The Argentinian capital is rediscovering its former glory as South America's greatest and most exciting city. CHRIS MOSS finds a culinary oasis with a sophisticated cultural scene
Melodrama and nostalgia are both instinctive to the porteños, the natives of Buenos Aires (BA). It dates back to the end of the 19th century when their ancestors sailed in from Italy and Spain. The town formerly labelled the ‘big village’ suddenly expanded into the most prosperous metropolis in the Americas, while tango became the ultimate expression of yearning passion and brooding self-doubt. The porteños are always lamenting the passing of something, but they are also supreme hedonists, living hectic, glamorous lives attuned to their European roots and the grandeur of their city.It would be hard to recapture the energy and optimism of BA circa 1900, but in the mid-1990s another boom set in. Money flowed, new talents appeared in film, music and theatre and restaurants, clubs and bars were opening almost daily. The wonder of Buenos Aires is that you can indulge in it all and finish off the evening in the most melancholy bar-café on earth. This unique chiaroscuro of pleasure and reflection is what gives the capital its exciting edge.
Eating and drinking
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, meat is still a big deal here – big on the plate, big as myth, big as dining experience. Go to La Boca’s atmospheric El Obrero, San Telmo’s El Desnivel or a more upscale ‘parrilla’ (steakhouse) like El Trapiche in Palermo Viejo and, if you go wrong, you can be sure it’s your fault. The men at the glowing grills are experts, the beef from clover-fed pampas cattle is far too tasty to worry with sauces and the atmosphere is second to none. The waiters in parrillas – the classic type is a cool, confident man aged 50 to 70 in starched white threads – are usually characters, as gifted at friendly banter and advising on carnal secrets and choice cuts as they are at memorising orders. And, of course, the Malbec will be cheap and good.
But without abandoning the foods that once made it rich and still make it famous, Buenos Aires has moved on. Immigration may have slowed down in the late 20th century and this city is no New York or London, but that hasn’t prevented the enthusiastic adoption of ethnic and new hautes cuisines. As Ada Concaro of downtown auteur eatery Tomo I puts it, ‘There isn’t such a thing as Argentinian cuisine so there has always been this taking of ideas from abroad and mixing things. Spanish and especially Italian foods may be the typical dishes, but we also have to be open to local, non-European influences and the fact that we have, for instance, different fish from Europe.’Immigration from places as diverse as Taiwan, Korea and Syria means the local scene has an established Eastern element and, while little of pre-16th century Argentina is in evidence, stews such as locro and corn-based tamales are still standards on the menu. More recently, Buenos Aires has opened its palates to hotter, spicier food from India and South East Asia, and Japanese food, raw and cooked, is extremely popular. Although Tomo I’s kitchen still devotes its greatest care to Mediterranean-influenced dishes, Ada and her sister Eve – both respected pioneers of porteño gastronomy – are allowing oriental ideas in as their wealthy punters open their minds to new fusions.Certain barrios (boroughs) are must-visits for any foodie in BA for a few days. The first is Palermo Viejo, where the low-slung, colonial-style houses and cobbled streets evoke the Buenos Aires of yore, the ‘eternal’ dream city of writer Jorge Luis Borges, at once humble, moody and elegant. Here, choose from delicately prepared dishes from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand at Sudestada, succulent Chilean oysters and cold white wine at Coyar de Buitres or, if you want a sense of the sex- and design-drive of new BA, go along to the ultra-fashionable hubbub of Central. Here the menu is a mix of Mediterranean, French and freestyle dishes, but out back, under the open sky, even here a parrilla is kept stoked for those who want a fix of country-style beef in a hip, urban setting.If the latter whets your appetite, spend a night or two dining and boozing in Las Cañitas, the It-barrio of the new scene. Brash and bustling, this small corner of town is where Diego Maradona stops by for a plate of pasta or a glass of wine laced with Seven Up. Media folk, leading businessmen (the so-called ‘sushi and Champagne set’) and Buenos Aires’ vast supply of beautiful people eat and diet here, where places like Asian fusion-meets-criollo (Argentinian creole) specialist Massey and Colombian-owned Khalú are class eateries run by serious, well-travelled chefs.Finally, when snacking in and around the downtown area – or anywhere on the tourist trail – check out the empanadas (tasty, juicy meat- and cheese-filled pies) and the favourite Italian export, pizzas. The latter come with lashings of mozzarella and can be as good as meals that cost 10 times the price.Winos with a taste for fine food can’t miss El Gran Bar Danzón (through the tiny door on Libertad Street in Recoleta, Buenos Aires’ most desirable residential district), a discreet and dimly lit venue. Once upstairs you’ll get the gist of the place. It’s all cocktails, coquettes and cool clothes. Fortunately, the massive selection of wines by the glass and the by-the-glass cooler mean you can push the boat out and do a full wine-tasting session. A restaurant in its own right, Danzón has great chefs and bar staff and whether it’s sushi and Sauvignon or full-scale gourmet orgy you want, the combination of Latin buzz and daring food makes it unmissable.Out in Palermo Viejo, the best plan is simply to take a taxi to Plaza Cortázar and wander around the scores of bars, trying Brazilian Caipirinhas, imported beers and local wines.
El Obrero, Agustín Caffarena 64 Tel: +54 11 4362 9912
El Desnivel, Defensa 855
Tel: +54 11 4300 9081
El Trapiche, Paraguay 5599
Tel: +54 11 4772 7343/4775 5397
Tomo I, Carlos Pellegrini 521 (Mezzanine of Hotel Crowne Plaza Panamericano)
Tel: +54 11 4326 6695/6698 www.tomo1.com
Sudestada, Guatemala 5602
Tel: +54 11 4776 3777
Coyar de Buitres, Honduras 5702 Tel: +54 11 4774 5154
Central, Costa Rica 5644
Tel: +54 11 4776 7374
Massey, Arce 205
Tel: +54 11 4778 9494/4216
Khalú, Andrés Arguibel 2851
Tel: +54 11 4777 4679/3328 www.khalu.com.ar
El Gran Bar Danzón,
Tel: + 54 11 4811 1108
The closest BA has to a wine mecca is Club del Vino, where tasting sessions, lectures and music are offered to the cultured and curious. A small basement museum tells the story of wine in the Andean regions and if you pass by on a Saturday you’ll catch tango piano veteran Horacio Salgán and his Buena Vista-style orchestra of virtuosos.To stock up on a range of reds and whites for the journey home, Savoy is careful with the packaging and prices are good. For unusual wines from small producers and some ‘objective’ French advice on the latest tipples from Rio Negro and Salta, call in at Maison du Vin in Defensa – the storage facilities are the best available and they stock wines you’ll never find in local vinotecas or indeed even outside Argentina.
Club del Vino, Cabrera 4737
Tel: +54 11 4833 0048
Savoy, Avenida Callao 35
Tel: +54 11 4371 1995
Maison du Vin, Defensa 891
Tel: +54 11 4361 9260
Written by CHRIS MOSS