Eating out in the Argentine capital is an experience to savour.
This cosmopolitan city has long prized excellent cuisine and today, a host of creative young chefs are making waves and dazzling diners with fresh takes on traditional fare.
There really is something for everyone – restaurants run the gambit from cosy, accessible neighbourhood eateries focusing on local produce, through to minimalist, design-led outlets with molecular gastronomy menus.
But picking just one from this glut of gourmet outlets is no easy task... so, after careful consideration and much munching, here are my top picks for decadent dining experiences in Buenos Aires.
#5: FRANK'S BAR
From the outside, Frank’s looks like nothing much: a discreet dark door, without even a sign.
That’s because this is one of the myriad city venues tapping intro the trend for speakeasy-style outlets.
First off, you need a password to gain entry. You might be able to get this from a friendly local, a hotel concierge, or perhaps by batting your eyelashes at the burly bouncer who answers the door; but one way to guarantee entry is to book a table in advance.
Giving your name to the mafia-esque man at the door secures you entry and a four-digit code, which you’re told to punch into a payphone in a booth located at the end of the room.
Do so, and a hidden door swings open into a world of 1920s revelry: crimson velvet drapes, glittering chandeliers, polished wooden floors and hipster gents in waistcoats manning the bar, rattling cocktail shakers in time to the music.
This is actually primarily a cocktail venue, with a drinks list packed full of seasonal fruits and intriguing local ingredients, from herb-infused bitters to little-known liqueurs. But it also serves excellent food.
We sampled an array of snack dishes on our visit, including rich and salty osso bucco (braised veal shank) fried in seasoned panko crumbs with a deliciously creamy alioli accompaniment.
That was followed by sweetbread baklavas with rucola – an interesting take on the popular Argentine ingredient, with the sweet, crunchy pastry adding texture and depth to the gamey flavour of the glands.
We chased that with octopus, boiled then fried and served with a zesty pomegranate salsa and a rather unusual sweet vanilla pancake – which paved the way for dessert, and some light-as-air banana and chocolate mousses on soft sponge bases.
Make sure you ask the well-versed mixologists behind the bar for their advice on cocktails to accompany your dishes. The list is endless, but if there’s nothing you fancy they’re more than happy to chat through your favourite flavours and come up with a dazzling bespoke concoction.
WHO’S IT FOR:
If you’re hip and cool with a taste for adventure and invention, in both cuisine and cocktails, then this is the place for you! (Although everyone should go at least once, to experience the thrill of passwords and secret doors.)
Location: Arévalo 1443, Palermo Hollywood
Opening hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 21.00 to close
Reservations: Via the website: http://www.franks-bar.com
#4: ESQUINA CARLOS GARDEL
No trip to Buenos Aires is complete without taking in a tango show – and there are many different ways to do this, from the local milongas (tango clubs for those who want to do some serious dancing) through to public displays in the city’s plazas.
There is, unavoidably, a touristy element to these shows but that doesn’t mean they’re not good; many are excellent. And if you’re after a tango experience with some serious class, look no further than the dinner show at Esquina Carlos Gardel.
Named after Argentina’s most famous tango singer, this theatre-cum-restaurant – built on the site of the old Chanta Cuatro hotel, where Gardel spent many evenings entertaining diners – the venue captures all the glitz and glamour of a 1930s cabaret.
The show begins with a short film, explaining the story of Carlos Gardel and tango. Guests are then treated to an evening of spectacular dancing, as groups and couples take to the stage to show off their skills.
In between the bursts of flashing feet and twirling bodies, there are musical interludes from some excellent tango singers, exuding pathos and emotion that Gardel would surely be proud of.
During the show, swift and silent waiting-staff serve up three courses, selected by guests from a limited but delicious menu.
We sampled starters of vegetable soup – piping hot, herby and deliciously savoury – as well as plump, sweet langoustines with capers and tomato salsa.
Fish and pasta options were available, but we went for the classic Argentine bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) with rosemary-roasted potatoes, which was beautifully cooked and very flavoursome.
Desserts showcased the best of Buenos Aires’ favourite sweets, with a light, croquant-sprinkled chocolate mousse, a cheesecake with honey and fruit, crème caramel and last but not least the local favourite: dulce de leche ice cream.
Local wines, beers and soft drinks are included in the price and free-flowing throughout the evening.
WHO’S IT FOR:
Anyone wanting an excellent introduction to tango dancing and music, in a classy environment, with some very good grub. It’s not cheap, particularly if you choose the VIP balcony seating rather than the stalls – but transfer from your hotel is included in the price; and this really is dinner-entertainment at its best.
Location: Carlos Gardel 3200, Abasto
Opening hours: Every evening, from 8.30pm
Reservations: (+5411) 4867 6363 / email@example.com
#3: LAS PIZARRAS BISTRO
Probably the most casual of my top five, this cosy little restaurant is warm and welcoming, with an open kitchen, clean white walls and just 11 wooden tables.
But don’t let appearances fool you: the unassuming façade sets the stage for a serious and extremely delicious focus on local, organic ingredients and clever flavour combinations.
Chef Rodrigo Castilla – who spent several years in European kitchens, working under big names such as Gary Rhodes and Richard Corrigan – describes the concept as ‘market cuisine’. This sees him rewriting menus not just seasonally but daily, depending on what fresh ingredients can be found at the local markets.
To accommodate such regular updates, dishes are chalked up each day on blackboards lining the walls – all of which are packed with seasonal stars.
When I visited in mid-January, starters included rabbit pâté with apple and ginger chutney and toasted bread; lamb tongues with lentil salad and parsnip purée; and cured trout with herb aioli, accompanied by an apple, almond and cucumber salad.
The selection of main courses was equally mouth-watering, featuring dishes such as deer with parsnip purée, baby carrots and cherry chutney; pressed suckling pig served with carrot purée, sautéed kale and Swiss chard, dressed with yoghurt dressing and peanuts; and grilled hake served on aubergine purée and a Niçoise salad.
The excellent wine list is also on a blackboard and subject to seasonal updates.
For those with a sweet tooth (and the stomach space to indulge it), there’s an array of elegant concoctions to conclude the meal – such as a port sabayon with cherry and peach compote and vanilla cream, or a tangy passion fruit crème brûlée.
WHO’S IT FOR:
This is an ideal spot for treating a loved one to a special night out that isn’t over-the-top, offering local flavours and excellent cooking at a reasonable price.
Location: Thames 2296, Palermo Soho
Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 20:00 to close
Reservations: (+5411) 4775 0625 / firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the third Buenos Aires restaurant from renowned local chef Germán Martitegui, and there’s a real sense of experimentation and fun here.
It’s certainly been a hit – coming in at number nine on the Latin edition of the 50 Best Restaurants list for 2014, making it the highest-ranked Argentine outlet.
Diners can choose to have either five or ten dishes, with or without wine pairings. You have no idea what these will be – although the attentive staff do check in advance if there’s anything you can’t or won’t eat. What you can expect is a re-education in traditional flavours and textures.
Our experience kicked off with some beautiful light plates, including goat’s cheese yoghurt accompanied by frozen beetroot, sliced pickled beetroot and black cherries – a sweet and sour dish of an unusual consistency – as well as different textures of organic tomato seasoned with goat’s cheese snow and chive flowers – which sounds simple but was actually stunning, packing a real punch of tomatoey flavour.
Meaty courses included local favourite sweet breads with a parsley purée and raspberries; and venison cooked sous vide, with smoked puréed potatoes, beetroot and prune sauce, pickled onions and beetroot crisps.
It’s well worth opting for the wine pairings option when you order, as the sommeliers are brilliant and will set you up with some truly fantastic vintages.
WHO’S IT FOR:
Definitely not picky eaters! This is for adventurous foodies, with a penchant for kitchen experimentation and an enthusiasm for new flavour combinations. You have to be willing to give yourself over to Chef Germán and his team, and just enjoy the ride.
Location: Costa Rica 5852, Palermo Hollywood
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday, 20:30 to 23:45
Reservations: (+5411) 4770 7500/ email@example.com
#1: BISTRO SUR
Located in the city’s pricey Puerto Madero district, in the trendy boutique Faena Hotel, this restaurant certainly looks and feels the part.
Designed (as per the rest of the property) by French designer Philippe Starck, the outlet is a symphony of white and hot pinks, with crystal chandeliers casting rosy light over snowy leather banquettes, a vast fresco covering one wall, and the somewhat surprising moulded unicorn heads mounted down each side of the restaurant.
The interior is eye-catching, undoubtedly – but once you taste the food, that is where your attention will be focused. Because this is, quite simply, superb.
Chef Rodrigo Vázquez explains to us that this is modern cuisine, with international methods – but predominantly regional ingredients.
These come together to form starters such as beef carpaccio with bacon milk, potato crisp twirls and mint – a light, refreshing yet intensely flavoured take on the classic slices of raw beef; and home cured salmon with strawberry, tomato heart, grapefruit and pink pepper – a dish working on the theory of combining ingredients with matching colours, and absolutely popping with fruity zest and smoky salmon depth.
Of the main courses, the winner for me was rabbit ravioli, using braised rabbit in the centre of the pasta, then topped by pinkly grilled slices of rabbit loin and a light mascarpone cheese sauce with thyme and lemon zest. The beautiful meaty flavour of the rabbit – still fresh and young enough not to be too gamey – is complemented by light pasta and the light creamy sauce, but redeemed from overindulgence with zesty notes. A perfectly balanced and delicious dish.
Duck maigret was another hit, the slices of meat a juicy pink with cracklingly crisp skin on top, layered on a silky smooth carrot and orange purée that brings sweetness and freshness to the dish.
Pudding presents a tough choice, but my pick would be the white chocolate soufflé: a perfect spongy outer layer encasing a soft, gooey centre of molten chocolate, with dried and fresh raspberries and a tart raspberry sorbet cutting through the richness.
But really, with cooking like this, you can’t go too wrong with anything from the menu.
My tip would be to have a chat with the exceptionally helpful and well-versed sommelier for his recommendations on wine pairings – and if you’re in the mood for an aperitif, keep it local and try a glass of the Alma 4 Pinot Noir sparkling rosé, which is fresh and fruity without succumbing to sweetness.
WHO’S IT FOR:
One for foodies willing to splash out on a truly spectacular dining experience. This is a meal you’ll remember!
Location: Faena Hotel, 445 Martha Salotti Street, Puerto Madero
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 20:00 to 00:00
Reservations: (+5411) 4010 9200