25 Days in Buenos Aires...lots of stuff to eat.
I just got back (on May 11th) from 25 days in Buenos Aires. I was there on business, which meant the joys of a daily meal allowance, so needless to say I spent virtually every night eating out. There were highlights aplenty (which I'll detail below) and some lowlights as well (which I'll spare you on). Prior to heading down to BA, I made a point of reviewing the postings on Chowhound for recommendations and tried a number of restaurants that have been mentioned in the past, so some of my reviews will be familiar to those with a knowledge of the board. I'll add my comments on these restaurants as well, because in some instances my experiences differed from past reviewers and in other instances a restaurant simply merits as many mentions as possible. But for anyone interested in a variety of opinions on the restaurants mentioned below, I'd certainly recommend a review of past postings by ALEDM, et al. for additionaly details.
A few notes before we get started:
My reviews will be segregated by neighborhood. You'll note that some neighborhoods will be better represented than others - this was due entirely to geography, rather than an objective judgement of which neighborhoods' restaurant scenes warranted a given level of attention. I stayed in Puerto Madero, so you'll note that I spent significant time in San Telmo, Retiro and the surrounding areas. I spent a couple of weekends in Palermo, so you'll note significant attention here as well. Ironically, you'll note that Puerto Madero itself is relatively underrepresented - this is due largely to the fact that I found most of the restaurants in Puerto Madero unworthy of mention here and I'm trying to hit on only the highlights to keep the post manageable. Finally, price was not a prime concern (as I mentioned, I was on a corporate meal allowance that subsidized my eating) but at the same time, I didn't go to some of the truly splurge-type restaurants the city had to offer (I'm thinking El Bistro, L'Orangerie, Nectarine, etc.) - what can I say, the meal allowance was only so big.
Finally, I use a five star rating system, five being the best achievable rating. Remember, that a restaurant even making the list meant that it was noteworthy, so a one star rating is by no means meant to convey that a restaurant was poor - it just didn't rate as highly relative to its elite peers.
That said, to the reviews:
An upscale "New Argentinian" restaurant located in a row of non-descript and largely interchangeable places that typify Puerto Madero's resturant row. Chila was the one highlight that actually stood out and warrants mention here. The atmosphere is decidedly upscale, but a bit forced. It clearly caters to the new money and tourists that make up a large percentage of the neighborhood's clientele, but the food was good. I had a fillet of sole in a tripe jus which was well cooked and very tasty. The service is efficient and attentive if not overly friendly or personable. You're definitely paying Puerto Madero prices though, at roughly $AR 50-60/entree.
La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar: *****
If you're a veteran of these boards, then you'll be familiar with this place. There's probably not a lot that I'm going to add that hasn't been said by others, so I will just say that what Alejandro Digilio is doing here is top notch stuff. The molecular blended with classical techniques of La Vineria are something that you won't find elsewhere in BA (well, maybe at El Bistro, but still...) and the prices, which above average by BA standards, are a steal for what you get. To top off the experience, the service is excellent, particularly because they have only one waiter. I had the tasting menu two times - both times I was wowed by the dishes that were presented (almost entirely different offerings as well). Do yourself a favor and go there. This was the only restaurant on this list that I went to twice.
If there was another restaurant that I WISH I would have been able to get to again before I returned to NYC, it was Aramburu. I have only seen it mentioned in passing on previous posts, which by my reckoning borders on criminal. Gonzalo Aramburu is another very talented chef, supported by the fact that he trained under some true giants (Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter). Like Digilio, he's introduced something new and different to the dining scene in BA that should really not be missed. Classical French styling, mixed with traditional Argentinian roots with just a pinch of molecular creativity make for an exciting and delicious meal. I had the pork confit w/ carmelized pears, rabbit three ways and apple tart w/ vanilla creme - all three were out of this world. Add in a sexy low-lit room, a friendly, helpful staff, and an excellent price/quality ratio and you've got one of the best dining experiences in BA. This is a place to keep alive.
Defensa al Sur: ****
Another excellent change of pace from the typical parillas of San Telmo, my meal at Defensa al Sur could hace easily ranked as one of the best I had in BA...I place it just a slight notch below, hence the four star rating...but it was close. Again described as "New Argentinian" (which seems to be a catchall term for using local ingredients with progressive, often French-influenced techniques), the kitchen here turns out some delicious stuff that delivers a great quality (and quantity - you'll leave stuffed) for the price. I had the pickled langoustines & vegetables, patagonian venison with mashed squash and cabbage and a dessert that I can best describe as thick cassis foam with a granola crisp and carmelized bananas. All three were excellent. The atmosphere of the small room is very romantic (too bad I was dining alone) and the staff were friendly and welcoming.
Cafe San Juan: ***
Best described as an upscale neighborhood restaurant, this place packs in the locals and it's easy to see why. The food is excellent and the prices are criminally low for what you get. Again, the order of the day is progressive takes on classic Argentinian ingredients and the kitchen does a great job of turning out some very tasty dishes. I had an app of the goat cheese and mushrooms on crusty baguette and the braised pork in what I assume was a red wine sauce with potatoes. The place is typically packed, so the atmosphere is boisterous and the room has the minimalist decor of a neighborhood spot. The wait staff was as attentive as their demanding table load would allow for.
Mitico Sur: ***
"Patagonian tapas" is how I heard the restaurant's cuisine described and I suppose that is the best I'll do. The menu consists chiefly of various "tablas" - platters of meats, cheeses, fish and vegetables to be eaten with or without bread. The combinations are delicious and the price to quality ratio is excellent, as one tabla will easily fill two people. The restaurant itself seems to cater to a mostly local crowd, and it's homey atmosphere is a testament to this mission. The wait staff was casual, but efficient and seemed just as concerned with chatting with patrons as with going about their duties - all of which was just fine with me for a leisurely dinner in BA.
An interesting combination of art gallery and restaurant, Raval is a good neighborhood restaurant featuring traditional Argentinian/Patagonian small plates - think chorizo sausage and calamari escabeche. The place hasn't been open long and doesn't seem to have quite caught on yet - don't be surprised if you're the only one eating. It's terrific for a quick lunch (at rock bottom prices - between $AR 6-13/small plate) and a break from the throngs at the San Telmo market. The food is nowhere in the league of the places mentioned above (or below in the other neighborhoods), but the atmosphere and friendly service make it worth a visit.
Les Anciens Combattants: *****
Hidden (literally - you could walk by this place a hundred times and never know it was there) on a street of the "rough around the edges" neighborhood of Constitucion, is a true diamond in the rough. Les Anciens occupies a mansion that onced served as an officers' club of sorts for former French soldiers living in Argentina - they've even got a flag flown by Napoleon himself framed on the wall to bolster the cred. Walking into the grand house, you get the feeling that you're stepping back in time - it feels as though it's been maintained in much the same condition as it was when in use in its original incarnation. In following the theme, the kitchen turns out delicious classical French dishes like creamy cochon pate, coq au vin and braised rabbit - all exemplary in their execution. The service is formal to suit the ambiance, and the chef himself details each dish tableside (in French or Spanish, naturally). Yes, the restaurant is in a sketchy part of town (la zona roja), but those of you who work up the courage to brave the neighborhood will be rewarded with what is likely the best classical French cuisine on offer in BA.
A sleek, hip Peruvian joint in the heart of bustling Retiro, Sipan is a great option for sampling well executed ceviches, Peruvian small plates and creative sushi rolls. As a bonus, the drinks list is expansive with plenty of pisco options for those of you sticking to the Peruvian theme. The prices are slightly above average, befitting the trendy nature of the restaurant, but the service was warm and genial and my ceviche mixto, papas and bread pudding were all tasty and well worth the expense.
Tancat is a bustling Spanish eatery specializing in small plates (naturally) and an expansive crudo bar. I sat at the bar, where the bartenders are quick to pour a glass of malbec or provide recommendations from the crudo bar. Half of the patrons seem to know the staff, personally, so I'm assuming that Tancat is a neighborhood favorite with a loyal following. If that's the case, it's certainly warranted, as the calamari w/ papas that I had were well prepared - tender and flavorful. The room is decorated with trinkets, various money from around the world, etc. and the atmosphere is boisterous, noisy and fun. With prices that are very reasonable, this would be a great restaurant for a small group, or for taking a seat at the bar and meeting some new friends.
A restaurant/bar serving a variety of ecclectic international cuisine, DaDa features moderate prices (around $AR 30/entree), a good drink list, and well executed food. I went at lunch, and the place was full. My entree of chicken and beef strifry was tasty, and the portion size was filling. There's nothing here that will knock your socks off, but you'll leave satisfied.
Dish for dish, Resto stacks up with anything you'll find in BA. Located in the Central Society of Architecture, the place is tiny, and only serves dinner on Thursday and Friday nights. Make reservations - you'll thank me later. The room is austere and brightly lit, with a small bar and clean, white walls and tablecloths. The service is attentive and professional, but not particularly warm. It's what comes out of the kitchen that makes this place special. You've got a choice from among several different "menus" - or you're free to mix and match, but each meal consists of an appetizer, entree and dessert. I had the squid w/ field greens and roasted red peppers (tender and juicy), the trout w/ cashew risotto (perfectly medium rare, w/ an exemplary al dente risotto) and the quince tart w/ house made ice cream. While the prices aren't cheap (by BA standards), the quality and freshness of the ingredients is worth every peso.
Elegant (down to the violin duo performing during dinner) and romatic, Thymus is a restaurant that will satisfy even the most discriminating food snobs. I had the tasting for $AR 110 - everything from the amuse bouche of dumplings w/ cherry tomato confit to the perfectly roasted duck to the degustacion of house made icecreams was flawlessly prepared, with interesting, creative flavor combinations and beautiful presentation (bordering on fussy at times). The service is predictably excellent and efficient, as would be expected of a restaurant of its caliber. While not cheap, the prices actually aren't outrageous for the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the obvious skill with which they are prepared. One of the best dining experiences I had in BA.
Located in the BoBo hotel, BoBo restaurant is a fitting complement to its sheik, sophisticated surroundings. The mediterranean-influenced food is all beautifully constructed and presented. I had the tasting menu w/ wine pairing at $AR 150 which consisted of five courses: a duck confit dumpling w/ greens, a King crab/passion fruit/whipped potato dish (not sure what I'd call it), tagliatelle w/ almond-truffle cream scauce and prosciutto, lamb tenderloin w/ lentils and a citrus semifreddo w/ berries. All of the dishes were interesting, but some were less successful than others - the king crab/passion fruit dish was a notable misstep. The wine pairings were well matched and certainly helped to justify the high price tag. Service was very good - efficient and very professional.
International progressive cuisine on a rather sleepy street in Palermo. The interior is sparsely decorated, but classy, with a brightly lit main room and a downstairs dining area (which I didn't actually scope out). Given its location and targeted clientele (which during my trip seemed to be young professionals, expats and some upper-crust types), you pay essentially what you'd expect (which in my case was $AR 110 for the tasting menu plus additional for wine). The service was good, but if you're looking for a really professional wait staff you may be disappointed - the waiter had a hard time explaining some of the dishes, but he was really friendly, which matters more to me than precision. The food was very good - five courses, including: a field green salad with goat cheese and figs, king crab w/ white beans, raviolis w/ goat cheese, prosciutto and mushrooms, lamb with olive mashed potatoes and a degustacion of chocolate for dessert. The dishes were very good, but for me, just short of the top restaurants on my list.
Grappa is an Italian place in Palermo Hollywood that I more or less stumbled upon while in desperate need of a cold drink. I ended up eating lunch there and was happy that I did. Italian classics are the rule (pastas, pizzas, etc.) and what I had (fried calamari, pizza w/ red pepper, pepperoni, etc) was good. The service was adequate and the room itself is pretty nondescript - a cavernous one room bar/restaurant - nothing too notable. Overall, a good neighborhood place that will satisfy your jones for Italian (and a cold beer on a hot day).
So that's it. I hope the reviews are of use!
Aramburu is at 1050 Salta (between Carlos Calvo and Humberto 1mo). I think that they may only be open Thurs-Saturday, so I'd try one of those nights. It definitely doesn't have an obvious storefront either, but if I remember correctly, the name is on the window outside. Their phone number is (54-11) 4305-0439 and I would definitely recommend calling ahead to make reservations, if for no other reason than to ensure that they're open the night you want to go. Enjoy - the food is really outstanding!