This is going to be an odd start to a restaurant critique… One of the things that few people except those who’ve known me personally a long time know about me is that I’ve got a background in science. My college years were filled with courses in math, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology and psychology. I received a more or less self-designed degree in experimental biopsychology (University of Michigan had this interesting program that allowed you to design your own degree with the help of a faculty advisor that allowed you to focus on your own interests as long as you got a “core education” as well). And, when I moved to NYC in the early 80s it wasn’t to develop my cooking talents in the shadows of the bright lights of Broadway, but to work on a doctorate in the same. I’ve also studied nutrition fairly in-depth – enough to know that there are a lot of wacky theories and a lot of sense out there, both within and without the mainstream.
And when a friend invited me to be his +1 on an invited restaurant review to a new restaurant, there was something about the name that kept tickling the back of my brain. It didn’t register until we were finished with lunch and saying thank you to the manager who’d invited us and I read a posted quote on the wall that it clicked, and sent me back to my books and a bit of internet research. The restaurant, Magendie, Honduras 5900 in Palermo, 4772-0022, is named after François Magendie, a name that had it clicked beforehand, might have given me pause about dining at the place. The owner is a local surgeon and, I’d gather, is enamored of Magendie’s philosophy about nutrition, which, well… let me give you a rundown.
You might even remember some of this from some class, somewhere, in your own past. See, Magendie was a French “doctor” of sorts in the 1800s. He was famous, among other things, for his work on differentiating the different types of nerves in the spinal cord, though his discoveries were the source of contention because his published work was virtually identical to that of a colleague, Charles Bell, who contended the Magendie stole his research. He was famous for being one of the first scientists to propose that animal research (and is sort of considered the father of animal testing for research purposes) rather than theorizing was the best approach for testing out ideas, but infamous for that animal testing, which included things like public demonstrations of vivisection – i.e., dissection of living animals in front of an audience. He was also infamous for his insistence on performing surgery without anesthetic, which he felt hindered his ability to properly appreciate the process…. getting a picture?
His nutritional work focused on experimenting on “single food” alimentation – that is, he’d feed his test subjects, mostly dogs, just a single element, like refined sugar, or gelatin, for days or weeks on end, to see what effect it had on their health – basically until they died from lack of sufficient nutrition. Since he “didn’t believe in theories”, this was his way of testing out that a more rounded diet might be better for us than eating one element… these days we’d consider that common sense, apparently at the time it wasn’t. And he came up with a nutrition diet that posited a few basic elements that were necessary for life. And that seems to be part of what’s behind this restaurant’s raison d’etre – but that’s out of context, which is that Magendie was developing this regimen under the auspices of the French government to come up with a bare minimum subsistence diet (gelatine/meat extract and vegetable fiber) that could be fed to the indigent poor of the city of Paris in order to just keep them alive as a source of cheap labor. Not a promising basis for a restaurant.
Thankfully, the food being served goes a step beyond bare minimum subsistence. Maybe even two steps. Hmmm…
The room too, though just a step or two. As one of my closest friends in the restaurant biz back in NYC would say, “I see they’ve spared every expense on decor.” It’s that sort of farmhouse, flea market chic look that just screams out “hey, we’re laid back and cool, just come in and hang out with us.” Still, it’s light and spacious, and comfortable to grab a spot in.
Only it’s coupled with a wall of products for sale that range from expensive teas and salts to amino acid powder for bulking up, teapots, footstools… all marked up over, at least, what I can by the same things for here in Recoleta. What is this new thing with restaurants that have stores in them selling products, some of which have nothing to do with the restaurant? I can understand selling mama’s homemade sauce, but some of this just seems random.
I’m not big on menus that start off with philosophies. I don’t mind a sentence or two that tells you the vision of the chef or owner, but the menu here, served up on a clipboard, starts with an entire page explaining about how “healthy food” and “lack of flavor” normally go hand in hand (really?) and they’re out to do something different, followed by a paragraph or two about how they only use healthy fats and proteins in their cooking, accompanied by a balance of fruits, vegetables and grains – apparently unlike anyone else has ever done. I mean, look… they have flavored waters. Lemon with mint. Tangerine with mint. Grapefruit with mint. We sample all three, all of which taste of water with some amount of citrus juice and mint. Aguas saborizadas, by the way, are a restaurant’s way of charging you more than they would for a glass of juice and giving you less juice by filling the glass up with water. There is good bread on the table, with a puree of what turns out to be swiss chard and “white cheese”. We get an introduction to the philosophy from the manager who invited my friend, explaining how they’re all about healthy food, but not vegetarian food, because you need protein on each plate in order to achieve a balance (right away my antennae are up, as the whole vegetarian diet = lack of protein is complete nonsense), but that no added fats are used, so no cream or butter. But, umm, they do use oils. And meat.
You know me and soup. Gotta try them. The “gazpacho” turns out to be a tomato, or two, that have been run through a blender and poured into a bowl, drizzled with a drop or two of olive oil. Nothing else. Really. Nothing else. At least nothing else discernible. The garnish is more mint leaves, though they’re not in the soup itself. It even looks like, and separates like, a couple of tomatoes that have been run through a blender and poured in a bowl. I add some salt and some balsamic vinegar that are on the table. It’s still not worth eating more than a few spoonfuls. The accompanying chicken sandwich (you must have protein on the plate!) at least consists of more of that good bread, and some slices of fresh tomato and avocado. The thin slices of refrigerator cold overcooked chicken breast don’t do much for it. At least there’s some slightly seasoned guacamole on the bread itself. I’m not looking forward to round two….
My lunch companion orders from the a la carte menu, a chicken salad, which says the chicken is marinated in spices and served with various vegetables, croutons, and smoked mustard. There are, one gives them props for, a lot of vegetables on the plate. It’s a veritable mound of various fresh vegetables. There’s more overcooked chicken, in nugget form this time. There’s no seasoning, other than dried herb flakes and seeds adhering to the nuggets. The rest is bare. The dressing, a sweet concoction that really doesn’t taste of mustard, or smoke, isn’t enough to cover the chicken, let alone the veritable mound of vegetables. He eats about half the plate, leaves the rest.
On the a la carte menu there are two appetizers, three salads, three sandwiches, and five main courses. Only one, a bruschetta with tapenade, is vegetarian, the rest all contain meat with that all important protein – note the gazpacho plate above. There is also a “menu” page with three different price options, each consisting of a single plate plus one of those flavored waters and priced 38, 54, and 67 pesos. There is nothing that I can see about the dishes within each price level that would distinguish them into those price categories – there are 8 items including sandwiches, wraps, tarts, and other plates – only one, again, vegetarian. I decide to be daring and try that option – a sandwich (more good bread) of grilled eggplant (also good), cream cheese (really? no cream or butter, but cream cheese is fine?), hummus (mashed chickpeas without seasoning), fresh tomato, and “wild arugula” (which wasn’t, it was standard, ordinary arugula). Remember that swiss chard dip? I added the rest of the dish of that that was on the table to the sandwich, along with a sprinkle of salt. It was decent that way. The “fries”, were not fried, which would fit the philosophy. I’m not sure what they were, other than strangely textured and, at this point, unsurprisingly, unseasoned.
I’m not sure why we, well, I, decided to prolong the experience and order the passionfruit cheesecake. But I did. Imagine if you will a decadent, rich, creamy cheesecake. This isn’t it. It was a sort of chalky “white cheese” concoction that had a strange vinegary taste at the back of the throat, what in the wine world would be called “volatile acidity”. The passionfruit sauce was cloyingly sweet, which at least helped counter some of that acidity. We left it half unfinished. It had mint leaves garnishing it.
If there is a culinary equivalent of public vivisection, this was it. Do I need to say whether or not I recommend this place? Actually, I’m going to give it an “Okay” – I mean, service was great, the food was all fresh, nothing was burned, bizarrely combined, or inedible. It’s just a place that fancies itself to be the cutting edge of healthy eating serving up a lot of stuff lacking in flavor. It’s been done before. They even mention that in their philosophy statement. If you’re eating for subsistence rather than pleasure, this might just be your kind of place. But then, you’re probably not one of my readers.