“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.” – Wizard of Oz
With the 92 bus pizza trek more or less winding down – given that it’s going to be just occasional visits when I can find the remaining places open, and even fewer new entries coming in for either The Great Sandwich Hunt or The Chronicles of Shawarma, it’s time to take on another quest. My thought was to head in the direction of something more Argentine – as when I set out to find the city’s best revuelto gramajo – hmmm, and that’s one to follow-up on, there are more entries that I’ve heard about since that post. Besides straightforward cuts of meat, for me, one of the defining things about local cuisine is the use of offal. Now, admittedly, most of the time it just goes straight on the grill or griddle, and while I could certainly head out to find the best barbecued sweetbreads, kidneys or intestines, I kind of do that already on my Best of Parrilla page that I regularly update.
And then, suddenly, my brain was filled with visions of brains (it was actually when there was an offal competition on the current season of Masterchef USA). Surely, out there, interesting things were being done with brains. And indeed, there is a classic of Argentine cuisine, sesos a la romana – at its most basic, deep-fried brains. Now, the dish has a history, not surprisingly, European (and who knows before that). There are basically three approaches to a la romana. The Italian, which given the moniker, one might suppose is the real thing, though of course the Romans don’t call it romana, because it’s just fritto, fried, for them, dredged in flour and then beaten egg and then fried (I have my own a la romana method that was taught to me eons ago by an Italian chef friend. The French method is generally dredged in flour, then beaten egg, and then coated in breadcrumbs. And, the Spanish, which seems to be the most common here, is dredged in flour and then dipped in batter before frying, somewhat like a tempura (though generally not as light).
The real questions for me were – did I really want to eat a whole bunch of plates of fried brains? And, would anyone be doing anything interesting with them, or was I just in for, a whole bunch of plates of fried brains?
I started out close to home, at that perennial classic of local, simple cooking, Rodi-Bar, Vicente Lopéz 1900 at the corner of Ayacucho, here in Recoleta. On the daily lunch menu, three large, plump lobes of cerebral material arrive swiftly, accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes. Perhaps too swiftly, or actually, I’m going to assert that their frying oil is too hot – as the crispy, browned outer coating gives way to a chewy, thick, under-cooked interior batter, some of it barely set let alone cooked. The batter is also completely unseasoned, so salt and the provided lemon wedge are a must. The brains themselves, cooked perfectly (I assume they probably poach them in advance, most people would) though just barely warm – creamy with just a touch of resistance. Coming in at 70 pesos they don’t seem out of line for today’s prices, albeit kind of mediocre, but Rodi tacks on a 15 peso cubierto to that, and even the most basic beverage, a mineral water, runs 26 these days – with tip, a 120 peso first sample.
I may as well flip it around and head out to the furthest spot from home, right? It’s also the place that more than one person has recommended as the best sesos a la romana in the city. One food writer even referred to it as his “madeleine”. Albamonte, Corrientes 6735 in Chacarita, is a spot I’ve only been to once, and swore I’d get back to. Why? Because in the evenings (and only in the evenings), they serve some of the best pizza in this city. And it’s a place that comes up on “favorites” lists for various food items, time and again. I think we should get a group together and head out there to try, well, everything on the menu. I have to say, these brains are some of the best I’ve had, anywhere, in any way, shape, or form. They’re perfectly cooked, the crust is done the way I learned to make a la romana, just dredged in flour and then in egg (though, without the parsley that I learned to chop up in it), and then fried to a golden brown. Simple, and with lemon wedges on the side, of course. They’re a mere 60 pesos, but, don’t come with any accompaniment, just five large golden meatballs of cerebral matter. As long as I was there I ordered a side dish of revuelto gramajo – also turning out to be the best version of this dish I’ve had to date (crispy fries, griddled ham and onions, a decent amount of egg). Albamonte also doesn’t tack on a cubierto charge, a real plus these days.
Now, despite the fact that I really enjoyed the sesos a la romana at Albamonte (and maybe I should see if I can find someone going the French approach, with a breadcrumb crust), I realized after trying just two spots that it’s unlikely anyone is doing anything particularly interesting with this dish – I did an online image search for the dish at the other places offering the dish, and they’re all just plain deep-fried lumps in one form or another, with lemon wedges. I’m sure there are folk out there making some sort of creative brain dish, but I haven’t found one, and asking a few chef friends, no one could think of one (Tarquino apparently used to include brains as part of its nose to tail sequencia de la vaca tasting menu, but doesn’t any longer). There are ravioles de sesos, a less common but still reasonably well represented local dish, but still, served very simply. So, be it the plain-ness, or the thoughts of my cholesterol skyrocketing, I’ve decided not to go out and sample more of these (the other places on the list, should anyone care to take up the fork, are: Munich Recoleta, Plaza Asturias, Chichilo, El Puentecito, El Vulcano, Hermann, and Lezama). Instead, inspired by our recent online reinvention challenge, I’m going to give a shot at a little re-creation of this dish myself…. Coming soon.