What’s in a Name?

2012.Feb.14 Tuesday · 6 comments

in Restaurants

“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.

Tarquino - baguette
This is the best thing in bread service that’s happened to me in a restaurant since, well, bread. A small, fresh baguette and a concentrated beef broth, steaming hot and ready for dipping. Just bring me a glass of wine and I’m fine, thank you very much. This, by the way, wasn’t actually the bread service, which arrives shortly before whatever food you order, a selection of just baked rolls. It might be bread overkill, though, then again, I suppose if one had to share that baguette (you can’t have it, it’s mine I tell you, mine!), it might not be. I ate about half of it.

Tarquino - provoleta
Now, the first thing I did was decide I wasn’t in the mood for dessert, and the rest of the menu looked so fascinating that I told the waiter (May I digress a moment? Of course I may. The waiters are dressed in open collar white shirts and black slacks, but then have one of those near floor-length wraparound aprons on, but made of dark grey, heavy, distressed leather, which unfortunately seems to limit their movements a bit, giving them a gait that’s somewhat reminiscent of a Chinese woman with bound feet) that I was going to order two appetizers and a main course. He seemed fine with that, took my order, and headed into the kitchen. More whispering with the chef at the doorway. Maitre d’ returned and asked about wine, I ordered a glass of red. He returned momentarily and suggested a white with my first course, on the house. Sure, why not?

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!

Tarquino - tongue
The menu is primarily devoted to meat. Cow meat. Definitely parrilla-driven, but with lots of twists and turns. I’m a big offal fan, but only on occasion, cholesterol and all that you know. So that was part of the splurge, on the diet side. This is melt in your mouth tender beef tongue, served with a corn puree, a reduced prickly pear cactus fruit syrup, peas with “ham salt”, and a little salsa criolla on the side. Delicious! Not a molecule-driven speck in sight. Life was looking good.

Tarquino - frutos de vaca
Staying in the same vein, I couldn’t pass up the frutos de la vaca (fruits of the cow) – unspecified as to which offal it would be, I left it to chance. Perfectly cooked kidneys, deep-fried crackly crunchy intestines, and creamy sweetbreads, all joined on the plate by a lemon cream and an onion emulsion. Might just have been the best plate of offal I’ve eaten in Buenos Aires. Spectacular!

Tarquino - entraña
And, the chef sent another gift to the table, a perfectly medium rare stretch of entraña, hanger steak, not served as listed on the menu with buttery potato puree, pickled eggplant and ketchup… but with a concentrated tomato essence and a chevrottin (goat cheese) foam. Bits of molecules creeping in here and there, but as flourishes to the plates, not as the main event, that’s the kind of molecules I can go for. Another winner.

Tarquino - vacio
Continuing in the overindulgence in meat, the plate I’d ordered, the vacio, or flank steak, served with a revuelto gramajo (once I spotted that, I had to order the plate!) made with crispy onions and potatoes and, cured wild boar. Some confited tomatoes, a reduced syrup of meat juices and, a couple of spheres of almost gelled red wine (my recommendation – they’re too strong to just pop in your mouth, instead, lift them on top of the meat and then burst them, it’s a perfect combination). Cooked, again, to medium rare (I’d left all that up to the kitchen). Yum!

Tarquino - petits fours

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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

dan February 24, 2012 at 19:27

In preparation for an upcoming trip to Asunción, I’m reading an old novel, The News from Paraguay. There’s a whole chapter where the lead character spends six months in “Buenos Ayres”, and, there’s a fascinating description of her visit to an estancia, where she is introduced to the very first Durham bull imported from Europe to change cattle breeding from being strictly for the hides, bones and tallow, to a ranch breeding cattle for meat. That first bull is named Tarquin, and the cattle that resulted from his siring were referred to as tarquinos – even if a fanciful novel, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that this has a grain of truth to it, and it’s certainly a better explanation for the source of the name of this restaurant than any of the others!

dan April 8, 2012 at 10:40

So, a revisit to Tarquino at the invitation of a visiting friend just reconfirmed how good the place is. Henry joined in and between the three of us we repeated some of the same dishes, and added in some new ones – truly spectacular Chilean sea bass served over a cauliflower puree and accompanied by a romesco sauce; and an orange infused suckling pig, absolutely crackling skin perfect, really stood out. We also tried desserts this time – a quite good white chocolate dessert, and another of mini-chocolate filled fritters served with coffee ice cream and house-made cotton candy.

Henry likes his passionfruit cocktails and the bartender whipped up an invention on the spot using some passionfruit puree he got from the kitchen – so good that H went a trifle overboard with three good-sized cocktails of vodka, grappa, passionfruit puree and rosemary infused sugar syrup – really, really good.

The owner, mentioned above, came over mere moments after we were seated to introduce himself, and not only made a point of thanking me for the “balanced and professional review” of his place, but also wanted to point out that he’d paid attention – was dressed up, shirt buttoned up to one short of the collar, the waiters aprons were re-wrapped in a way that doesn’t have them moving like geisha girls anymore, and even the decor had some nice new touches.

At night the room takes on a really beautiful ambiance – the lights are low, and I hadn’t realized that there’s a tree that’s actually planted inside the room that grows up and through the greenhouse roof, with the branches spread out over above – tastefully lit it gives almost a feeling of eating out of doors. I imagine it will be a bit of nightmare to keep the leaves cleaned off the glass ceiling as the weather turns to fall here.

Overall, truly a special place, highly recommended, I’ve even moved it into my top five spots in the city. It’s definitely a splurge kind of place – for three of us, even with the owner’s generous 15% thank you discount, the bill came in at an even ar$1000 for three appetizers, main courses and desserts, four cocktails, one glass of wine, and three bottles of water. I’m glad we were invited to dinner! I also wonder if they’ll be able to make it simply on volume. We were really the only people there the entire evening – two people came in at one point who were clearly known to the staff, maybe regulars or neighbors, but all they had was dessert and coffee. With no sign outside to attract passing customers, this is definitely a “destination” spot – you have to know it’s there.

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