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A Working Vacation in South America

 
by Amanda McDougall and Antoinette Bruno
photos by Antoinette Bruno
May 2008  

Let’s face it, the value of the U.S. dollar is in a serious slump, and the Euro is stronger than ever. As of May 7th, the exchange rate is $1.54 per €1; a year ago, it was $1.35, and in ‘06, $1.28. (Just for fun, when the Euro was launched in 2002, the exchange rate was a respectable $0.88.) Clearly – and sadly – the tendency has been for a decreasing U.S. dollar value, and many economists feel that the trend is set to continue. This financial fact is making travel and stages in any Euro-sporting country a real challenge, especially on a cook’s/chef’s salary (and you can just forget about travel to the U.K. and Japan!).

So maybe Western Europe, the traditional hot bed of stages for U.S. chefs to gain culinary “cred,” is out of reach for the time being, but there is the rest of the world to consider. A recent fifteen day trip to three cities in three South American countries opened our eyes to the burgeoning culinary scenes in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Punta del Este. What’s more, the U.S. dollar still buys a lot in each of these countries: the average price for dinner for two at an upscale casual restaurant in Buenos Aires was around $30 – a steal compared to what you’d spend at a comparable restaurant in France, Spain, Italy, or even New York City.

The combination of affordable prices, a great exchange rate, a growing list of notable restaurants, and culinary traditions and ingredients to discover makes fertile ground for curious and penny-wise American cooks to travel, stage, and perhaps even live/work in one of these capital cities. Here is a run-down of the restaurants we visited during our travels – and perhaps a start to a list of South American restaurant stages.

Ceviche at Gran Bar Danzon on StarChefs.com
Ceviche at Gran Bar Danzon

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is a great food destination for chefs and culinary travelers alike. The variety, volume, and veracity of the restaurants in the city is commendable. Buenos Aires chefs are getting more recognition, and this acclaim is feeding their desire and ability to be more adventurous and innovative with their cuisine, and make it stand up on a global level – not just a local one. And the rapidly expanding wine industry in Argentina certainly adds fuel to the gustatory fires and added interest for the vino-minded chef.

Gran Bar Danzon is in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood (the Madison Avenue of Buenos Aires), filled with high-end cafes serving Argentinean, Italian, and French food. Gran Bar Danzon is a trendy wine bar serving Chef Martin Arrieta’s inventive food – the Rabbit Ravioli with a Goat Cheese Emulsion, Caramelized Pears, and Rabbit Confit was  visually exciting, with the components nestled in an airy cloud of goat cheese foam. Arrieta’s perspective on cuisine is worldly and eclectic, incorporating flavors and techniques from his native land, continental Europe, and Asia.

Bar Uriarte is in the Palermo Viejo enclave along with other comfortable and easy-going restaurants and local artists’ shops. Chef Julieta Oriolo puts her Italian heritage into play in the simple but well prepared Italian-centered dishes. Our favorite was the Pork Spare Ribs with Sweet Potato Puree and Dijon Mustard – ironically, the least Italian item on the menu. The ribs are tender-to-the-bone and the puree is creamy, unexpectedly yellow sweet potato puree. The sweet potato, generically called “batata” (which translates to sweet potato), is a new variety to us Northerners, with a ruddy garnet colored skin and pale yellow flesh.

The Grill at El Pobre Luis on StarChefs.com
The Grill at El Pobre Luis

One of the more avant-garde and talked-about restaurants in the city is Sucre in Bajo Belgrano. Chef Gonzalo Sacot uses progressive techniques and uncommon flavor combinations to enhance its global menu items, from citrus gelee and vodka-lime foam to dehydrated grapes. Offal also has an atypically large presence on the high-cuisine menu, and the delicate goat sweetbreads and Patagonic lamb loin and kidney kebabs are reason enough to keep the oft overlooked viscera on the menu.

In the same neighborhood is the famous Uruguayan spot El Pobre Luis, captained by well-known Chef Luis Acuña. At his restaurant, Acuña mans a grill covered with a mouth-watering selection of his country’s best sausages and meats; he’s big and friendly, and is known throughout the community for his love of futból and his fantastic carnes a la brasa. If the title of grill or pit master entices you, this is your place.

Potato Creme Brulee at La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar on StarChefs.com
Potato Creme Brulee at La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar

In contrast to the meat-intensive menu at El Pobre Luis (and just about every other Argentinean restaurant) is the no-meat “pescetarian” house-cum-restaurant Casa Felix. This cozy 12-seater is run by Chef Diego Felix and his girlfriend Sanra out of their home for just three nights a week. The fish- and vegetable-intensive menu changes regularly, accommodates vegetarians and vegans, and features local and unusual ingredients that Felix seeks out. Casa Felix is certainly not the culinary norm for the city, but surely a sign of a shift in the gastronomic tides.

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar fits right into the funky, off-beat neighborhood of San Telmo. Chef Alejandro Digilio spent time at El Bulli in Spain, and the local media likes to call him their own Wylie Dufresne (side note: it speaks volumes that the Buenos Aires press knows Wylie’s name). Digilio’s dishes were inventive and unusual, toying with textures and flavor combinations; our favorite was the potato crème brulee that oozed an orange-yellow egg yolk when cracked. Overall there were hits and misses, but Digilio certainly has the desire and inquiring mind to become Argentina’s Wylie in a few years time (minus the mutton chops and long hair).

Quails with Plum Sauce Perfumed with Black Currant and Leeks in Potato Nest at Tomo I  on StarChefs.com
Quails with Plum Sauce Perfumed with Black Currant and Leeks in Potato Nest at Tomo I

A counterpoint to the agar and technical magic were our meals at the Concaro sisters’ Tomo I (that’s as in Roman numeral one, or “uno” en Español) and the über-elegant Oviedo with Chef Martin Rebaudino. Ada and Ebe Concaro opened Tomo I three decades ago, when they were in their 40s and before any sort of home-style cooking transgressed from the private household into the restaurant kitchen. Oviedo on the other hand, traditional in its own right, is the culinary home of the crème de la crème of Buenos Aires society – the fine dining equivalent of Le Bernardin. The food at both was enjoyable, but in a city as pulsing and vibrant as Buenos Aires, it’s hard not to get caught up in the spirit and excitement of the younger chefs’ restaurants.

The two other South American cities were decidedly less food-centric than Buenos Aires. That said, we still managed to find several gems.

Punta del Este, Uruguay

A chivito from Uruguay on StarChefs.com
A chivito

Punta del Este is the Uruguayan equivalent of New York’s Hamptons – just a one hour flight or 4 hour ferry/bus ride from Buenos Aires. It’s loaded with beaches, expensive shops, and restaurants, but the chefs aren’t the main billing – it’s more about the scene. This resort town is a fun place to splurge for a weekend or spend a season working (December through March), but there are also two notable restaurants.

The beachside hotspot La Huella at Jose Ignacio Beach is a textbook example of Punta del Este’s scene-y vibe: white pillowy sofas with colorful woven fabric pillows, an open kitchen, and a blazing fire place – haute ambiance with serious attitude, but not-so-serious food, though certainly tasty. Yet, one of the best – and most expensive – meals of the trip was at O’Farrell. The highlights of the meal were a tender and flavorful rack of lamb, delicate and crisp thin-crusted goat cheese and olive pizza, and a sweetbreads and shrimp combo that, as unlikely as it seems, really worked.

In the end, though, our favorite meal in this ritzy town was the most simple: a traditional steak sandwich called a “chivito.” It’s a cross between a Big Mac (but with Uruguyan beef!) and a Philly cheese steak – amounting to a perfect remedy after a night of partying, and a remedy to the otherwise exorbitant prices in Punta del Este.

Chef Troisgras’ (Rio, Brazil) foie gras with fresh hearts of palm on StarChefs.com
Troisgras’ foie gras with fresh hearts of palm

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In Rio the food was fairly mediocre with two exceptions: Chef Claude Troisgros’ Olympe and the venerable Antiquarius. Troisgros is a third generation chef/restaurateur in the famous French Troisgros family; Claude brought his French sensibilities and culinary talent to Rio twenty years ago, and has opened several restaurants, Olympe being the flagship. The entire meal was wonderful, and the standout dish, braised hearts of palm topped with foie gras, was exceptional for its variety of textures and flavors. Troisgros, coming from a hard-core French background, is no stranger to stages; he accepts them into his kitchens regularly.  

While Claude blends his native French cuisine with Brazilian twists, the chef duo at Antiquarius have worked with the owner to adapt ancient Portuguese recipes – some retrieved from monasteries – into a contemporary restaurant setting that’s one of the city’s best spots for glamorous people watching. Several of the tapas-style dishes were outstanding: the codfish balls were light and airy, and the cold eggplant lasagna with orange tomato and bell pepper sauce was a spicy-sweet and exciting variation on a classic form. A dish of shredded salt cod with scrambled eggs and shoestring potatoes, called “Bacalhau Dourado” (which translates to Golden Salt Cod) had an addicting and singular flavor and texture that made you want to keep eating it – which we did.

The Quick List

Top of the PageBuenos Aires

Sucre *
Sucre 676
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4782 9082
www.sucrerestaurant.com.ar

Notable Dishes:
- Goat Sweetbreads with Porcini Risotto, Emulsion of Pumpkin, Green Salad and Vanilla Oil
- Grilled Loin and Kidney of Patagonia Lamb with Crispy Bread, Wheat, and Coconut Cream Sauce

Gran Bar Danzon *
Libertad 1161
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4811 1108
www.granbardanzon.com.ar

Notable Dishes:
- Ceviche of Sole and King Crab in Coconut-Tangerine Broth with Cilantro, Avocado and Carrot-Ginger Sorbet
- Rabbit Ravioli with Goat Cheese Emulsion, Caramelized Pears and Rabbit Confit

Casa Felix
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4555 1882
www.diegofelix.com

Notable Dishes:
- Fresh Sweet Potato Soup, Oyster Mushrooms, Chimichurri with Bolivian Lemons and Honey
- Grilled Sopa Paraguaya, Iris Salad and Lemon Verbena-Infused Oil

Tomo I
Hotel Panamericano Buenos Aires
Carlos Pellegrini 521
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4326 6695
www.tomo1.com.ar

Notable Dishes:
- Scallops with Celery and Their Juices

Bar Uriarte *
Uriarte 1572
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4834 6004
www.baruriarte.com.ar

Notable Dishes:
- Fresh Figs Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Almonds, Wrapped in Prosciutto with Arugula and Truffle Honey
- Pork Spare Ribs with Sweet Potato Puree and Dijon
- Seafood and Fish Soup with Saffron-Vegetable Broth and Toasted Homemade Bread

El Pobre Luis
Arribeños 2393
Buenos Aires
+ 54 11 4780 5847

Notable Dishes:
- Any steak or sausage off the grill!

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar
Bolívar 865
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4361 4709

Notable Dishes:
- Potato Creme Brulee with Egg Yolk
- Sea Bass with Crispy Rice and Paella Juice

Oviedo
Beruti 2602
Buenos Aires
+54 11 4822 5415

Notable Dishes:
- Baked Eggplant with Mushrooms, Eggplant Puree and Goat Cheese Ice Cream
- Baby Squid a la Plancha with Grilled Onions and Parsley Sauce
- Suckling Pig

* Sucre, Bar Uriarte, and Gran Bar Danzon are part of one of Buenos Aires’ (if not the country’s) top restaurant groups, owned by Patricia Scheuer and Chef Fernando Trocca.

Top of the PagePunta del Este
O’Farrell
Punta del Este Street, before Terrazas de Manantialies
Punta del Este
+598 4 277 4331
www.ofarrellrestaurant.com
La Huella
Playa Brava
Jose Ignacio Maldonado
Punta del Este
+598 4 86 2279
www.paradorlahuella.com

Top of the PageRio de Janeiro

Olympe
Rua Custódio Serrão 62
Jardim Botânico
Rio de Janeiro
+ 55 21 2539 4542
www.claudetroisgros.com.br

Notable Dishes:
- Fresh Heart of Palm with Apples, Foie Gras, and Jabuticaba Sauce
- Ravioli of Brazilian Sweet Potato and Butter Sauce

Antiquarius
Rua Aristides Espinola 10
Zona Sul
Rio de Janeiro
+ 55 21 2294 1049/1695

Notable Dishes:
- Cold Eggplant Lasagna with Tomato and Bell Pepper Sauce
- Bacalhau Dourado (Shredded Salt Cod with Scrambled Eggs and Shoestring Potatoes)
- Grilled Langoustines with Paprika Sauce


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   Published: May 2008

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