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Bueno Aires: Where Steaks Are an Art Form
Argentina has the highest per capita meat consumption in the world. Many gauchos have eaten beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner since they were children. You can envy them, Walter Glaser reports, because when you get a good steak in Argentina, it is the best on earth.
The first time visitor will find Buenos Aires to be a surprising city indeed. Don't expect anything like Rio, Mexico City, Santiago, or any other city with a distinct South American flavor. If Buenos Aires was a lady, she would be a French aristocrat, just a little past her prime but with a wealth of experience and with a twinkle in her eye. The city has a distinct Parisian feel, not surprising when you find that, in its heyday, the architects for a large proportion of city buildings had been brought out from Paris to replicate the ambiance of that city.
Today, Buenos Aires is a little run-down at the edges, mainly because of the economic mismanagement from the time of Peron. But Argentines are a resilient lot and like to live well. The impression is that things are picking up and that those who will visit Buenos Aires a decade or so down the line will see a city restored to its former glory.
Portenos (people of the port), as citizens of Buenos Aires call themselves, joke that Mexicans came from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas, and Argentineans from the migrant ships that brought their ancestors from Europe. The average Porteno's greatgrandparents are likely to have been English, Italian, Spanish or German rather than South American Indian.
When these Europeans first settled in Argentina and brought their cattle with them, the latter thrived on the rich grasses of the Pampas. No hormone shots or special feeds have ever been necessary to make Argentine cattle the superb animals they are. The combination of bounties that nature provided -- good feed, good climate, plenty of water and wide, open spaces -- did it all. The result is some of the finest beef in the world. And nowhere will you find bigger, better, juicier, tastier and more tender steaks than in the top Parrillas (steak houses) of Buenos Aires.
Dining in Buenos Aires
Naturally, there are fine French and International restaurants in Buenos Aires. Undoubtedly the very best of these has the rather unusual name of "The Dining Room in the Mansion" . The Mansion is an exquisite, French-style building that had been the home of one of Argentine's elite land-owning families. Recently it has been made part of the adjoining Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, the city's newest and finest hotel.
The dining room is decorated in dramatic French-Rococo style with high ceilings, warm oak paneling, a large, open fireplace and original parquet floors. Unique silver and antique tableware combine with the decor to create an air of elegant splendor. The restaurant offers cuisine that would honor any of the top Paris restaurants and the people who enjoy it are the likes of Argentina's President Menem or Kerry Packer, the Australian megamillionaire who comes to Buenos Aires to cheer on the leading polo team he owns there. International bankers, Argentina's top Industrialists and their international counterparts and leading Heads of State dine here while in Buenos Aires.
Around the corner from the elegant Park Hyatt is another clutch of restaurants at La Recova-Posadas. Some, like Piegari, are new. Others, like Harpers, are branches of restaurants in the suburb of Recoleta, the other area of B.A. where society Portenos frequent, not only for the excellent cuisine offered there, but also to see and be seen.
The Recoleta strip along the Plaza Roberto M. Ortiz has charming Parisian style restaurants with indoor and outdoor sections, the latter for alfresco dining in warm weather. The best-known of these is probably El Gato Dumas, whose flamboyant owner-chef is one of the best -- and best-known -- in the city. Dumas has a high exposure, with television appearances that make his face familiar to Argentineans. When the country's excellent national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, wanted to offer the best possible inflight cuisine, it was Carlos "Gato" Dumas who created their world-class inflight menus.
His cuisine at Gato Dumas, like those of Harpers and Piegari, is French with a strong Argentine influence. And a few doors from his restaurant you will find the Cabana Las Lilas, a classic Argentine steak restaurant that is a superb introduction to this country's wonderful beef.
Argentina may be a vegetarian's nightmare, but it is heaven for dedicated carnivore. No diner would accept anything but a superb steak, and even French-style restaurants could not survive if a thick, tender, juicy and perfectly-cooked fillet was missing from the menu. Apart from Las Lilas, the four most famous Parrillas in Buenos Aires are La Chacra on Ave. Cordoba 950, the Restaurant 9 de Julio, on Av. 9 de Julio, Las Nazarenas, Reconquista 1132, Retiro and La Nueva Rurale, Suipacha 453.
A good Parrilla also has an Asador -- an open fire of glowing coals around which a number of vertical metal crosses hold carcasses of goat, lamb and pork meat. These slowly rotate to get the most benefit from the glowing embers, and the chefs, usually in gaucho outfits, will come over from time to time to slice off portions as they are ordered by the customers. The La Chacra restaurant is very representative of such Parrillas and offers the very best of this sort of classic Argentina fare.
Just to accentuate the fact that it is a Steak House par excellence, diners must share the entrance of the restaurant with an enormous stuffed bull. Opposite, in a glassed-in enclosure, the restaurant's Asador faces the street for optimum effect. Decor is rustic Argentine, with a dash of kitsch. Huge deer heads and boar are mounted around the walls, though La Chacra does not serve venison or wild boar.
South Americans dine very late, with international-style restaurants generally not opening until 8 or 8:30 p.m. and diners often arriving as late as 9 or 10 p.m. and finishing around midnight or later. But a few Parrillas like La Chacra are open right throughout the afternoon and one suspects that many a large contract is finalized over these establishments' magnificent steaks.
A typical Parrilla meal will begin with Empanadas -- small, meat-filled pastry pockets that are the traditional starters. A bewildering choice of side-salads then accompany the grills. For those who have searched in vain to find a really first class salad in a European city, those available in the better parrillas of Buenos Aires will be a joy for eye and palate. At La Chacra the selection is enormous --- 24 varieties to choose from --- ranging from Einstein (beetroot, apple, hearts of palm, almonds, vinaigrette with cream and herbs) to Alexandra (lettuce, grapefruit, pear, apple, orange, grapes, celery, nuts with mayonnaise and cream.)
What often confuses visitors trying to select a meat course is that the local cuts may differ greatly from those found at an American, Asian or European butcher. Here is the code-breaker which will allow you to understand the strange, romantic-sounding names on the Parrilla menu.
The finest cut of beef, and likely to be the highest priced -- though ridiculously inexpensive by international standards -- is Bife de Lomo which equates to Eye Fillet. The most popular cut is Bife de Chorozo, a steak cut off the rib and somewhat similar to Sirloin or Porterhouse. T-bone steak has its equivalent in Bife de Costilla, and is generally enormous. Rib Roast, known as Tira de Asado, is the second most popular cut with Portenos. When grilled on the spit, this cut will be thick and short, if cooked on the char-grill it will be thinner and longer.
Cheaper cuts not generally used for roasting in other countries -- shank, brisket or chuck -- produces a budget-priced steak known as Churrasco. It is inexpensive, yet tasty. The Parrillas will also offer grilled chicken (pollo), pork (Cerdo), kidneys (Rinones), sweetbreads (Mollejas), and a marvelous Argentine sausage called Chorizo. Ask for your beef "bien hecho" if you want it well done, "al punto" if you prefer it medium and "poco hecho" if you like it rare. The bottom part of sirloin porterhouse is known as "vacio" and the flank is called "matambre." Fish is also frequently available at some of the better restaurants. Portenos also like offal and most menus feature lamb's testicles (creadillas), intestines (chinchulines) and udder (ubre).
No grill in Argentina is complete without a bottle of this country's magnificent red wine. Most outsiders think of Chilean wines when South America is mentioned. Few realize that Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world.
And there are some spectacularly good Argentine wines. The French winemaker Moet & Chandon have a large winery, Bodega Chandon, in Argentina. It produces under the labels of Comte Valmont, Comte Beltour and Clos du Moulin, their top wine. Other producers are Bodega Bianchi, Bodega Torino, Bodega Lopez, Bodego Suter and Bodego Toso. They all make very good reds and quite passable whites.
The main reason why Argentine wines are only just beginning to appear on international markets is that, with an average wine consumption of around a whopping 60 liters per head annually, there has been little surplus for export. Portenos say that it is hard to find a really bad local red wine in the "vino de mesa" and "vino fino" classifications and international experts tend to agree with this. The "vino comun" is the bottom end of the market which those who are not completely familiar with local wines are advised to leave well alone. Keep to "vino fino" and you won't be disappointed.
In Argentina the same basic rule applies as in Europe -- a varietal red wine (vino tinto) has to contain a minimum of 80% of the grape named. White wines must be made totally from the grape named on the bottle. Blends are prohibited unless clearly stated on the label.
The most popular grape varieties grown in Argentina are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, and Malbec. Most of the better Argentine wines come from the province of Mendoza, desert flatlands in the foothills of the Andes that are irrigated from melting snow. While the grape varieties are European, the weather and soil conditions give the Argentine wines a very special quality. Saint Felicien, a superb Cabernet Sauvignon in numbered bottles from Mendoza would rate highly at any dinner table and is another one the visitor should find interesting.
The Glasers Recommend
Buenos Aires is one of the world's great cities and has style, charm, and marvelous things to see and do. The gourmet, too, will not be disappointed. Chances are that, after a visit to one of the famous B.A. Parillas, the Bife de Lomo eaten there will become the benchmark by which all other steaks are judged.
To Get to Buenos Aires
Aerolineas Argentinas operate an excellent service from U.S.A., Australia and Europe to Buenos Aires. If you are planning to go to the wine region of Mendoza, buy this sector as an add-on. Aerolineas also offers an Argentina pass ticket which must be purchased before departure, but gives you an excellent opportunity to visit such places as Iguassu Falls, the Glaciers at Calafate, and Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego. A South America pass is also available. Check with your travel agent.
Best Time to Go
Remember seasons are antipodean and similar to those of Australia. If you are going to the far south of Argentina, we recommend November to January. Otherwise anytime from October to May is pleasant and warm, and will show you Buenos Aires at its best.
Major credit cards, especially VISA, are accepted in most Buenos Aires stores, though some small country establishments may be reluctant to accept credit cards. The new Argentine currency is tied to the U.S. dollar, and travelers checks in that currency are accepted everywhere.
What to Bring
Loose, comfortable clothes, and 16 rating or over sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat if you are planning to travel south. Remember this is the area of the Ozone hole -- not at all dangerous but take adequate precautions against sunburn. Also take twice as much film as you think you will use. Argentina is a very photogenic country.
Restaurants Not to be Missed
Parilla La Cabana
Av. Entre Rios 436, Balvanera
La Recova, Posadas
R. Ortiz, Recoleta
La Recova, Posadas
The Mansion Restaurant
Park Hyatt, Posadas 1086
R. Ortiz, Recoleta
Cabana Las Lilas
R. Ortiz, Recoleta
The four most famous Parrillas in Buenos Aires are:
Las Chacra on Ave. Cordoba
Restaurant 9 de Julio, on Av. 9 de Julio
Las Nazarenas, Reconquista 1132
Retiro and La Rurale on Av. Suipacha
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.