“Don’t be a tightwad. Your meals in life are numbered and the number is diminishing. Get at it. Owning an expensive car or home and buying cheap groceries and wine is utterly stupid. As a matter of simple fact, you can live indefinitely on peanut butter and jelly or fruit, nuts, and yogurt, but then food is one of our few primary aesthetic expenses, and what you choose to eat directly reflects the quality of your life.”
– Jim Harrison, author, from an essay Chef English Major
What is in a name? Well, all sorts of things one might think. For example, were the name of a restaurant to translate as “mud” or “slime”, you might think twice about going there, no? Oh but wait, it has an “o” on the end, it’s not quite that word, though one could be forgiven for leaping to such a conclusion, but no, perhaps it’s a name – the name of the fifth king of Rome, back in the Etruscan days? Or any of various other persons throughout history or current. Perhaps it’s simply the name of the owner? And I didn’t think to ask. A local friend had clued me in to a new high-end restaurant here in Recoleta, and feeling a bit splurge-y, I thought I’d treat myself to a lunch out on the plastic. And so I found myself one day last week at Tarquino, Rodriguéz Peña 1967, 6091-2160. [Closed in 2016 when the chef took the position as the executive chef at the Casa Rosada, cooking for the President.]
It’s located in the space to the side of the haunted house-esque Palacio Hume, in the space formerly occupied by the execrable La Cabaña (now located in Puerto Madero, and just as bad as ever). You enter it oddly, to my mind – first off, there’s no sign that I could see, it just looks like an apartment or office building. [Edit: Turns out it was a boutique hotel in the making, which opened about a year after this review, the Hub Porteño.] But, the doorman, wired for sound, will beckon you in, guide you down a hallway with a turn or two, and you’ll find yourself in a greenhouse (with no plants, but nonetheless – perhaps we should call it an atrium). It’s not a particularly big space, with maybe a dozen tables, seating perhaps 40 people total, and despite the light from above it has a certain staid and stuffy air to it – though likely that’s a reflection of the dark colored woods and leather that cover tables, chairs, and counters.
But the greeting was gracious, and I was seated by a suit-clad maitre d’. If there was any misstep in service it was at that moment when he returned momentarily with menu and wine list, saying something to the effect of, “Do you speak Spanish? I brought the Spanish menu, but you being a tourist, if you’d prefer I’ll bring you one in English.” First off, we’d just been speaking to each other in Spanish, second off, why the assumption of tourist status, and, thirdly, and I’ve said this before and it’s something that I’ve never figured out why restaurant staff here can’t seem to get this concept – just because Spanish might not be my primary language does not mean that English is. There are plenty of tourists out there who don’t speak either idiom. I assured him that not only was I not a tourist but I spoke the language just fine, at which point he relaxed. At which point the chef, Dante Liporace, popped out of the kitchen, scanning the room (there were only myself and two other people there at the time), saw me, beckoned the maitre d’ over, and had a quickly whispered conversation. I think I was recognized…. He was previously the chef at Moreno, a restaurant that was in the Moreno hotel, to which I gave a cautious Recommended a couple of years ago.
And then this plate arrived and I began to think I might have made a mistake. Regular readers know that molecular gastronomy and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. And nothing on the menu had prepared me for it being that sort of spot (had I looked at the website and seen the chef’s bio, and/or remembered why and from where I knew his name, I probably would have been clued in). So when a martini glass of foam with crumbs atop, and a spoon with a glowing red gel, are set in front of me, with the announcement, “the chef wants you to try his pizza de provoleta“, I begin to worry. I’m all for provoleta, that thick slab of oozing, grilled cheese, topped with herbs and olive oil – I’m all for pizza – am I up for a foam of the same, topped with a dry crumble made from tomato sofreito and accompanied by a grilled red pepper blob? It turns out, that, more or less, I am. The foamy bit was actually quite good and really did have the right flavor profile, though perhaps it was all too ethereal for the image invoked by provoleta or pizza. The blob, not so much – it was actually quite bitter. And I’m not sure I’d be so thrilled shelling out 60 or so pesos for it. Which, by the way, is the low end of what the appetizers run, 60-100 pesos each, with main courses starting at 100 and going up to, I think, 170 at the top end, and wines by the glass that cost 50 pesos a glass, about the same as the retail cost of the bottle. Splurge indeed!
Not having ordered dessert I was afraid that the kitchen might send some, and at this point I was stuffed – although the portion sizes are not huge, they do add up – and thankfully, they just sent a couple of petits fours to accompany an after-lunch coffee.
All in all… hmmm… the room, it’s okay, I can’t say it wows me, the ambiance just feels too stiff for what the restaurant is offering. Service, basically impeccable. Staff – my comment on the waiters’ aprons above stands, really, lose them, or at least loosen them so they can walk comfortably. Oh, one side note, something I’ve noticed recently in several restaurants, particularly at the higher end. There was a man there who was clearly a manager or owner, I’d guess the latter. He was likewise dressed in white shirt and black slacks, but the shirt open to the midriff, hair everywhere, and he was hovering… he went and sat with some regular guests at one point, he went to another table to just chat with them, and he paced back and forth in the room watching everything. Here’s the thing – if you’re the owner, while you don’t have to dress like your staff, you should dress at an appropriate “level” to the place – the whole dressed-down, I’m too cool to look like a working stiff thing is inappropriate, especially in a place that’s clearly trying to be elegant.
Also, figure out a way for the staff to get to the kitchen without passing into the dining room – the cooks coming in and out dressed in scoop neck muscle t’s, tube tops, short-shorts, sweats – are really noticeable to the customers, especially when rather than going straight into the kitchen, they go through the ritual of going around and giving every other employee a quick kiss and greeting before heading in or out. And, finally, the food. Spectacular. Really. I couldn’t have been happier (even with the bitter pepper gel – it probably would have been fine if I’d popped it open into the foam and mixed it up rather than eating it on its own). Pricing, really high – just what I actually ordered and paid for – two appetizers, one main course, one glass of wine, one bottle of water, and one coffee – 343 pesos before tip. But, for a very occasional splurge, worth every centavo of it. I’m going to give it a cautious Highly Recommended.