Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reach Out and Touch Faith

On Saturday night I went with some folks to a nightclub. We arrived at about 1:30 in the morning. It was still early: besides us, there were maybe four people in the place, not counting the bartenders and DJ.

To get inside, we had passed through a doorway with no sign, marked only by a bored, hulking doorman. There was, thankfully, no velvet rope. Down a long corridor, up a short flight of stairs, through an unmarked door.

And there we were: beneath a forty-foot vaulted ceiling, pacing the checkerboard floor of a deconsecrated church.

The pews and the altar have been replaced with a small bar and a platform for the DJ. The ceilings are painted with glitter. There were lots of black lights and, above the exit, a huge screen playing a Morrissey video.

At first, the music was a pretty lame selection of top forty stuff from the past three decades, Stones mixed with the B-52, etc. Then, as people started arriving, the music got focus: The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, etc.

By three the place was packed, a young crowd that resembled the bands we were listening to.

I kept up a steady, goofy shuffle until 4:30, and then I could no more.

A google search reveals that the locale may also double as a milonga during less vampiric hours.

Well worth checking out, at whatever hour.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Recopado con copas

Perhaps it is the black Irish in me. I am certain of few things in life, but one of them is that I will never join a temperance union.

Last Thursday I concluded a two week wine-tasting course at the Centro de Enólogos de Buenos Aires (http://www.centroenologos.com/). On Tuesday we had talked and tasted reds, including the burly, Argentine varietal Malbec; on Thursday it was sparkling wines. This was departure for me: I generally limit my annual bubbly consumption to sips from a bottle, straddling the old and new years. So depending on how you interpret the stats, I drink vino espumante once or twice a year.

As to be expected of an effervescent, final class, the mood was festive. Our four wines included one that instantly struck me as really, really tasty – a rare drink-from-a-glass kind of sparkling wine. When it was unveiled, I learned why: it was a Rosell Boher from Mendoza that sells for $150 ($50 US).

At the end of class the four students, two enologists, and one hanger-on gathered at a table and polished off the Rosell.

The two enologists – Juan and Alfredo, both natives of the province of San Juan – invited us to a talk on home winemaking at the Center’s bodega, located in Luis Guillón, a town southwest of the capital.

On Saturday morning, I rode with Juan to the bodega. Along the way, he talked about the disaster that Argentina is (a favorite subject of Argentines, as you might recall from the entry “Necrologistics”) and San Juan’s most famous son, the educator, writer, politician and ladies’ man, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Later, with Alfredo’s collaboration, Juan reminded me how President Sarmiento at one point had a torrid affair with the daughter of his Minister of the Interior, a girl some forty years his junior.

After a brief tour of the rustic equipment in the bodega, Juan gave a talk a handful of aspiring winemakers for about two hours.

I am ready to roll up my pants and start making vino patero with my bare feet, but I will spare you the details of a rather technical lecture.

By the time the talk ended, it was nearly one in the afternoon, so we sat down to empanadas. There were eight of us, I believe: the four attendees; Juan and Alfredo, Juan Carlos Gómez, the president of the Centro; and don Luis, the owner of the property where the Centro has established its cellar.

I had for the first time an empanada filled with mozzarella cheese, prunes, and pancetta. It was so good that for regularity’s sake, I helped myself to a second.

As we ate and conversed, Juan Carlos opened several bottles of wine: first a muscatel made from grapes grown in his backyard in Villa Urquiza, followed by the Centro’s own cabarnet, and finally a homemade sparkling wine made of the same muscatel grapes. There were all very enjoyable, served at precisely the right temperatures, per an enologists’ mania. Of course, I don’t know if they were objectively good, but in the pleasant company of the winemakers themselves, it was impossible not to like them.

Next we ate dessert: the very same muscatel grapes soaked in grappa and homegrown peaches in syrup. To wash this down, the increasingly animated enologists passed around walnut and blueberry liqueurs, limoncello and grappa, all homemade.

Finally, Don Luis, an amiable man in his eighties, took to his feet and made us coffee with beans that he ground as the rest of us continued chatting.

It was barely four by the time Juan dropped me off. I was feeling a powerful urge to take a siesta. As I got out of the car, Juan handed me a biography on Sarmiento called Cuyano alborotador, which I liberally translate as The Shit-stirrer from Cuyo. He promises that it narrates in great detail all of Don Domingo’s romantic indiscretions.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

El País Estón (The Stone Nation)

The Rolling Stones are the biggest thing going in Argentina. As I write, the Stones are probably on their way to Estadio Monumental, where tonight they will play the second of two shows, which sold out instantly.

For the past two weeks, the front pages of every major newspaper plotted the band’s progress towards Buenos Aires. As their arrival neared, the headlines multiplied and their enthusiasm grew, though there were complaints that Argentina, the most estón country in the world, wouldn’t have a free concert like the one in Rio last weekend.

On Tuesday night, when Mick Jagger introduced his bandmates, the response to Keith Richards’s name was so overwhelming that the haggard guitarist fell to his knees in thanks.

Tickets have been selling on the internet from 300 pesos (about $100), so I knew there was no chance I was going to get inside the stadium. Still I had to see part of the spectacle, so this afternoon I headed down to the stadium to see the 65,000 people who were lucky enough to have gotten tickets.

The line stretched for miles down the Avenida Libertador. Everywhere you looked there were big shaggy haircuts and the tongue logo.

I had questions. I wanted Argentines to explain to me why they are such fanatics of the Stones. And being a student of language, I wanted better definitions of the words rolinga (“rolling”) and estón (“stone”).

I first spoke to Darío Logiudice, 34, from Boedo – a neighborhood more associated with tango. He explained to me that he’d been listening to the Stones since he was a kid. For him, the Stones appearance in Argentina was the realization of something impossible; most people thought they’d never return after the economic collapse of 2001. What’s more, he explained, is that “estamos en el 60,” as in, we’re stuck in the 60s. When asked if he was rolinga, he shook his head emphatically, dismissing it as a fashion. “En la vida soy estón,” he said (roughly, “I live as a Stone”). The tongue tattoo on his left shoulder left no doubt.

Next I spoke to Germán, a 42 year-old from Quilmes, one of the outlying cities that forms part of Gran Buenos Aires. He was with his daughters and her friends. They too dismissed rolinga as being a fad, a look. When I asked why they liked the Stones so much, they explained that rock has a long history in Argentina – and German’s been listening to the Stones since he was 8. I took their picture and promised to send it to them. Germán didn’t have an email address, but the kids all did: two of them were piedrarodante_18 (rollingstone_18) and vero_larolling.

At last I approached a group of kids who were furtively passing a joint around. Bemused by the presence of the Berlitz-accented Yankee, they gathered for a picture. I then spoke to Ezequiel, a 26 year old from La Plata, a nearby coastal city. Ezequiel identified himself as a citizen of the “madre patria del rocanroll,” a nation that knows no borders. He and his friends dismissed rolinga as a label. “These kids put on a t-shirt, but they know nothing about the music,” one of them said.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I Found Evita Perón

Last week, I went to grab a bite to eat with Enzo, an Italian acquaintance. We went to Don Niceto, a neighborhood parrilla that thankfully offers none of the design-happy ambience that is typical of the shiny, capacious resto-bars that have popped up like pimples during Palermo’s growth spurt.
We ate choripan and provoleta, which is a heart attack in the form of a thick slice of provolone cheese thrown on a grill and sprinkled with oregano.
When the restaurant closed, we found ourselves on the sidewalk with two men in their fifties. One of them was a thick, gregarious cab driver who introduced his companion as an historian of the neighborhood.
“Some people write history,” this historiador barrial said, “but I have lived it.”

This, warped by a few glasses of beer and my translation, is the story he told:
My twin brother and I were mischievous kids.
We used to sneak into the Cine Rialto. At least we thought we did. Later I found out that my Dad – who owned a moving company around the corner – had made a deal with the theater owners and was paying for us.
I was seven or eight years old – it was the nineteen fifties. We went to watch a western and, like we always did, we sat in the front row.
We’d seen the movie a couple of times already. Right before the big fight scene, I snuck up onto the stage and, as the first punch was thrown, jumped up in front of the screen. All the sudden I realized I was losing my balance, so I grabbed onto the screen, which tore before it came loose and fell on top of me.
Fifteen years later, after I had been out of the country for a number of years, I went back to the Rialto. The old man that took my ticket asked if I was one of the Pérez twins.
Yes, I said, surprised that he remembered me after all those years.
Come with me, he told me, I want to show you something.
We walked past the seats, right up to the screen. You could see a big “7” in the screen, where they had stitched it back up.
I was the one that tore the screen at the Cine Rialto. That’s the movie theater where they hid Evita’s body.

The story he told, then, was not about making history, but about a close encounter with it. While it is rumored that, after the coup that toppled Perón in 1955, the embalmed body of Evita was hidden behind the screen of the Cine Rialto, it has never been proven. Still, the proximity to legend makes the story powerful, however true or untrue its elements may be. I’m sure that every time the mellizo Pérez tells this anecdote, he can’t but shake from his mind the image of his younger self pulling down the screen to reveal the coffin containing the body of Argentina’s most hated and most beloved woman.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Raddest Femme Mullet Ever

Captured while crossing the River Plate, en route to Punta del Este:

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Crudites Are Good, Crudités Are Gross

Sushi Club. ALICIA M. DE JUSTO 286 - PUERTO MADERO. 0-810-222-SUSHI

After our pheasant-ñandú-alligator feast, the venerable Nepalese medicine man Claxon Bajadi and I desperately wished for a return to dietary normalcy.

Raw fish! our stomachs cried. We need raw fish!

As I mentioned before, the sushi at the Asociación Japonesa en la Argentina (see the entry “Lighter Fare”) was pricey and not particularly abundant.

A friend had mentioned a place in Puerto Madero, so we hopped into a taxi and cruised down the Avenida Santa Fe to Puerto Madero, a stretch of brick warehouses lining the set of dikes that forms the port of Buenos Aires, situated directly behind the seat of the government, the Casa Rosada. Yes, the Pink House.

Puerto Madero was developed during the privatization-happy presidency of Carlos “El Turco” Menem and, like this toothy, unctuous politician, it is crassly commercial.

That being said, Puerto Madero is home to some of Buenos Aires’s finest restaurants, including the cavernous steakhouse Cabaña de Las Lilas.

We arrived at Sushi Club at 11:15 pm. The front dining room was packed, and the suspiciously blond hostess told us the wait would be twenty minutes. She offered us egg rolls and drinks: Claxon ordered a Chardonnay; I asked for a Campari and soda. The drinks were unusually meager, but we later discovered they were complimentary.

Scanning the menu, our eyes immediately spotted the option of “sushi libre”: all-you-can-eat for 55 pesos ($18). The menu was a fairly standard variety of nigri, sashimi and rolls, in addition to tempura and a few other cooked alternatives.

Our waiter informed us that tuna was not available, which seems to be the norm, not the exception in Buenos Aires.

We began with a variety of nigri (octopus, salmon, and shrimp), sashimi of the same, and some rolls whose name I forget, but that contained avocado and langoustine and another set with cooked (canned?) tuna.

The fish was good and fresh, and we ordered a second round of salmon sashimi, salmon skin rolls, and some more langoustine rolls.

Now, for those of you seasoned in the ways of American all-you-can-eat sushi, there are three primary rules: 1) stick to low sodium soy sauce; 2) eat as quickly as you can; and 3) leave nothing on your plate, lest you pay a hefty penalty.

The first rule of Sushi Club is that there is no low sodium soy sauce.

The second rule of Sushi Club is that you may continue to order at your leisure until the restaurant closes, at 2 am.

Unlike the stingy rations of sushi meted out at American establishments, our second order of salmon sashimi turned out to be a helping of some thirty or so slices of the most noble of pellet-fed fish.

Claxon and I put up a good fight, but had to leave a few pieces of sashimi on the wooden serving board.

At the table next to us, a rather lecherous man, who was an uncanny cross between Chris Elliot and Jabba the Hut (a rare sighting of an obese Argentine), and his dining companion left well over half of a tray uneaten and seemed unconcerned.

After our server cleared the table and we had paid the bill, Claxon and I stumbled outside and took a walk along the waterfront, admiring the Santiago Calatrava footbridge.

Price: $155 pesos ($51) for two orders of sushi libre, miso soup, and two glasses of wine.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wild Flavor

Ummo. Gorriti 4918 (Palermo). http://www.ummo.restaurant.com.ar/

As we are savvy gastronomes, who have developed discerning palates in the cramped confines of New York restaurants, my Brahman medic sidekick Claxon Bajadi and I wanted to eat something distinctive.

We inspected a number of restaurants in Palermo SoHo, which like its namesake is an architecturally appealing neighborhood oversaturated with designer boutiques, restaurants, bars, and “resto-bars,” most of which offer a predictable menu of Argentine dishes disguised with exotic names and garnishes.

At last we found what we were looking for: Ummo, a lofty brick and concrete interior. The walls were decorated with large, loud abstract paintings that I would classify as Crystal Meth Expressionism. The hostess wore a tight-fitting, asymmetrical shirt with a single sleeve.
The menu featured a variety of meats: African buffalo, Patagonian lamb, trout, and vizcacha, which looks like a cross between a rabbit, a gerbil and a squirrel.

After a vigorous debate, Claxon and I settled on an appetizer and two main plates: bruschetta with pickled pheasant, ñandú panzotti (basically big raviolis stuffed with an ostrich-like bird), and yacaré – a South American alligator – in a vermouth reduction sauce.

The pheasant had a rubbery consistency and tasted more like vinegar than anything else.

The homemade panzotti were fairly tasty, though the ñandú meat was mealier and denser than expected. I also found it a bit dry, but the mushroom sauce helped a bit, though it suffered from a zealous dousing of balsamic vinegar.

The yacaré, like most exotic meats, at first bite evokes the cliché “it tastes like chicken,” though the following bites revealed a more complex flavor. The meat had a dense, smooth texture and a hint of fishiness that was not unpleasant. Since my knowledge of reptile anatomy is rusty, and there were no biologists at hand, the amount of small bones in the dish was a surprise to both of us. Despite the fashionable ambience, we ended up eating with our fingers. Just like chicken.

To finish the meal, we decided for a traditional desert and bajativo: chocolate and dulce de leche ice cream and Johnny Walker Black Label.

Price: $149 pesos ($49) for two.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Last week I visited the famous cemetery of Recoleta with my trusty sidekick, the Nepalese healer Claxon Bajadi.

The cemetery is located in the center of Recoleta, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the capital. To the south and the west, a shopping mall and garish nightclubs peer over its tall walls. To the north and east, the balconies of gente de bien look over a fascinating city of the dead, whose ornate crypts line narrow allies, mimicking the density of the surrounding city. (Photos are soon to follow.)

As we made our way through the cemetery, I pointed out to Claxon some of the many historical figures that have come to rest in the marble structures whose dimensions are comparable to those of studio apartments in New York City. Behind iron grates and thick glass, we could often glimpse coffins stacked atop one another. Narrow stairways descend into darkness, suggesting the presence of many more inhabitants beneath our feet.

Claxon kept asking to see the tomb of Evita, so we headed towards where I thought it was.

Soon I realized we were lost. Reluctant to ask for directions, we zigzagged through the southwest corner of the cementerio.

Up against the wall, there was a crypt whose door was open. Inside, a woman in her mid-sixties was sweeping the floor. I stuck my head in the crypt, and asked if she would mind a few questions.

“Not at all,” she said.

It turned out to be her family crypt. The recently deceased occupied the niches on the ground level, the rest nap in the basement.

While we spoke she adjusted the lacy sheet covering her mother’s tomb.

“I come here every week,” she said. “I always talked to my mamita, and I won’t stop now.”

“Do you mind if I ask an indiscreet question?” I asked. I wanted to know how it was that all those bodies didn’t smell.

“The coffins are sealed in such a way that they don’t smell,” she explained.

Now it was her turn to ask a question. She wanted to know where we were from. We naturally confused her: I speak Spanish like a Berlitz tape, and my guess is she suspected Claxon was a Bolivian in designer clothing.

She welcomed us to her country, and then apologized.

“It’s a disaster,” she kept repeating. “Every time someone asks me where the tomb of that Eva Duarte is, I want to scream.”

“Why?” I asked innocently.

“She and her husband robbed this country. She walked around wearing diamonds, giving away things to the poor. This is an ignorant country. We have everything, but our country is a disaster.”

This rant continued for a few minutes until she shifted her sights to contemporary political figures. George Bush and Hugo Chávez, in her opinion, are idiot demagogues cut from the same cloth.

All the while, she rested her hand against her mother’s coffin.

As regular readers of this blog will note (see "What a Wonderful World It Would Be"), extemporaneous political opinions are as frequent in Argentina as steak and dulce de leche.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” she asked Claxon finally.

Claxon smiled broadly.

We introduced ourselves, then said goodbye.

Now more than ever, we wanted to see the tomb of Evita.

I asked a maintenance man where we could find it. He looked at his feet and, without further hesitation, responded: “eleven aisles down, then to the left.”

I imagine that he must at all times keep track of his own position in the cemetery by measuring his distance from the tomb of Evita.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Carne al por mayor

I cannot exaggerate the importance, both economic and cultural, of meat in Argentine culture. To illustrate this, I provide you the following anecdote:

Yesterday I moved to a new neighborhood. Thankfully I can still fit my continental possessions in a duffel bag, a messenger bag, and two pieces of Irish luggage, so my belongings and I traveled together in taxi.

Halfway between San Telmo and Palermo Viejo, the taxi driver switched the radio off and, as if to apologize, said, "Necesito comprar un gancho de chorizo."

Chorizo, by the way, is more like our "Italian" sausage than the stuff you might have at a tapas bar. I still did not understand what turning the radio off had to do with a large piece of sausage.

Then the driver spoke into his handset, asking the switchboard operator if he knew a good place to buy wholesale meat. The operator confirmed reception of the message, and within fifteen seconds, we knew where to get a gancho de chorizo.

"It's my kid's birthday," explained the driver, "and I'm making choripan." (Please refer to "Minutas" for an explanation of choripan.) His son was turning seventeen. The driver invited me to the party (in the southern suburb of Lanús), but I unfortunately had to decline.

For the next ten minutes, as we cut across the middle of Buenos Aires, the switchboard operator kept calling out addresses of wholesale meat vendors in Caballito, Boedo, Matadero, Avellaneda...

Moral: When you need meat in a hurry, don't consult the yellow pages. Get into a yellow and black car.