hello, ask how things are/were, that sort of thing, you know?).
Well before the wine issue was settled, our first course arrived, Los Aperitivos – a quintet which we were instructed to eat in the order presented in order to experience what the chef wanted us to experience (a construct that was never defined). On the first plate, left to right, octopus strips – freeze dried and then flash fried to make them golden and lightly puffed, tasty, but you can buy these by the bag in most chinatowns or japanese markets, they’re a snack; a square of brioche with provolone foam (ok); the ubiquitous and necessary in these kind of places gelled sphere of olive oil (yawn); and a quick frozen sorbet of Gancia aperitif (refreshing); then onto the second plate and the salmón electrico – teriyaki glazed salmon cube with cotton candy on top (cute, one supposes, though slightly too sweet for our tastes). The saving grace amongst all these, they’re all well seasoned, served at the right temperatures, and nicely presented.
Ceviche, Moreno’s style. Interesting though not exciting – we liked the idea of the addition of a lime sorbet scoop in the glass (not thrilled with the martini glass presentation, hard to dig in and eat) atop the citrus cured fish. It was a little light on the chilies and cilantro, just a touch underseasoned, but overall good in terms of flavor. Texture was a different matter – the fish, to begin with, merluza, hake, just doesn’t make a good ceviche, it doesn’t have enough firmness to it, and this had clearly been in the curing liquid for quite awhile, it was borderline on turning into mush. The pureed corn on the side was tasty, but just sort of added to that same sensation. Put in a good, firm white fish like grouper or sea bass, and maybe a sprinkle more of chilies and this could have really been something.
The tortilla en deconstrución, or deconstructed tortilla, that classic favorite egg, potato, onion dish that is found on so many menus here. In terms of execution, probably the best done plate we had. Flavors fine, just nothing special – a layer of caramelized onion with a sort of button of scrambled egg in it, topped with potato foam and little shards of crispy potato. Pretty to look at, tasty to eat, just one of those, “why bother to deconstruct this dish?” sort of moments – the whole is so much more than the layering of its parts, you know? At this point we also had to ask them to slow down, they were putting down the next courses as fast as we were finishing the previous one, with one waiter clearing and the other placing – our waiter informed us that “the kitchen has its rhythm, nothing can be done about it” (same basic response we got at La Vineria – what does that mean, anyway? If the place had been packed with people doing the tasting menu, it could almost make sense, but we’re the only ones there – the two guys had just had one plate apiece from the a la carte menu and were sipping on coffee, the woman had long before left – slow the food down).
Hmm, where to start. Flavors, once again, good, well seasoned. A square of lenguado, or sole, topped with a lemon zest foam, over an olive puree and lemon zest sauce, a tab of mango gelatin, and a prawn on the side. All the flavors combined really well together, the olive/mango/lemon a really interesting combination. Our issue with the dish, both the fish and prawn were overcooked to the point of being rubbery.
We deviated. I admit it. Neither of us are big dessert fans, and we’d spotted this dish on the a la carte menu, and asked if we could swap out having dessert for this at some point in the succession of plates. The chef had agreed. This dish was bordering on brilliant. Risotto in a reduced chicken stock (almost to the demiglace point), topped with crispy slices of morcilla sausage and sweetbreads. I am so making this for one of our dinners. The only touch of MG, a chevrotin (goats’ milk cheese) foam at the edge. The only issue with the dish, the risotto wasn’t risotto-like – but because it was in a broth, it was hard to tell if it had lost that creamy texture because it was in the broth, or because it wasn’t cooked like a risotto to begin with. Fix that, however, and this dish would be stellar – in fact, I’d go back and just order it off the a la carte menu with a glass of wine.
There’s nothing quite like slow cooked meat, and the “17-hour” cochinillo, presumably, though never stated, cooked sous vide for that long, glazed in garlic and “oriental ketchup”, was delicious. On its own. As was the beautifully textured pappardelle in its sauce, which in no way, shape or form resembled the “alfredo” that both menu and waiter stated (it seemed to be the pork juices mixed with cream). Together, however, they were a bit overwhelming – the whole thing leaving a bit of a pork fat oil slick coating. It really could have used something to contrast or cut through that feeling. We won’t even touch on the whole debate of whether cream should ever be used in an alfredo sauce…. (I don’t dislike it made that way, but I prefer the original and simple butter, grated cheese, cracked black pepper version – in fact, I think I might just make that for lunch…).
The next course, I don’t have a photo for. I must have just forgot to snap a photo. A shame, as it was a nice presentation – a rectangle of lomo, sirloin, “22 hours cooked”, served up with capsule shaped polenta gnocchis in a reduced wild hare sauce. Very tasty, really nicely seasoned. Nice finish to the meal (since we weren’t having dessert).
A round of coffees, decent. Petits fours, not so much. In fact, the one dish that was, as far as I’m concerned, blatantly bad. Some sort of flower gel with a slightly crunch exterior, little chocolates with an overwhelming amount of some sort of spice in them, and almonds dusted in flavorless curry powder.
Overall – the chef has a strong sense of flavor and flavor combinations that, for the most part, work, and probably even those that we didn’t care for, others would. Deft hand with meats and vegetables, not so much with fish, which in both courses, were overcooked/cured. The place is outrageously pricey for Buenos Aires, even for someone offering up “cutting edge cuisine” – though if I were forced to choose between paying 300 pesos for Dante Liporace’s 11-course tasting here versus 165 for the same number of plates from Alejandro Digilio at La Vinería, I’d pick here without hesitation. The service, at least at lunch, needs a complete overhaul of both attitude and ability; and the whole pushing the food out as fast as possible thing needs to stop, especially if you’re asked to. The room needs better lighting and some color in it – maybe just some flowers here and there…. If you’re living here and want to experience this kind of food, I’d say, worth checking out for a special occasion. If you’re coming from somewhere else that, perhaps, has a good MG place already, you likely won’t be impressed.