The Long Road to Success

2012.Aug.20 Monday · 5 comments

in Restaurants

I know you’ve been waiting for this review. I know, because at least once a week I get an e-mail from someone asking “How come you’ve not written up this place? It is, after all, the best restaurant in Buenos Aires.” And, many of my blogging colleagues have long ago written about the place. I’ll be upfront about it, I hadn’t been. A 500 peso pricetag on a tasting dinner based in molecular gastronomy is not one of my first choices for things to do with either my money or time – those of you who’ve been with me awhile know I have… thoughts… about much of molecular gastronomy. No objection to the concept, but often to the execution, in particular, the over-execution, and even more particularly, when not backed up by solid cooking skills.

One of the things I learned during the evening is that the chef, first off, isn’t another self-proclaimed disciple of Ferran Adria after having spent fifteen minutes hanging out in El Bulli’s kitchen; but has some serious chops, with cooking stints spent with Martin Bersategui, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter, and Joel Robuchon, after graduating from culinary school – none of them for extended time periods, as at age 30 and having been open in his own place for 6 years now, well, you can do the math, but definitely some top spots with solid cooking.

But, during the last year, this place has gotten so much press and hype that I couldn’t ignore it forever, and after all, I’ve toddled off to quite a few high-end spots over that year or so. So I booked myself in a couple of weeks ago at Aramburu, Salta 1050, which is technically in Constitución barrio – it usually gets lumped in to either San Telmo or Montserrat. Since chef Gonzalo Aramburu claims Monserrat, we’ll go with that. Jumping towards the end of the meal, when he came out to the table to chat, I found out that the place has actually been open for over six years, just functioning as a neighborhood restaurant, offering up an eclectic and creative sort of a la carte and tasting menu mix. About a year ago he switched to a tasting menu only format, ramped the price up to the top end of the local range, remodeled, brought in a top sommelier to handle the wines, and became, pretty much, an overnight success.

Part of that may be, strangely, the place’s obscurity – it’s not in a location that anyone would be walking by who’d be likely to want to dine at such a place. It’s on a dark street, surrounded by rundown buildings, in fact, itself, from the outside, looking like something I might have wandered across in the far reaches of Alphabet City, twenty years ago – graffiti and trash are all around. In fact, walking to the place I kept wondering if I’d made a good move not taking a cab to get there. On my end, things were made more difficult as my first reservation was cancelled by the restaurant because they decided to close for the night – thankfully reaching me by phone about 30 seconds before I walked out the door to head there. I rebooked for the following night only to be turned down because they didn’t think they’d be open then either. I tried for the following week, and a few days later they cancelled again (turned out the chef decided to re-equip the kitchen, and just simply shut down the place to do it, no warning). I actually just shelved the whole idea at that point. Then one evening last week I had an unexpected evening free when some friends had to change plans, so I thought I’d give it a shot, and got myself a spot.

Aramburu

I arrived, it’s a beautiful space – small, about 25-30 seats. Beautifully appointed. And, a local friend and photographer for the Argentine Independent newspaper was there taking photos. Turned out she and an editor were going to be dining and we decided to make it a threesome. And, we proceeded to dine – discussing the dishes as we went, and then later chatting with the chef. Full disclosure, and completely unexpected, he comped my meal completely as a colleague (such a different experience from the chef I mentioned in my end of last month round up who, first, served up some of the worst food I’ve eaten in BA, and then socked me with a 500 peso tab… hmmm… maybe I will be vicious and write him up…).

The menu changes seasonally, and, I’m sure, to some extent as there are difficulties obtaining an ingredient or something of that sort, but at least for the moment, this is the general rundown of what showed up at the table. We also had the wine pairing – six different wines over the course of the evening – to be honest, I didn’t write them down (I didn’t write anything down, but I have a copy of the menu, so that part I’ve got details on) – I know it included two different Rieslings, such a nice touch here – one from Humberto Canale that I really loved and was completely new to me, and one from Luigi Bosca, that I’ve had before and liked; the Mendel Semillon made an appearance, there was also a sparkling from Alma Negra, a Bonarda, and a dessert wine – but, I don’t recall which producers on the last two.

Aramburu - breads

Aramburu - cauliflower truffle soup

Aramburu - savory petits fours

The first course shows up in a wave of three – a little potato cone filled with a dried tomato ricotta, a chipa, some cheese grisini, all served with an arugula pesto and roasted tomato paste (not pictured); followed by a cauliflower and truffle oil soup with a prosciutto muffin; and then a quartet of savory petits fours, each featuring a different preparation of a vegetable – olives, endives, cucumbers, mangoes, and more. All, generally, quite good – I might have personally liked a little more substance to the soup as it’s mostly foam, but it was tasty.

Aramburu - green salad

A beautifully presented green salad of baby vegetables and leaves with an avocado cream and a green apple vinaigrette. Delicious!

Aramburu - cazuela de mariscos

A sort of soupy play on a paella, or, perhaps, a risotto, using carnaroli rice, a mix of shellfish, all in a foam made from a rustic farmer’s cheese. Quite good. And, I think, the first time I’ve ever been served a “spork” for eating.

Aramburu - salmon

A lovely little cube of perfectly cooked salmon with an artichoke cream and a dashi foam. Again, delicious. Perhaps a trifle small – I admit as we were going through here that, first of all, we thought those first three plates were separate courses, so we’re already thinking – hmmm… this isn’t going to be a whole lot of food, and second of all, well, you know I like to eat, so I’m thinking, this isn’t going to be a whole lot of food. I am, however, liking that that molecular part of the meals is being kept to accents, that the cooking is spot-on, and the seasoning and flavors are delightful.

Aramburu - tamal

A deconstructed tamal. Probably my least favorite savory course. It was okay – I got the flavor of corn, the flavor of the meat – but although nicely sesasoned, it didn’t have the punch of the spices that would typically be in a tamal, and the combination didn’t remind me of one. And maybe one too many foams by this point – two here on one dish, both a corn one and a garlic one – at this point.

Aramburu - cochinillo

But all was back on track with this course, the slow cooked suckling pig – best dish of the night, I think all three of us agreed. And, gorgeous to look at.

Aramburu - filet

Also a winner, the filet dish, probably a bit rare for many folk, but I like my meat cooked this way. The four different “textures” of potato were a great accompaniment. And, a close second for me for best dish.

Aramburu - smoke

Aramburu - smoke

I have an aversion to incense. Overexposure to the stuff during the 70s I suppose. It was semi-okay when a large pot of some sort of twined vines impregnated with apple oil was plopped on the table. It was eye-watering when what I presume was liquid nitrogen was poured over it and erupted into clouds of vapor across the table. Pretty to look at, for me, not pleasant. On the other hand, my two dining companions seemed delighted. But they didn’t live through the 70s.

Aramburu - stuffed apple

An apple filled with chopped apple, spices and granola. Not a baked apple, just an apple. Simple. Tasty. Maybe on the breakfast bar at a nice B&B…?

Aramburu - ice cream

Aramburu - ice cream

Orange and tangerine ice cream, lemon granita, and a little flask of basil syrup to pour over it all. My kind of palate cleansing dessert. Great flavors, great presentation.

Aramburu - cotton candy

And, a cute little flourish to finish, little coconut and dulce de leche custards and cotton candy on a stick. Nice, whimsical touch.

So, overall thoughts. Love the room, pretty much everything about it. Love the open kitchen with a glass wall so you can see, but not have to listen to what’s going on in there – especially in a small space like this. Service – attentive, friendly, warm – everything great service should be. Food – all fascinating, creative, and, for the most part, delicious. Portions – individually fine, a few seemed small, but they do add up – at the end, was I hungry? Not really, but also not completely sated.

So… hmmm… best restaurant in Buenos Aires? For me, no, though I can understand why it is for some. It’s certainly up there – it’s one of the better in the city, and I had both a great time and a great meal, and am truly appreciative to the chef for, in the end, inviting me on the house – I was looking at my currently listed top five on the restaurant index here, and while perhaps for fine dining it could knock either Damblee or Las Pizarras off the roster, for overall experience, fine or casual dining, I have to say I still like them both more. Would I go back? Probably yes, another season, another menu. Would I go back if I could just order a la carte a plate of that suckling pig or filet, full sized main courses? In a heartbeat. Highly recommended.

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Beatrice M August 20, 2012 at 16:22

It was great spending the evening getting a chance to catch up and dine with you. What a wonderful and happy coincidence.

Somewhat off topic, but I have to say I did live through the 70s – in a small hippie town in California no less – but it didn’t completely inoculate me to the apple oil. There are only some incenses I *can* handle, but this was such an unusual and unexpected spectacle that I was thoroughly and childly delighted.

dan August 20, 2012 at 18:59

Truly? To be honest, I definitely thought you were younger than that. Take the compliment!

But also – a difference in living through it as a toddler and being in hs/college…particularly as regards the whole incense thing. 😉

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