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Barry's Travel Journal: Dining Out in Buenos Aires

Posted by Brandon Vasquez on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at 9:56am.

Please enjoy the following excerpt, the third and final in a series from Barry's travel journal having spent the month of January in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A word about restaurants (and dining)…let me begin by sharing my biases as follows:

Argentina is famed for its meat and its grills (the word “parrilla” on a restaurant or menu signals that the restaurant or offerings are grilled meats). I’m not one to patronize steak houses in the States, but for my money I’ll take the American equivalent over the Argentine any day of the week.  Nonetheless, you probably owe it to yourself to sample one (I had my first goat, a fairly sweet meat…but I detest fatty meat and have no tolerance for gristle). I dined commonly with local friends, as well as friends from the States, and was treated to all manner of body parts, including testicles (sheep), brains (I don’t care what animal’s brains I sampled, they were downright gross), intestines and offal.  Just not my idea of a great meal!

 I may have been a tourist, but I drive a wide berth around standard tourist venues or franchises (especially of the American variety).  For that reason, newer “theme” restaurants in Puerto Madero (the city’s newest area of high end condo towers, which struck me as a sterile neighborhood) were off my radar (despite the reputation of Las Lilas as the finest steak house in the city…and the most expensive).  Similarly, although you may be encouraged to “have a drink” at the Alvear Palace Hotel (old and stuffy in my book) or the Park Hyatt (handsome structure, but overpriced food and drink and the one place you can be guaranteed to be surrounded by smug Americans), “go Argentinian” and sample any of an almost endless array of more satisfying options.  So…I skipped any and all hotel restaurants.

Breakfast. Locals don’t eat breakfast until around 11 (I assume they eat earlier if they work, which seems to start any time between 9/9:30 a.m. to 10….can’t start too early if you don’t do dinner until at least 10 p.m. and then sample night life, which doesn’t rev up until at least 2 a.m.).  Breakfast to them seems to be a European mix of toast/bread, marmalade (or a variation on that theme), cheese, ham (the omnipresent alternative to turkey in the US…I saw no evidence of those birds in Argentina), dulce de leche (rich caramel) and thick coffee.  If you want eggs, you’ll either have to make them yourself (as I often did) or find one of a handful of cafes which prepare a version of ham (“jambon”) and cheese with eggs. The best breakfast I had was outdoors at La Biela overlooking the park and entrance to Recoleta Cemetery.  A standard “American” breakfast of an omelette, coffee and juice also includes a slice of apple, strawberry or lemon pie.

Lunch. Lunch is principally taken between the hours of 12:30 and 3…with a heavy emphasis on the last half of that period.  Many kitchens close at 3, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for a local spot. Catch as catch can.  My sense was that most of the great restaurants only served dinner.  Many humdrum restaurants are open endless hours, happy to snag whomever they can.  Not one to seek a heavy meal at lunch, I was happiest with To (identified above), the lunchroom/terrace at Museo Evita, and random spots I quite literally bumped into while walking various neighborhoods.

Dinner. If you go to dinner before 10 p.m., you may be dining solo (or with other tourists only).  I did not find reservations generally necessary, but you may wish them, depending upon time of year and night of the week.

Bread. Despite the Pampas (Argentina’s bread basket), lower all expectations on bread (think stale crackers) and – with few exceptions – you won’t be disappointed.  In Recoleta, you’ll pass by innumerable and probably expensive pastry shops, but the delectable items you see in the windows don’t reflect the ability to bake a good loaf of bread.

Restaurant Dress Code.  I brought along a sport coat, several pairs of dress slacks, and several long sleeve dress shirts.  I ate at the best of restaurants, never wore the sport coat (and observed no more than one or two on more elderly male diners), occasionally wore a dress shirt (but a polo would have sufficed), and largely wore jeans to dinner (again, even in the best of spots).  At lunch, I wore the standard shorts and t-shirts I was otherwise wearing throughout the day, and never felt inadequately attired.

Restaurant Air Conditioning. This is fortunately not Florida or Scottsdale, where the A/C is cranked so low that you could wear your winter fur and be comfortable.  I’m cold sensitive and never once felt cold in a restaurant, so even a sweater was unnecessary.

Restaurant lighting. As much as I wanted to dine with the locals, I could not bring myself to dine more than twice in the kind of restaurants frequented by many Portenos, where at 10 p.m. the lights in the house are trying to replicate the blazing noon sun.  My judgment is that the higher the lights were turned up, the worse the food…so unless you want to discover that not all food in Argentina is ready for prime time, dine elsewhere, where they’ve either discovered rheostats or put dimmer bulbs in the fixtures.

Wine. In the States, we never see most of the fabulous wines produced in Argentina, because they’re heavily consumed locally.  On any given night, if I paid between 65 and 150 pesos (around USD 15-32…an absolute steal!!!) for a bottle of Argentinian malbec, I drank some of the finest wines I’ve had in ages.  The only chardonnay I sampled was a bit oaky (but not as revolting as Californians) and the sauvignon blancs were universally wonderful, as were the torrontes.  But I favor reds, and the malbecs were a reason to celebrate the evening meal!

Favorite restaurant locales. In my judgment, there was only one good restaurant in Retiro, Recoleta was a lost cause for superior dining (although one could pay a good “Upper East Side” price for a second rate meal), and the finest restaurants were in Palermo and Barrio Norte. Reasonably priced and pleasant restaurants could also be found in La Canitas, but you can just walk into this area and select one, if you wish to dine there (near the Polo Grounds).

My personal favorite restaurants include,

  • Casa Cruz…stunning interiors, impeccable service, the most upscale crowd I saw anywhere, and exceptional food
  • Tegui…hidden behind an artistically graffitied wall, the interior was as cool as the hip exterior, the food terrific, the staff very accommodating
  • Olsen…I held off visiting this “Scandinavian” billed restaurant until well into my third week, briefly questioned whether the cabbie had dropped me off at the right address, then found the opening in a tall wood-slatted wall, which led into a lush dining courtyard with water features, leading back to a 2+story vaulted interior dining room populated by a gorgeous wait staff, a drink menu heavy on vodka, and food which was utterly divine
  • Ceviche…its small sidewalk set of tables belied the expansive interior, including multiple outdoor terraces…we had fabulous sashimi, another off-the-charts wine, and spotty service (blamed for being short staffed that evening)
  • Resto…open for dinner only on Thursdays and Fridays in Recoleta, you’re given a choice of five 3-course prefix dinners…one of only 15 diners that evening, we were collectively served by a sophisticated staff of 6…the owner is an alumna of Spain’s El Bulli…the food was an orgiastic explosion in my mouth, complimented by wines paired with each dish…a complete surprise, in a charming older space
  • Bengal…easily the finest restaurant I could find in Retiro, but a genuinely lovely dining experience…while the restaurant does offer Indian cuisine, it does an equally fine job on its continental cooking
  • Astrid & Gaston…as charming an older residence, converted into a restaurant, as could be imagined…we ordered the 7-course tasting menu, but would have done just as well to order differently and share one another’s dishes
  • Club Frances…a relatively new French restaurant in Recoleta, this was probably the only restaurant at which I dined which defied the formula that bright lighting meant lousy food…an enchanting and wonderful meal
  • To…easily the best lunch we had…the staff understood we liked sashimi and simply brought us what they had, along with an amazing improvised salad composed of a host of fresh ingredients and shrimp…at night, it is highly reputed for its Peruvian/Japanese fusion cuisine

 If you are planning a trip to Buenos Aires, please link to the following website regarding culinary customs of Argentines:

  http://wander-argentina.com/faq-dining-out/

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