9: Why do you listen to 1?
5: A group must have a leader.
9: But what if he’s wrong?
– from 9
The backlog of restaurant reviews is now caught up, more or less, and I feel like I can keep current with things – packing twenty-some restaurants into a few short weeks put me behind with alternating in things going on here at Casa SaltShaker and whatever else it was that came up. So, only a few days past the dinner, I come to a review of a new spot that I started getting e-mails for about a month ago. Truthfully, I might have ignored it, the e-mails came unbidden, I suppose I got on their mailing list simply because of this blog, but then, the day I was at Oviedo I met one of the chefs who introduced himself to me (I think that was the same day I actually got the first of the e-mail series). And then friend Sorrel chatted me up about joining her for an invited dinner (I just got e-mails, she got invites, go figure) and we set off to check out Unik, Soler 5132, Palermo, 4772-2230, a few nights ago. [Closed, January 2016]
I arrived a few minutes early – the place is a long, narrow room with a little loungy waiting area upfront. There’s an open kitchen on the left. And the whole thing is designed. Really designed. The owner, a French-Argentine architect and designer, has certainly put his stamp on the place (he’s also the owner of two spots in Paris – Unico and El Galpón) – it’s a showroom of design, or as the website puts it, “the best of cuisine meets the best of world design”. Showroom is operative, as each table is different along with its chairs – it really kind of looks like a furniture display setup to look like a restaurant. Even each light fixture is different. It’s odd, it only sorta, kinda works because you can choose to ignore the mishmash of styles.
Now, keep in mind that here we are, two food and restaurant writers, invited to dinner, in a dining room that’s at no point more than half full. The host escorted me down through the room, past the long row of banquettes and tables on the right, past the open kitchen on the left, I said hi to the chef who I’d met and continued on, following. Down to where the room widens out, at the far back, just before the patio with its giant, green, glowing cursive sign that says “Badaboom” – apparently the owner once had a nightclub of that name and can’t bring himself to part with the sign. And there, in the green glow, I was given a choice of a table wedged between two other couples up against the patio, or, the left back corner table with a view to the left of the patio and to the right of the stairway down to the bathrooms. Anything available perhaps where we could see the room, see the kitchen in operation? No.
A manager came over and introduced himself and then came back with a press kit CD for the two of us. One. I guess to share. Okay, no problem getting a second one, he returned shortly. The sommelier came over and introduced himself and offered a cocktail to start – “something sweet or something bitter”? I chose the latter and he returned shortly with a little Manhattan. A little… Manhattan. The cocktails are served, or at least the “up” ones in sherry glasses – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a small cocktail – and I can’t tell you how much it would have cost because a) we weren’t getting a bill and b) the cocktail menu has no prices on it – I guess it’s one of those “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”? Except that makes no sense as both menu and wine list have prices, and while the former is reasonable for a high-end sort of place, with appetizers in the 40-50 peso range and main courses in the 60-90 range, the latter is not quite so reasonable, with virtually nothing priced under a 100 pesos, and going on up to… wait for it… 4000 pesos. The list is actually well selected with a lot of non-usual suspects – it isn’t that the pricing is so bad, most of it less than double retail, but, there just isn’t much on there that’s in a lower price range. Sorrel arrived, got the same cocktail question, and ended up with a mojito, served in a lovely blue candle holder – a much more normal size, but then, it’s mostly soda water.
We perused the menu, which is smartly a short and regularly changing affair with just a quartet of appetizers and a half dozen mains. The style is a mix of classic Argentine dishes and ingredients with touches of molecular cooking – mostly in the sous vide department, at least the night we were there. We picked out the slow cooked egg as of definite interest, another app that I don’t recall at the moment, and then looking at the very interesting sounding chicken and sea bass dishes. At that point the sommelier (or was he just the head waiter, I wasn’t quite sure) returned and snapped up the menus saying that the chef was going to prepare us a tasting of things so we could get a sense of the menu. Okay, that sounds lovely.
Now, Sorrel’s already written up this dinner – she beat me by a day – and the one thing I’d definitely agree with her on is the oddity of the service. There was the Parisian waterboy, who literally just seemed to spend the entire evening rotating around the entire room refilling water (I don’t know if there’s a charge for water, it’s served from carafes within seconds after having been seated, still or sparkling, and it’s not listed on the menu), which pretty much meant he was there topping up our water glasses about every 7-8 minutes – it got a little annoying. And there were two or three different waiters who attended to our table at different times, and they clearly didn’t communicate with each other as each would ask us the same questions, the food runner had no idea in front of whom to put each plate, etc. Oh, and the owner stalking back and forth in the dining room surveying it with a scowl the entire time didn’t add to the atmosphere, at least not in a positive sense.
But to the food already, right? A tiradito of lenguado, a type of ceviche of sole, arrived, along with the slow cooked egg we’d been so interested in. Both beautifully presented. The former, fresh, pristine, with beautiful citrus and herbal flavors. More or less on the sashimi style of ceviche, just barely cured, which I like mostly because I like sushi, Henry would have had a fit – “tan crudo!” The soft-cooked egg, really just absolute perfection in an egg. Oozing, creamy yolk, saltiness from the slightly crispy Iberian ham, a tangle of greens. A basket of buttery, delicious dinner rolls is on the table. We finished off everything with great cheer – the cocktail weirdness and the room and our table and the service a momentary thing of the past. At this point, our imaginings of the rest of this little tasting menu soared.
Sommelier/headwaiter returned with a couple of wine glasses and a carafe of white wine, pouring us each a nice tasting portion, announcing “Chardonnay, 2007, Luján de Cuyo” and turned to walk away. Wait, from who? Want to tell us a little about it? He screwed up his face and said, “Urraco”, a winery I’d not heard of, and then stalked away. Looking at the wine list, not bad, a 120 pesos bottle – still hadn’t heard of it. Food runner arrives, plops two plates down after hovering for a moment trying to decide who gets what – he didn’t ask – he walked away. Waiter returned – I have the ojo de bife, the rib-eye, cooked a beautiful vivid pink rare, served over smoked sweet potato puree and accompanied by sauteed spinach and salsa criolla. Sorrel has sous vide leg of lamb with quinoa, nothing more said, no idea what the sauce was. He leaves. Took a good whiff of the wine, it’s corked. Look around for sommelier, waiter, anyone, they all seem to have disappeared. Ah well, really, Chardonnay with lamb and steak? Maybe if it was a big, massive, oaky and buttery one, but this isn’t. And it’s corked.
The rib-eye is butter soft tender, nearly cut-able with the fork, the knife just slides through it without effort. The smoky puree beneath is delicious, the tangle of spinach, skimpy but lovely, the salsa criolla delicious, but too little of it for more than a couple of bites of the steak. The lamb, interesting would be the best word. It was a tasty dish, no question, but had no flavor of lamb, it could have been any red meat. It too, was butter soft tender, but with a totally different texture that we were trying to figure out when sommelier returned – he told us that the lamb is cooked sous vide for 48 hours and then shredded, and then bound back together into this form with its juices and topped with a crispy bit. The quinoa, by the way, quite good, though pretty simple – just cooked and tossed with some cumin, finely diced vegetables and raisins. We told him about the wine, his response, “oh, I just opened it and didn’t check it and I figured it would be something really different and good with the lamb and steak”. Hmm, okay.
+1 +1 -1
Two glasses of red wine are poured. Odd. I mean, first, we’ve had the two meat courses from the menu already – and full sized – clearly this isn’t going to be a tasting menu as stated, it’s just the kitchen deciding which dishes to send us. Unless they’re going to reverse and go to fish and chicken and too much food, with “Malbec, 2006, Mendoza” – don’t know which one as he’s already beating a hasty retreat, not to return the rest of the dinner. Our various other waiters, French and Argentine, take over from here. And no, it’s not more meat, it’s not fish nor chicken. It’s dessert. Perhaps this is another “something really different” sort of wine pairing. We set the wine aside for the moment, to be returned to after we finish off the sweets. The first, a stunner – a large white chocolate macaron – the new rage that seems to have taken the place of last year’s cupcake stampede. Perfectly cooked, beautifully flavored, and topped with a luscious ice cream of passionfruit and mango and accompanied by a tangy mix of diced citrus fruits in syrup. Fantastic! The other, delicious in its own way, though not near as good in contrast to the first, a soft, flourless chocolate cake, nearly fudge-like, with a hazelnut praline ice cream, and candied nuts around it – perhaps just a touch too caramelized, verging on burnt, but not quite, and, perhaps that was the intent, to balance the fudge-y sweetness of the rest of the plate.
-1 +1 +1
We returned to the wine, which was quite good, wish I knew what it was. As we drained our glasses one of the waiters offered coffee or tea. I declined, Sorrel acquiesced. And we waited. A good ten to fifteen minutes went by before he returned with a small waiter’s tray on which were cans of looseleaf tea. We sniffed them each and she selected one. And we waited. Another ten minutes or so went by before he returned with a cup and a pot of tea. She describes it best in her blog, but suffice it to say that the teapot wasn’t filtered, so trying to pour resulted in leaves everywhere, she dumped it back in and we flagged down Parisian waterboy, who tried to take the pot away to put it in a new one (which we probably should have let him do, in retrospect), and thus ensued another fifteen or so minute odyssey of him coming and going (no waiter returned) to try to take the pot away, to bring a minuscule, thimble sized strainer, to take that away, to return with a different strainer, to take that away, to return with it and finally leave it – by which time the tea was tepid. One waiter returned to thank us for joining them, we dropped a tip on the table, packed ourselves up and headed out into the night.
So, what are all those little – and + 1s? A play on the name, points for decor, service, food, etc. Now, if I were to add them all up, this place would come in at a big fat zero because it happens that they all balanced out. But, looking at it separately, all the positives were the food, and the red wine. All the negatives were ambiance and service, and the white wine – which was really more of a service fail since I’m sure it’s a good wine, we just got a corked sample and a sommelier/waiter who hadn’t bothered to check. At the same time, I hate to rag on the service because truthfully, other than the weirdness of Parisian waterboy, all the negatives came down to sommelier/waiter. The other waiters were all pleasant, friendly, chatty. I don’t know if he was just intimidated by being given our table to handle, or if he’s really that inept and clueless. On a purely food basis – worth a return and give the service another chance, after all, the place has only been open a couple of weeks, give them time to get into the rhythm and all that. To be revisited another time. For now, a cautious Recommended.