“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.”
– Fritz Perls, psychoanalyst
I spent the last few days (well, bits of them) debating internally over whether to post this review. My oft-time dining companion and I were treated to lunch at a relatively new, much ballyhooed restaurant in a swank Palermo hotel. The sommelier and his assistants are both friends and colleagues. We’ve been to the place for cocktails several times and enjoyed the ambiance. And the raves really are out there – though, there have been a few naysayers. So does that mean I’m going to trash the place? No. Not at all.
We enjoyed ourselves immensely, but, we were so pumped up with expectations from all we’d heard about the food that it was likely impossible for us to be completely satisfied. The truth is, while I wouldn’t rate the lunch we had as the best food I’ve ever had, had we not gone in with such lofty images in mind, and weren’t there specifically to give it a thorough going over, we’d have pronounced it “really quite good” without reservation.
The place? The beautiful garden-side dining room at the Fierro Hotel, Hernán Gipponi, Soler 5862, Palermo, 3220-6820. Love the space, and in nice weather, taking a cocktail in the garden and then indoors for one of the eponymous chef’s tasting menus would be a delight. At lunch it was quiet when we arrived, in fact, just the two of us. But in short order the room semi-filled with a ten-top of computer hackers in for a conference – all but one dressed in requisite nerd-sloganed black t-shirts, and about as loud and obnoxious as they could possibly be without intending to be, just unfortunately fitting the stereotype of having absolutely no social skills or awareness of anyone around them or where they were.
We also had the two folk in the foreground who turned out to be local food bloggers (whose review of the same menu is to be found here), though we didn’t know that until towards the end of the meal, and in short order by colleague Sunae of Cocina Sunae, her son and a friend, though they opted for a la carte rather than the menu (as did the hacker folk, thankfully, because it meant they left relatively quickly).
Service was deft, friendly, and everything you would want it to be. The menu, while primarily offering up the 9 course tasting menu that is, once again, much talked about, also offers a la carte options. It’s not inexpensive, but 190 pesos for a high quality tasting menu of this sort is certainly not out of line. The wine list, overseen by a trio of sommeliers, is impressive, and given that this is a boutique Palermo hotel, pretty fairly priced with most bottles coming in at around double retail or slightly less. On to the food….
I wouldn’t have expected a bowl of locro and an empanada as the start of such a lofty tasting menu. But, it was Argentine Independence Day, and the two are traditional. The locro was excellent and I would have been happy at that point to just order a large bowl of it and tuck in. The empanada was very good and if it paled it was only in comparison to the bowl of stew to its right. A very promising start!
Next up a perfectly cooked, pristine prawn with braised daikon served up in a jasmine tea and prawn broth. The trio of components made for a beautiful explosion of flavors on the palate, and that’s, of course, the way it’s meant to be eaten. If there was a letdown it was that the broth leftover after finishing shrimp and veg had a touch too much astringency from the tea to be eaten on its own, but there it was in the bowl, it couldn’t be helped that we tried it.
If there’s any offal that rises to the top of my heap, it’s sweetbreads. These are crispy slices of goat sweetbread served with a tangle of fennel, a silky puree of potato and a tasty, if subtle, lemongrass broth. Flavor-wise, no issues with the dish – the one little thing, one of the things we love about sweetbreads is that rich, creamy texture on the inside, often with a crispy outsdie – because these were sliced thin, the ration of crispy to creamy was such that the former dominated. We would have liked plump, rich little nuggets that had more contrast. That’s not to say we left even a smidgen of what was in the bowls by the time we finished.
This was far and away our favorite course of the lunch. Beautiful salmón blanco – sand perch – with a crispy skin and just flaking apart on the inside, I could have gone for a touch less cooked, but it was fine – and the perch was perched in an ajoblanco, the deeply flavored Andalusian garlic and almond soup that some call white gazpacho, and topped with a mix of perfectly cooked vegetables. The combination of the garlic, toasty almonds and the fish was spot-on.
Every meal has to have a low point, if only in comparison to the rest. Unfortunately, this dish would have been a low point even if there were nothing else on the menu. Arróz bomba is the Spanish version of risotto. This was gummy, bitter, oily and borderline cold. The flavors reminded us of cheap fried rice that’s been sitting out on one of those Chinese buffet lines. The delicacy of the chipirones, those little baby squid, was completely lost. The one thing about this course is that as I looked at a good number of the reviews out there for HG, this is the one dish that time and again is noted as least or unsuccessful – and that stretches back to the restaurant’s opening last October – might be time to rework this plate completely. We, and our next door dining companions, pushed it away uneaten, and it was cleared without comment or question, which might say something about the staff view of the dish as well.
I’d like to say that the next dish redeemed the meal, but it didn’t. It wasn’t awful like the rice was, it was just sort of ordinary. A braised block of veal cheek was falling apart fork tender as it should be, but wasn’t overly flavorful on its own, and the couple of crystals of coarse salt atop each cube did little to change that. The tasty green onion puree ended up dominating the flavor of the dish rather than balancing it, the swipe of red wine reduction was kind of lost there was so little of it, the mini-potato halves were a touch overcooked, and the single pickled onion that completely perked things up was gone in a nibble. Had the veal been infused with more flavor of its braising liquid, or, retained more of its own flavor, this dish could easily be excellent, but it wasn’t.
On the other hand, the trio of desserts brought back our spirits quickly. A trio of desserts? Yes. Now, I’ll admit that having one third of a tasting menu be desserts is not my idea of a balanced menu (though works just fine for me in a three-course prix fixe, so what am I complaining about?) but, all three desserts were stellar, so in this case, though left with a bit of a sugar rush at the end, I was fine with it. The first was really a “pre-dessert” we were informed – a bit of homemade flan, an orange sorbet, and a spiced syrup and crumble. A very nice palate cleanser.
This is where it got fun – a lulo mousse – I don’t think there’s really an English name for lulo, also known as the naranjilla – was topped with a great mix of pistachios, edible flowers and litchis. The combination of textures and flavors was just amazing and I could happily have eaten another bowl of this one.
Completely out of left-field, we stared at this dish after being told what it was, afraid to even try it. There was nothing about the idea that sounded appealing. Boy were we wrong. It’s got four simple components – a pecan coffee cake, pistachio ice cream, fresh strawberries, and… Tic-Tac syrup. Look, I know there are people out there who pop Tic-Tacs like, well, Tic-Tacs, all day long. I’m sure they’re addicting in some method or another. But really? In a syrup as part of dessert? Yes, it turns out, that intense minty flavor brought the whole dish together and elevated it from what seem like three pretty ordinary components to a pretty spectacular blend.
So you see, it really wasn’t a bad meal. It had one course that truly didn’t work and another that was kind of ho-hum, but had seven that ranged from really good to wonderful – that’s pretty close to living up to the hype, and certainly recommendable.