“Molecular Gastronomy is not a cuisine. It is a collection of cooking techniques. Like boiling, roasting etc. These are very contemporary cooking techniques that have developed over the past 20 years by understanding the science behind it. … How do you apply these techniques in traditional cooking, to make the food innovative and create an experience for your diners – the essence of traditional cooking will be there and yet it will be contemporary.” – Chef Abhijit Saha
Several years ago I was out wandering San Telmo with a friend and we stopped in at an unremarkable looking spot on a corner. It was all banquettes and, well, empty – as I recall we were the only ones in for the entire lunch period, but the menu looked interesting, with a specialization in “exotic meats” of Argentina – things like ñandu, yacaré, and llama. I vaguely recall having had a reasonably decent lunch – a couple of simple appetizers and main courses. My memory is that things were quite prettily presented, but not particularly fancy – though looking back at older comments on places like TripAdvisor and GuiaOleo, it seems that they had a menu ejecutivo, probably a 2 or 3 course prix fixe lunch, which may have been quite different and more casual than dinner, as comments on dinner at the same time are all glowing and quite different. I also seem not to have written it up, and don’t have any photos of the lunch, which is, let’s face it, pretty unusual for me. But so be it.
In the last year or so the name of the place popped up several times with folks talking about it being a great experience, and all gleaming, shiny new; and more recently, several customers at Casa S have told me that the chef at El Baqueano, Chile 495 in Monserrat (just a block from San Telmo), had recommended they come check us out. So it went onto the list to try sometime soon. I did look at going for lunch again, but it isn’t open at midday anymore, and dinner is focused on a tasting menu style (I’m not sure if there’s a la carte available as well or not). And then, opportunity struck – some old friends from New York who I used to work with were passing through town after having been on a wine trip in Mendoza, and invited me to join them for dinner, which turned out to be for a degustación at El Baqueano (“the trail guide”). So off I went for a seven course tasting, which I believe runs 230 pesos, plus an option for a wine pairing at 135.
First off, the room has changed, based on my recollection – I think the biggest change being no banquettes, all separate tables. And the food, too, is quite different from that memory – but again, that may have simply been the difference between a casual lunch prix fixe offering and a more elegant approach to dinner. Some quite good breads were served up to start, along with a sampling of three different olive oils. That was swiftly followed by this Declinación de papas andinas, a sampling of Andean potatoes in different textures, shapes and colors. Although the whole “textures of” thing has been done to death in more restaurants than I care to count, and I’m guilty of the same myself, I found myself fascinated with this one – maybe because of all the various ways I saw potatoes used on my recent travels about Peru and Bolivia, and this brought it all together in a unique way. And, it was tasty to boot.
The chef’s signature appetizer is his llama carpaccio, accompanied by different types of pickles, capers, and a cheese foam (thankfully his touches of molecular gastronomy are just touches, the focus is on the ingredients). While personally I think I’d have liked the slices of llama a trifle thicker – I think I could have been fingerprinted through these – the flavor combinations were delicious.
Vizcacha is a rodent, a close relative of the chinchilla, though looking a bit like a chubby rabbit with a long tail. I wasn’t thrilled with this course – the meat was a bit stringy, and the “salad” of vegetables a bit meager, the saving grace was a quite good warm broth poured over it all. But hey, one course out of seven that wasn’t a winner isn’t bad at all.
Intellectually, this was the most interesting course. And component by component, everything on the plate was delicious. The overall combination of ingredients was both eye opening and odd – though not in a bad way. Basically it’s corvina, a local fish (drum), with different textures of beets (those textures again…) – a puree, a chip, roasted, sliced raw – all of which worked quite well together. Accompanying, however, were cubes of blue cheese and shards of very sweet white chocolate, both of which worked well with the beets, but not as well with the fish, which they kind of overwhelmed. Eating the dish in progression from one side to the other worked brilliantly, but putting a bit of everything on one forkful, not so much. It was also a dish near impossible to pair a wine with, and the group I was with had supplied the wines (their brand), and the wine chosen just didn’t do it. Not the restaurant’s fault.
Perfectly cooked red deer steak with a quite good sauce made from araucaria seeds (I’ve used them once, a long time ago – Monkey Puzzle nuts), onions, and other good things, perhaps a touch heavy on rosemary, but I was in the minority on that one, and rosemary is one of those herbs that I find can easily get overpowering for my own palate.
Although Malbec sorbet is delicious on its own, it’s not exactly the palate cleanser that it was intended to be, instead, that richness is more coating than clearing. Still, delicious on its own and didn’t take away from the dessert…
Another “textures of” dish, apples this time – with apple broth, gel, chip, paper (made from apple pulp), fresh, and sorbet. I like apple desserts and this was no exception – it was interesting, though, hearing some of the commentary around the table – several of the folk just didn’t seem to get “apple” as a dessert, unless maybe as a pie. They’d been hoping for chocolate or something in that vein – but, that wouldn’t be particularly Argentine – I don’t think there are any cocoa plantations in Argentina – if so, probably very small production somewhere in the northeast bordering on Brazil – and the whole focus of the restaurant is indigenous ingredients.
So, overall – great room, great service, and mostly, great food – even the dishes that I wasn’t wowed by, I was intrigued by. Recommended.