Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Served with a Twist

There is an undeniable boom in the dining out scene in Buenos Aires. There are trendy new restaurants sprouting in Palermo Hollyowod every month. The porteños (the city dwellers of BA) have taken to them like ducks to water. Many of them now understand what sushi is, sashimi still needs a little more work...and the hot spicy fare at Sudestrada attracts a loyal following. There are even the odd ones which claim to serve porteño cuisine.

If I don't fancy dining in a sleek modern restaurant decked out in much stainless steel, glass and wood veneer or if I would like to get away from the crowd which follows the latest restaurant openings like a sport? In the past, I would have had no choice but go to the other end of the consumer spectrum – family restaurants with bright lights, Formica table tops and waiters who don the traditional gear of white shirt and waistcoat. While this Argentine tradition of dining coincides rather neatly with the Chinese one, some occasions do call for a little more ambience. Now, there is an agreeable new breed of restaurants that fills the gap.

Friends from London were staying with me; they have a great appreciation for all things kitsch so we planned on visiting Tierra Santa (the Holy Land) to witness the resurrection of Jesus at half hourly intervals. However, we were bitterly disappointed as it was shut that day so I suggested we visit the Faena Hotel, named after the owner whose normal garb involves, white jeans, white T shirt, a cowboy hat, and snake skin cowboy boots.

My friend Karina was particularly excited about the OTT bathroom taps in the shape of a swan and the Hellenic inspired furniture in the bar. She was ecstatic and declared this Liberace Land a great compensation for our earlier disappointment. We had a successful outing and all we needed was an equally fun place for dinner to round off a great day of homage paid to the camp and kitsch.

I have been introduced to a cute and casual restaurant by our friends, Alejandro and Guillermo, named Enfunda La Mandolina. It claims to be una cocina atipicamente porteña (an atypical restaurant serving porteño cuisine). It is situated in a charming old house with well preserved cornices, way off the main dining hub of Palermo Hollywood; but just when you think the owner would go along with the classical bone structure, he has fleshed it out with traditional objects with a great sense of humour.
The menu is concise, like a good menu should be; there are about 8-10 choices for main course, and a couple fewer for starter. The wine list is well thought out to take care of most price brackets – no, they don't have the rare vintages of Rutini but it is not that sort of restaurant. The surprisingly decent house wine comes in a jar the shape of a penguin – apparently a traditional utensil. The waiters are welcoming and look like they do actually want to be there.

So it was the natural choice for that evening. We booked for 8:30p.m. but arrived a little early – the waiters were having a staff meeting. They spotted us and let us in anyway. We were free to choose where to be seated so we chose to be next to a huge window in the candle lit room. We had some time to settle down and admire the place before a charmingly camp waiter, the only other person in the room, while trying to refrain from laughing at Karina's hilarious musings, came over to offer us the menu – eavesdropping becomes a reflex according to an eye-opening book called Waiting, The True Confession of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg. We warmed to him immediately.

We were well attended by the same waiter who brought us cocktails of cinnamon and vodka, on the house, while we were introducing ourselves to the porteño cuisine beside grilled steak, Milanesa and empanadas. I settled on a cottage pie, Karina was tempted by the osso buco with sweet potato mash and Karen, the adventurous one, ordered Mondongo (tripe stew). We had empanadas with a dipping sauce to start – the sauce being a clever but untraditional accompaniment, hence atypical.

The servings, on the other hand, were typically porteño – generous. The Mondongo was stewed in herbs and spices and served in a small, old fashion biscuit jar. The cottage pie came completely covered in a dome with a flat top where a mini shuffle filled with raisins sat. It transpired that the traditional local cottage pie has olives and raisins; the addition of raisins is not welcomed by all so here they are conveniently served on the side. I lifted the dome to reveal a pie large enough for a small family. The osso buco was the least surprising in presentation but no less scrumptious.

Desserts were also modern takes on classics such as budin de pan (bread pudding) and flan. We declined pudding and were served a warm cocktail of orange, cardamom and vodka, again on the house. The food was hearty and the bill, almost too reasonable. The place was such a hit with the girls that they took their mother, also one of my house guests, there the following night. Guess what? They ran into Alejandro and Guillermo having dinner– it is that kind of place where you feel you are eating at someone you know and other friends are going to come in and join you.

I haven't learnt to make Milanesas or empanadas but one porteño offering which has captured my attention is the tarta de verdura (vegetable pie) made with acelga (similar to Swiss chard). The traditional version has a hard boiled egg in the centre and a lot of times, a white sauce binds the filling. My stab at it is just to sauté the acelga (chopped) and a clove of garlic (finely chopped) in some olive oil. Season it afterwards (salt too early would encourage moisture to leak from the acelga) and when it is drained and cooled, I add 2 raw eggs, 1/2 cup of grated parmigiano to the mixture. I lay out a piece of flaky pastry or wholemeal pastry, pile the mixture in the middle and fold up the border, Crostata-style. I bake it in a 220C oven for 30min or until the crust is crispy and golden brown. For those who feel it might be too healthy, I add slices of mozzarella on top of the pastry before adding the vegetable. The cheese melts and forms a protective layer against the moisture of the acelga so the pastry at the base remains crispy.

The girls have brought this atypical porteño recipe back home to London along with their numerous pairs of tango shoes!

Sudestrada, Guatemala y Fitzroy
Tierra Santa, Avenida Costanera Rafael Obligado 5790
Faena Hotel, Martha Salotti 445
Enfunda La Mandolina, Salguero 1440

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