“I am open to the guidance of synchronicity, and do not let expectations hinder my path.”
– the Dalai Lama
Unfortunately, we can’t all be the high priest of going with the flow. When I head out to a restaurant, unless it is somewhere that I just happen upon and have never heard of before, I enter with some preconceived notions – expectations. Often it is based on hearsay, or other reviews, or recommendations of people in whom I place trust. But it is unavoidable that I will have them, unlikely that I will be able to completely suspend them, and just as likely that my impression by the end of a meal will be colored by them. So, this is a strange review for me, because it’s one of a meal that didn’t at all meet my expectations yet at the same time was a delightful, sublime meal. Because in the end, the restaurant and its chef’s cooking, was a completely different experience than anything I’d read or heard about the place, which was basically that it was all cutting edge, creative cuisine (I was seeing visions of molecular gastronomy creeping in), like nothing that’s been seen in BA before.
First off, there was no question it was going to be expensive to go to Chila, Alicia Moreau de Justo 1160, in Puerto Madero, 4343-6067. It’s Puerto Madero, it’s a relatively new, but already highly rated restaurant, and hey, their website tells you upfront – appetizers cost 95 pesos, main courses cost 160 pesos, and some of them have 40 peso supplements. There are also two different tasting menus available, a “classic” and a “gourmet”, which will run you 380 or 480 pesos for six courses, with wine pairings available for, respectively, an extra 90 or 140 pesos. And let’s not forget the 20 peso cubierto charge nor the 20 pesos for a 500ml bottle of water. And I must admit, I expected that like many PM restos, it would be tourist-filled. At lunch, anyway, it was neither filled, nor with tourists – only three other tables were there during the time I was, and they were all local businessmen, at least one of the tables clearly regulars. I looked over the tasting menus and realized that while there were things on each that were quite interesting, there was a certain lack of coherence to them – they were all over the place – the classic started with a fish and potato dish, followed by a vegetable pasta dish, then a fish and shellfish plate, then a steak, then back to a delicate appetizer of rabbit, and finally on to a dessert; the gourmet version was a bit more progressive from lighter to heavier, but still seemed off. I decided to pick and choose dishes that sounded particularly interesting and see what the chef did with them, more or less creating my own tasting.
First off came an amuse bouche, courtesy of the restaurant, a small toasted rectangle of brioche topped with a fish escabeche, and a simple, but cleanly flavored chilled corn soup. Nothing out of the ordinary, but just nicely balanced flavors and seasonings. Bread service I had mixed feelings about – a basket of six different breads was presented, including some unusual ones like a Malbec flavored bread and a mustard bread. They’re all slices off of loaves, and a bit flimsy for that, which creates a problem with the accompanying butter, a spiced butter, an entire long rectangle about equivalent to “half a stick”, served refrigerator cold atop a chilled marble slab to keep it that way – as such it was completely unspreadable, particularly with bread that fell apart at any attempt to butter it. It’s also an extraordinary amount of butter to serve a table – probably enough for a table of 8, and given that it’s spiced, I was left wondering what they do with the quantity that goes back to the kitchen? And, by the way – I mentioned that this occured a couple of times at nicer restaurants when I was in Montevideo a month or so ago – immediately after my appetizer was finished, the waiter wisked away my bread, bread plate and butter. Is this some new form of service I’m not familiar with in high end restaurants, cut off bread service before the main course?
I’m a sucker for fresh oysters, so a plate of them from the coast of Chubut in Patagonia sounded like a nice start. I think that for 95 pesos, five oysters the size of a peso coin was pretty skimpy. And they’re served with nothing but little cubes of lemon flesh and a small pool of honey in the center. They were good, but I have to admit to disappointment. Top that with that neither of the two person team of waiters had any idea what kind of oysters they were (“Japanese style oysters from Chubut” – whatever that means), and weren’t interested in going to the kitchen and asking, it just felt like a faux pas all around. The house sent a complimentary tube-glass of rosé champagne to accompany them. I’d also ordered a glass of wine, the Doña Paula Estate Sauvignon Blanc, which they’re charging 35 pesos a glass for. The wine retails for around 45-50 pesos a bottle and probably costs them only about 20-25 a bottle – most of the prices on the wine list look to be anywhere from double to triple retail price, which makes them 4-6 times wholesale. We didn’t even do that in New York….
Luckily things immediately perked up from there. A perfectly poached “61 degree” egg served in truffle flavored cream, shallots cooked in cognac, and cubes of morcilla sausage was absolutely delicious. On the other hand, having had relatively recent similar versions of the dish at both Unik and Paraje Arévalo that were as good or better and definitely cheaper, it sort of paled.
This was both my favorite dish and in some ways, the most disappointing. It was described at Chilean sea bass served in a Torrontés pil-pil sauce, with cauliflower cream, krill (baby crustaceans that look sort of like mini-shrimp), and endive. Let me just say it was one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of fish that I’ve ever had in Argentina – absolutely spot on texture, temperature, and seasoning. And the contrasts of the other flavors made it a completely indulgent dish. But it wasn’t a pil-pil sauce, which is an emulsion of garlic, olive oil and fiery hot little pil-pil, a.k.a. piri-piri, peppers. It was a creamy wine sauce with some garlic in it (though given how tame, unlikely that it was raw garlic), and nothing picante whatsoever. The cauliflower cream, while delicious, was a sort of chunky sauce underneath lightly sauteed endive leaves, all under the fish. No idea where the krill was, unless that’s part of what was chunky in the cauliflower, but if so, they didn’t add any noticeable flavor. The slices of apple atop and the little pills of apple to the corners of the dish, gave a nice acidic contrast as well. All in all a wonderful dish, but I was so looking forward to something with some spice to it. And I know Chilean sea bass is expensive here, but really, 200 pesos?
And, finished off with the rabbit “tasting”. Now, typically if something is described as a tasting of a particular meat, with three different cuts, I’d sort of expect three different, if harmonious preparations. And while this was all delicious, it was a loin and a rack of rabbit (both really small) that were both grilled and served with a white bean puree and some Dijon mustard, and a little side dish of what on the menu was listed as rabbit kidneys, but which my waiter asserted was rabbit liver (which is what it tasted like), mixed with whole white beans and some Dijon mustard broth. While all beautifully prepared, it was kind of one note, and again, given the price, a pretty skimpy serving.
So, how to wrap this up. Nice ambiance, very pleasant and relaxing with a view out over the Puerto Madero canal. Efficient, friendly staff, perhaps not as well versed in the food as they ought to be in a place of this level. Delicious, beautifully presented food that other than cost and portion size, there’s little to gripe about, but which, well, just didn’t excite me, nor was anything all that creative. For a third less, I’d go back to Tarquino that I reviewed recently for the extraordinary creativity, or to one of my favorites (listed in the review index), all of which serve food that is more creative, more interesting, and far less expensive. So, while I’ll give this a recommended just for the caliber of the food, I can’t say it’s a place I’ll make plans to go back to, unless someone else wants to spring for the tab.