Eating early in Buenos Aires
03 September 2018
Twice a year in recent years I’ve spent a few days in Buenos Aires. I deliver lectures to Scandinavians in the morning (long story) and have the rest of the day free when I can do whatever I want - and obviously quite a bit of the time that means eat.
Argentina’s time zone is four hours behind my own. Since I’m only in the country for four to five days, I generally prefer to stay in my time zone. It just makes the whole thing less disruptive on my work rate, and my general well being. That means I get up at 3am Argentinian time, 7am UK time. And I go to bed at 8pm Argentinian time. I get lots of work done first thing while Argentina is asleep, and I’m ready to hit those lectures running when I get to them.
Just one problem. Of course I want to sample some of the finest Argentinian fare. But most of the good Argentinian restaurants don’t open until 8pm. And don’t imagine that means waves of people are hitting the restaurants at 8pm on the dot. No, it’s mostly just the visitors and ex-pats you’ll see in at that time. The locals start filtering in after nine at the earliest.
Honestly, I don’t know how they do it. It’s not as though the Argentine working day starts in the middle of the morning or anything. How do they get to have such late nights and stay sane? It’s a valid question.
I’ve just completed one of my trips. I was staying in the San Telmo part of the city, and so, late afternoon on Sunday I looked around for somewhere that might be open. There has to be somewhere. I came across the El Cabildo Restaurant and Cafe - a friendly and busy place that seems to simply keep going all day. I figured I might well stand out ordering dinner and wine at 5pm, but there comes a point when you’ve been travelling all day you don’t really care. To be fair, I wasn’t completely alone, and nobody seemed to raise much of an eyebrow. You’re always alive to such signs when you’re aware that you don’t know the social norms of a place.
I was presented with a couple of small empanadas and a thin slice of onion and herb pizza, purely in recognition of having sat down. Both were encouragingly good. The menu was pretty broad, but for the first meal back in the land of beef, it was clear where it had to go. I decided to order a sirloin steak with mushroom sauce. There was a moment’s confusion when I thought they’d asked me how I wanted it cooked but wasn’t sure, and before I could work it out they whisked away the menu and then came back with an English language one. OK, fair enough. My Spanish is bad, although I’ve learned over the years how to read a menu!
Along with some Malbec from Nicasia Vineyards the meal was fine - except that I’d asked for medium rare and it came back medium. But it’s just as likely that my words got lost in translation as anything else and I was happy. I went off. The Argentinians thought I’d had an eccentric late lunch. I knew I’d had dinner and I went to bed.
Mondays are no better a challenge. Lots of restaurants stay closed on Mondays. I’d read reviews of one I really wanted to try - Roux. I actually recalled wandering in there on the off chance on a previous visit, only to find they were fully booked. It turns out that is only to be expected as they are one of the best restaurants in the city. But they are closed on Mondays. Damnit.
Walking back from my first lectures, I decided to take a minor detour and try out the London City restaurant. It’s the kind of place where highly creative and historical authors go to drink, as they let you know everywhere you look. Indeed, it’s such a happening place that - of course - there was a big noisy demonstration going past it when I got there.
My Argentinian hosts are always slightly concerned by my propensity to go wandering puppy-like up to any demonstrations to see what’s going on. I’m guessing from that it’s not always a wise thing to do, but hey. In this case, there were mothers with toddlers mixed in with the ranks of the protestors - a sure sign that the people concerned are not expecting trouble. And lots of folk were happily munching away inside the restaurant without apparent concern, so in I went.
Not that I dismiss the concerns out of hand, by the way. Argentina is not a happy place right now. Massive inflation is adding to some longstanding economic difficulties - there are a lot of pretty angry people and I can’t say I blame them. Still, although I frequently see demonstrations on my flying visits, I have never yet seen serious aggro.
And I’m glad I wasn’t deterred because London City restaurant is actually a great place - a very warm welcome and a wide menu. And you know what? Did the beef thing again, this time with a pepper sauce. Yes, and the Malbec. It’s just easier. This time the beef was perfectly medium rare and as good as Argentinian beef ever is, which is very good indeed.
However, I was hoping I might break the pattern for the next day. Roux had received great reviews for its seafood, so I was determined to get there. The only problem was that it was closed and not taking bookings. I guessed that if I turned up in the second half of the lunch period, which was the earliest I could get there anyway, they might have a few tables that had already been vacated from the lunch rush. That was the plan, and it worked.
Indeed, so odd was my late arrival that the staff initially thought I might have come just for coffee. No, no, I said, for lunch. They looked puzzled momentarily, then shrugged and we were off.
Almost immediately a couple of delicately crafted pre-starters arrived. A very smooth shot of tomato-based soup, and a sliver of some kind of mousse. Both were tasty. Then there was a third - a bent-over spoon bearing a single gooey-on-the-inside cheese nugget. This was the promise of the sort of food I’d been waiting for.
I was intent of seafood, but could have happily gone for anything on the extensive menu. I ordered the Patagonian Trout Loin with Tomato-Saffron Compot, Tagliatelle Nero and Squid from the Antarctic Cone. No, I don’t know what the Antarctic Cone is either, and neither does Google. I’m assuming a glitch in translation. So what - it was a delicious plate of food. Very nicely cooked fish, very nicely balanced flavours. Some interesting ideas to try out when I get back to the kitchen.
Of course, if you’re in a great restaurant with imaginative food, you’re obliged to have the dessert as well. I mean, it’s research. And particularly when I saw that they had a dish with quince on the menu. I love quinces. I planted a quince tree in my garden which may - just may - deliver me about half a dozen of the precious fruits this year. And hopefully a lot more next year. So I had to try the Quince in Syrup with Brie Cheese, Caramelised Philo Pastry and Vanilla Ice Cream. I was intrigued to see how a slice of brie would fare in the middle of a very traditional dessert plate.
It fared very well. Quince and cheese are natural partners, and the connection seemed to carry it through the association with the pastry and the ice cream as well. Very imaginative. Very delicious.
I decided to have coffee, and that came with unannounced petit fours, which included possibly the most luxuriant and flavourful chocolate truffle I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.
So now I have a new tradition to try to cram into every visit to Argentina. Some good Argentinian beef with Malbec. And a trip to Roux. One of my new favourite places.
El Cabildo, Calle Peru 86