“In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
– Desiderius Erasmus, author, philosopher, scholar
Once upon a time when I first vacationed in Buenos Aires – before deciding to move here, and life was oh so inexpensive and I had a salary in dollars, I met up with my friend Michael at Oviedo, Beruti 2602, corner of Ecuador, here in Recoleta, 4821-3741. I can still remember with vivid clarity a platter of perfectly grilled chipirones, little baby cuttlefish, glistening with olive oil and just a light dusting of salt and cracked pepper. I remember a fish, not which sort, but beautifully adorned with vegetables, a light jus, and elegantly seasoned. And, I remember a long tranche of crackling, roast suckling pig that was falling apart tender underneath that crunchy skin. And a bottle of wine, possibly one of the most expensive on their list. And it all came in at probably around 300 pesos for the two of us, a shade over $100 at the time, and the equal of any top meal in an old line Spanish restaurant in New York City. We thought nothing of it. The bottle of wine would have cost us that much or more “back home”.
But, for the moment, that life is in the past, and springing for meals that head into the higher amounts is a less common treat, especially since it usually means paying for two these days. So when Oviedo popped up on the list of places that I need to re-review for a project I’m working on, it immediately went onto my list of… “I’ve got to see if there’s a way to arrange a complimentary meal” – and, it turned out, there was. Proprietor Emilio Garip was only too happy to invite me in for lunch. So, with full disclosure, a comped meal, and an arranged tasting menu by chef Martín Rebaudino. [Martín has moved on and opened his own restaurant, Roux, as of mid-2014]
I arrived towards the end of lunch hour, as requested – giving the chef a bit more time to focus, come out and chat a bit, etc. Sr. Garip dropped by a couple of times to chat, though was busy in a meeting at a nearby table with the chefs and owners of a couple of other restaurants in the city – new projects in the offing and all that. When it turned out they all knew me, it gave me an instant boost of cred with him I think – I’d just been a pesky writer to pamper, all of the sudden I was a colleague. It did get me an interview at the end of the meal which will add to my other project. Anyway, back to the restaurant and meal – elegant dining room, lots of prints of various sea life on the walls. White jacketed waiters. Friendliness and charm all around. And the same was true at the few other tables occupied at this late hour, mostly businessmen in suits and a few tourists.
The parade of dishes began… well, perhaps not a parade, but quite a few as you’ll see. First up a ceviche – listed on the menu as a tribute to chef Gastón Arcurio, of Astrid & G fame. I suppose because it was a non-traditional style – when we ate there
the ceviche was much more traditional, though that may have been the particular version we picked. I don’t think I’ve seen a ceviche of pejerrey
before, the freshwater fish I’ve been giving much attention to of late, so this was a particular treat. It was also a fun play on the dish with the cilantro, chilies, garlic, etc. all being blended into a smooth, creamy sauce that was used as the curing liquid. Thoroughly enchanting and an approach to ceviche I may take some time to play around with here at home. Watch for it!
Now, I should mention a bit about pricing I suppose. Oviedo’s not cheap. The ceviche above runs 65 pesos – though, keep in mind I’m having half portions of each dish here according to the waiter. And a plate of, apparently, two croquettes, each no more than a couple of bites, runs 40. Still, this was one hell of a good croquette, packed with toasted quinoa, greens and cheese.
This was one of those “almost too pretty to eat” dishes. Of course, with me, that reaction lasts no more than a nanosecond, not even long enough to blurt it out except in retrospect. Perfectly grilled prawns with basmati rice, a smoked eggplant chip, and a silky cheese infused bechamel, drizzles of smoked paprika cream, and crunchy crumbs of black olives. Still, would I want to pay 95 pesos for four prawns prepared this way? No, but I’d happily eat them, any day, with someone else picking up the tab. Actually, I have the feeling the waiter’s statement of these being half portions was an exaggeration – I saw some of the main course plates coming out to other tables and they were far more abundant, so it’s quite possible the main course version of this at full price has six or even eight prawns on it.
Merluza, or hake, is a blank canvas. It’s the chicken of the sea, no trademark infringement intended on canned tuna. It’s one of the most common fish used to make frozen fish sticks. So to have a completely eye-opening, over the top, I want this dish again and again, plate of food made with merluza is something pretty special. It would be hard to list all the components of this plate – a creamy potato puree underneath, an herb puree to one side, a spiced bechamel to the other, toasted sunflower seeds, and, the stars of the plate, teeny bits of various pickled vegetables. Okay, you have to be a pickle fan to like this plate, but I am – there was pickled cauliflower, olives, capers, cocktail onions, and more. I was in gustatory heaven. But you gotta like pickles. And shell out 91 pesos.
While I’m not sure I would have picked lamb had I been ordering for myself, much as I like it, Oviedo’s raison d’etre
is seafood, I’m still quite happy to have tried it. Beautiful Patagonian lamb chops, thin cut and just seared, served up with a tangle of warm watercress and herbs and little cannelloni of cheese and vegetable stuffed eggplant, plus a wine and lamb jus reduction. This was the one plate that needed a minor seasoning adjustment, a sprinkle of salt on the chops, but other than that, delightful. I’d have still gone for a seafood dish, or maybe inserted a pasta before the previous plate. But that’s me. And, if you’re at Oviedo with someone who wants red meat, they do have a few selections like this. For a mere 90 pesos.
And, finishing up with a passionfruit mousse atop fruit “carpaccio” – pineapple, grapefruit and orange. Not on the menu, but given that it was clearly not something whipped up in the moment, I assume it was a special of the day or something that the chef is experimenting with to put on the menu. Even at this point the sticker price is high, desserts coming in at 45 pesos.
Coffee and petits fours followed, the latter all made in-house and tasty little bites, particularly the “ginger leather” as I’d call it.
Overall, a true treat and an elegant, wonderful dining experience, and there’s no question that the other folk in the room were feeling the love as well. A young woman from Taiwan who is studying here was seated a few feet away from me and we got to talking – she comes for lunch pretty much once a week and orders a quartet of oysters and one particular fish dish – abadejo (pollack) with clams and oyster mushrooms, every time. Oh that I had the kind of wallet that could handle that. But let’s put it in perspective – typically one would not come and have a six plate tasting menu. If you figure on one appetizer, one main course and one dessert, you’re coming in at around 200 pesos, or $50, though of course add to that whatever you choose to drink – water, coffee, wine – and a tip, and you could easily be spending 300 pesos per person on dinner, or $75, making it one of the pricier spots in town. But if that’s in your price range, there’s no question that you’ll have a fantastic meal.