The Very Deep South

2009.Mar.02 Monday · 3 comments

in Life, Restaurants

“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

– Luke Skywalker, Star Wars

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego – The three and some hour flight is uneventful as I wing my way to the furthest south point of “civilization” on the globe, setting me down in a mountain ringed bay and disgorging tourists at a rate that would make Uncle Walt sit up and notice.

The first glimpse of Ushuaia as we head into town

It’s not just the quality of light that’s different, though that is noticeable – it comes in at an odd angle, which at first is only apparent as a vague feeling, but becomes more noticeable as the day wears on – the sun is never directly overhead, and it sets far earlier – midsummer and it’s pitch black by shortly after 8 p.m. It’s also has an ethereal, bluish cast to it, which at first I take to simply be the shrouding of clouds that rings the city, obscuring the mountain tops, but even when there’s a break in the cloudiness, things are still bluish, oddly shaded, almost as if backlit by a grow-lite. The town itself has a Disney-esque quality to it – viewed as we approach from the airport, it seems alpine – a combination of the mountains and a sort of vaguely chalet style to the homes perched on the foothills of the Martial mountain range. The main strip, San Martín, is a page right out of the tourist trap manual – souvenir shop follows on “artesanal regional products” shop follows on over-priced cafe or bar. Lots of Irish pubs, it seems. And the prices are stratospheric – even with the inflation that we’ve seen in the past few years in Buenos Aires, these prices run 50% higher. In the two restaurants I eat in I hear not a word of Spanish from anyone but the waiters, and, even from them, other languages seem to be second nature. I hear enough German and Japanese that I begin to feel like WWII turned out differently. My first afternoon in Ushuaia and I decide to simply wander – checking out the streets, visiting what pass for museums – little more than a room or two in a converted house, with entry fees of $15-20 – a far cry from BA’s usual $3-5 for first class art and history museums.

the main drag of Ushuaia, San Martin

The main strip of Ushuaia, San Martín

Graffiti is everywhere

The city has more graffiti than the railroad yards that surround BA – some of it artwork of a sort…

Graffiti is everywhere

Most of it just colorful scrawlings…

Graffiti is everywhere

And quite a bit, simply ugly.

flower bed at town hall

That doesn’t mean the city is without charm – there are beautiful, well-tended flowerbeds throughout – this one in front of the town hall…

flower bed on the waterfront

Another along the windswept waterfront…

a private garden

And more, simple private gardens aside homes and public buildings.

The Martial mountains

The mountain range is ever prevalent, surrounding the city like a horseshoe.

The bay

And, so is the water – with the bay filling in the balance of the scenery.

Chicos - Sopa de Centolla

One of the two main seafood staples in town is the centolla – a name applied to both local spider and king crabs. I start with a warming bowl of crab soup at a small “joint” looking out over the bay, Chicho’s, Rivadavia 72 – flavorful and simple, a small portion, certainly not worth the 34 pesos it’s tagged with.

grilled merluza negra

And the other specialty, the merluza negra, usually translated as “black hake”, though I believe it’s what we’d call Chilean sea bass – here at Chicho’s served simply grilled with lemon – absolute perfection in a fish, I must admit, and a huge portion – still, does it justify 78 pesos? It is good… and the two servers at lunch are charming and friendly.

Gustino - mejillones

Dinner, much later, starts with the highly touted (on several foodie websites), mejillones, or mussels, at Gustino, Maipú 505. It is, unequivocally, the most inedible, poorly prepared dish of mussels I’ve ever had the displeasure to sit in front of. No doubt these were simply sitting under some sort of heat lamp or on a steam line – the plate arrives, piping hot, within 2-3 minutes of my ordering it. The mussels have the texture of crumbling chalk, about the same flavor, and are topped with hardened, formerly melted cheese and served up with a flavorless herb oil. I push the plate away, no one notices, nor asks, they simply remove it with a yawn. The service staff here are neither interested in their customers, nor in what they’re doing, and are unresponsive and know nothing about what they are offering.

Gustino - lamb ravioli

Then again, I wouldn’t have had time to complain, as the ravioli, stuffed with shredded lamb and eggplant and topped with a desultory mushroom or two and some peeled tomato, is dropped on my table almost as fast as the mussels were whisked away. The dough is tough, clearly overworked and undercooked, the filling at least flavorful – the idea a good one, just a mediocre execution. They try to pawn off dessert on me, I decline, though for some reason decide to order a coffee drink…

Gustino - espresso duomo

The one saving grace to the meal, an espresso duomo – espresso coffee, caramel, whipped cream, amaretto, and a dash of hot pepper flakes – it’s actually briliantly done and cheers me up immensely. The price tag for this fiasco of a meal brings me back down – $132 before tip… and not much of one. Hopefully today’s adventures will go better – I’m off for a sail in the Beagle Channel with an eco-tour company… we shall see.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc March 2, 2009 at 10:03

So how’s the weather? 😉

“the idea a good one, just a mediocre execution”

Sadly, that’s the problem with many restaurants there. As if the chefs and cooks just left culinary arts school with grand ideas and inspiration but they have no clue how to properly execute any of them.

dan March 2, 2009 at 18:46

Thankfully, today’s lunch perked my spirits right up again – I’ll get to that in the next post.

Let’s just say… it’s freakin’ cold here, and as you mentioned to me in advance, alot of it is the wind. That, and it’s been a few years since I lived anywhere where it got down close to freezing temperatures… and it’s the end of summer here!

So, you going to be able to make it into town one day while I’m here? I’m off tomorrow a.m. (tuesday) to the pinguinera and harberton, but back around 2… and no plans yet for wednesday….

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