Sunday, April 30, 2006

Metida de Pata

Diego Armando Maradona has become a deity in Argentine culture for his left foot, which finds its way into his mouth as much as against a No. 5 soccer ball.

Diego recently appeared in a television commercial promoting a Brazilian soft drink wearing the jersey of the seleção. Imagine Michael Jordan wearing a CCCP warm-up during the Cold War.

In response to his critics, Diego said this:
“All the faggots that are talking now because I put on a Brazil jersey are just that, ‘faggots.’ With the pardon of those people, who I respect very much. That being said, I would never wear the jersey of River [Plate, the rival club of Diego’s beloved Boca Juniors].”

The reaction in the press has been mild bemusement.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

¡Lo comimos tutti!

Il Matterello. Martín Rodríguez 517 - Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Tel: 4307-0529

My folks returned to the States the other day, though not before we shared yet another exceptional meal at Il Matterello, an unassumingly elegant restaurant in La Boca, just a few blocks from La Bombonera, the stadium of Boca Juniors.

The exterior of the restaurant consists of brightly painted sheets of corrugated metal, typical of La Boca (more on this later); the interior is small, bright and simple. When we arrived, about half of the ten or so tables were occupied; by the time our appetizer hit the table, the place was full and there was a line in the entryway. I was glad to have made a reservation.

We were seated at a table by the kitchen, which is partitioned only by a small bar, so we could see the food as it was brought out. A favorite, which I nearly ordered, seemed to be tagliatelle (thick noodles) heaped with fresh arrugula. All the pastas, both stuffed and noodles, are homemade, by the way.

After an antipasto of fresh mozzarella, grilled eggplant, fried zucchini balls, more zucchini with melted parmesan, olives and salami, we dug into our main plates: spinach cannelloni – rich and not too cheesy, lasagna and tagliatelle alla puttanesca. The puttanesca was chunky, such that a different flavor predominated each bite: olive, caper, anchovy.

My Dad kept saying he thought he was in Italy. Might have been the food, but it might have been the clientele: mostly porteños in their Sunday garb, interspersing forkfuls with big hand gestures and exclamations that aren’t all that far from Italian.

For desert: vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso and beignets with sambayón ice cream, covered in a chocolate sauce, which was so good that a few more bites would have been enough to convince me that I was an Aztec king.

The exact price, I don’t recall, but curiously, my dessert (15 pesos) cost more than my main plate (14). Go figure.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Thicker Than Water

Photo taken in Café La Biela, Recoleta. My mother smiles broadly, while I, in response to my father's stern admonishment, am saying, "pero, viejo, ¡dejate de joder!"

Friday, April 21, 2006

I Like It Raw

Argentines are an infectiously passionate people, who love to exaggerate and make extravagant hand gestures. Not only has my bookish, Berlitz Spanish acquired some of the swagger and grit of the River Plate accent, I also catch myself, from time to time, clapping furiously after mediocre concerts and cursing the mothers of pedestrians who step in the path of my lowrider bicycle.

Indeed, Buenos Aires is a city that demands extreme reactions. Its vampiric hours, its corruption, its decadent charm, its infinite cafés, its multicolored buses, its gregarious taxi drivers, its pressurized soda bottles, its beautiful inhabitants – all cheekbones and mullets and feathery bangs – illicit either pure amor or desamor, and nothing in between.

And the meat. Nearly every piece of steak deserves a rhapsodic exclamation, but as these bites accumulate, you reach a point where you need to eat something else, something wholly different.

While spending a long weekend in Mendoza, I met Sadie, a musician and stylist from the Lower East Side. While having lunch in the middle of a vineyard, looking over the haze-gauzed Andes, she told me of an unlicensed vegan raw food restaurant on the outskirts of Palermo Hollywood. As I took another bite of grilled goat, I knew I had to try the place out.

The restaurant, if you can call it that, serves dinner only on Thursdays and is located in the entry hall of an old house a few blocks from the flea market. The floor is black and white tile, the roof is a set of fiberglass slats that open like Venetian blinds.

Iago, the chef, is a quiet but outgoing Argentine who spent three years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he learned to cook... or not to cook vegetarian cuisine. Maite, his companion, is Uruguayan, as is Luz, their gentle yellow lab. The two of them made our sobremesa (after-dinner conversation) extremely agreeable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After an overwhelming asado in San Isidro a few nights before, I was looking forward to something wholly distinct. Iago did not disappoint: we started with a cold soup of pumpkin, Brazil nut milk and a few drops of Tabasco; next came a salad of wild greens, pears and avocado; the main course was a spinach torta with a crust of dehydrated quinoa and flax seed; for dessert we ate a small glass of banana purée topped with a carob sauce. This was not penance for eating steak; this was a celebration of fresh ingredients, the yang to steak's ying.

To drink we had a bottle of organic tempranillo. Empirical evidence suggests the ecological cultivation of the grapes has no effect on the sluggishness that red wine produces the following morning.

Sometimes meat-lovers snort when people describe this kind of food. My new response: they haven’t eaten enough Argentine steak.

Chinese Tapas, or Spanish Dim Sum

La Cabrera. Cabrera 5099 - Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Tel: 4831-7002
La Cabrera Norte. Cabrera 5127 - Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Tel: 4832-5754

When I find myself in one of those tiresome conversations about “favorite ethnic cuisines,” I invariably mention Korean food. My reasons are several: I am usually the last to opine in these exchanges and chances are good that someone has already said “Mexican” or “Vietnamese” or “Thai” or whatever; kimchi is delicious; and, most importantly, even if I can’t tell you what they contain, I love all those little dishes that accompany your order in a Korean restaurant.

A friend of my, when pressed to describe a tapas bar, described it as “Spanish Dim Sum.”

In the same way, La Cabrera and its annex, La Cabrera Norte, can be described as parrillas argentino-coreanas, because your grilled meat comes with an array of bowls containing all sorts of goodies: applesauce, roasted garlic in balsamic vinegar, grilled eggplants, mushrooms in a Malbec sauce, green olive tapanade, and a few other things I can’t recall.

A few months ago, I ate at La Cabrera with my “Spanish Dim Sum” friend, who, not surprisingly, also enjoyed the little dishes. Despite a religious prohibition on beef, we ate extremely well: a provoleta (a grilled wheel of cheese), bondiola de cerdo (pork loin) and pamplona de pollo (stuffed chicken breast).

The other night, I went to eat with my folks and a friend, and were sent to the nearby La Cabrera Norte because the corner restaurant was full. Though the interior of the annex is a little less elegant, the service is just as good and the menu is identical. We split a caprese salad, a chorizo, a brochette de lomo and an ojo de bife (a boneless ribeye). With this we had a few bottles of Lurton Malbec Reserva. Dessert was dulce de batata (sweet potato) and cheese and a “chocolate volcano.” Complimentary glasses of champagne accompanied them, as well as a glass of a dessert wine made with Bonarda.

I am currently inventing pretexts for an imminent return.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Now Even Less Content!

A few weeks ago I went to the Academia Nacional de la Historia, where I spent the afternoon reading articles from 1837-38 published in El Diario de la Tarde. The advertisements proved to be nearly as interesting as the content of the paper:

Here is an ad for a milk-bearing goat:

A bilingual ad for a cook:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, tortoise shell peinetas were in style at the time:

Slavery was also a part of everyday life in 1837. This ad reads: "Yesterday, at about 11 in the morning, a little black boy named Claudio fled from the house of his masters. He is roughly 10 years old, stocky and thick-lipped with big eyes and buck teeth and was wearing a jacket of thick, black wool and canvas leggings, is barefoot and hatless; whoever gives news of his whereabouts, and brings him to Perú No. 43 (prev. la Florida), will receive said award."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Disaster Narrowly Averted

Biking in Buenos Aires is perhaps a bad idea; biking and wine-tasting in Mendoza is surely worse.

But it was a beautiful day and the image of pedalling through vineyards was too appealing not to try it out.

Both the Napa and Colchagua (Chile) Valleys boast of wine trains. Mendoza can proudly claim the wine bus: the 10 line crawls through the southern part of the city, before twisting and turning through the wine-growing region of Maipú.

However perilous combining cycling and degustation may sound, “Wine and Bikes” is an outfit that facilitates such foolishness. You take the 10 bus to the Plazoleta Rutini in Maipú. There, unafraid of lawsuits, they provide you with a bike, no helmet, and a map plotting a 24km circuit that has stops at 6 or 7 bodegas.

At Bodega La Rural, the first winery, providence intervened in the form of a lanky Belgian from my hostel and an Israeli woman he had met on the bus.

After tasting a couple of glasses of mediocre wines, the three of us decided to have lunch at Casa de Campo, a little restaurant 50 meters from where I had rented the bike. The menu featured three entrees and 5 pages of wines. We all ordered colita de cuadril with a malbec sauce (pot roast, Argentine-style) and shared a bottle of Trapiche Fond de Cave Malbec. Both beef and wine were delicious.

As our sobremesa stretched into the late afternoon, we ordered dessert: fig ice cream, served with candied figs and cognac. Instead of a meager dribbling of liquor, we were surprised by an entire bottle that the amenable host set on the table. The combination of fig ice cream and cognac was unexpectedly tasty, and some of the cognac found its way into our empty glasses.

At this point you could nearly call it evening and the topic of conversation ping-ponged between exclamations of a deep self-satisfaction and compliments to the chef.

We weren’t done yet, though. We asked for the bill and a taxi at the same time and, within a few moments, were speeding down the narrow, tree-lined highway that I had intended to bike.

The wine-tasting ended at the charming Bodega Familia DiTommaso, a family-owned winery whose cellar dates from 1869 (see photo above).