Wining on: Top tables

Bright and beautiful: Cebiche criollo with flounder.
The list to end all foodie lists was published this past week, although the top 10 restaurants which led The World’s 50 Best Restaurants changed little on 2011.

With just one brand-new entry — London’s Dinner by Heston Blumenthal — coming in at number nine, the only other restaurant to make the top, which clambered up the poll by 14 places to squeeze its way in at number 10, was of course a brash New Yorker, Eleven Madison Park.

However, it was Copenhagen’s Noma, which serves up Nordic delicacies such as poached sea urchin and powdered cucumber, which was named the “World’s Best Restaurant” for the third consecutive year.

Two weeks before this accolade was confirmed, Buenos Aires’ Danish Embassy flew in Simon Lau Cederholm, fellow countryman, and chef and owner of Aquavit in Brasilia, who, alongside an Argentine chef, prepared a menu based on new Nordic cuisine in Puerto Madero.

Although I’ve visited Copenhagen, sadly there was no Noma on my list that time, but now I have a taste for the Nordic, there will be more from Denmark in next week’s Wining On.

Latin America did make it to the top 10, although no Argentine establishment even makes the top 50, and in fact Sao Paulo’s D.O.M. climbed three places to rank four this year.

I had an unfortunate near-miss with D.O.M. two years ago, and yes, the reason was that it was impossible to book a table. Although it obviously isn’t the only SP restaurant serving up produce from Brazil and its Amazonian region, including foodstuffs from the rainforest — I went to the similar Brasil a Gosto in the ultra-cool Jardins district, but then many of the SP eateries that make “cool” or “best” lists are found in Jardins — Alex Atala, the chef and owner of D.O.M., is obviously getting it better than right.

I did, however, totally luck out with Restaurante Fasano, at the boutique Fasano Hotel — a veritable European treat which fortunately someone else was picking up the tab for, and Jun Sakamoto, a Brazilian-Japanese chef whose sushi is so fabulous I swore I’d never touch it in Buenos Aires again. (Wrong.)

Four Latin American eateries made The World’s 50 Best List: Lima’s Astrid y Gastón rose seven places to 35, Mexico City’s Pujol soared 13 places to 36 while Biko, also in DF, slipped seven to 38.

Although no one took me to Peru this week for lunch, not even to the Little Lima of Buenos Aires, I managed to get as close to a World’s 50 Best as I ever have done.

Owner and chef Gastón Acurio has rolled out his Astrid y Gastón restaurant concept — which started out as traditional Peruvian but has now morphed into something more sophisticated to become a Peruvian-haute cuisine hybrid — across the continent as well as into Spain. With establishments in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, the local branch of A&G is located in Palermo Chico, just two blocks from Avenue Libertador, but quiet and tucked away nonetheless.

First things first, it certainly did not have a chain feel to it. Once I’d found the main entrance after a fight with a velvet curtain, there are several dining rooms spread across the ground and first floors, as well as tables out on the back terrace.

Seated in the white room, more opulent velvet curtains blocked the view to the outside world, but given the number of mirrors (perfectly placed for discreetly picking out coriander from gappy teeth), eating by the light of three chandeliers was sufficient.

Peruvian waiter Christopher was extremely well-informed as to the components of each course, giving a little history to ingredients or the names of dishes. Even when he didn’t serve us, a different waiter knew exactly what was going on as well.

I did work out that Christopher wasn’t calling the cebiche criollo “peculiar” — what he meant was that it was a different variation on a classic, rather than a queer fish which had leapt into my dish.

Clearly there is little cheap about A&G, but the seven-course tasting menu — three starters, three mains, a dessert, plus coffee and a glass of Malbec or Chardonnay — coming in at 240 pesos is about average in BA at the moment.

HG by Hernán Gipponi, which is at the Fierro — “the hotel for the gourmand” — costs 190 pesos for a nine-course dinner while Trip Advisor top dog Aramburu, whose chef and owner Gonzalo Aramburu whips up 12 courses of molecular gastronomy from his Constitución kitchen (take a cab) for 280 pesos.

But back to Astrid y Gastón. The first step was memorable but then I am always a sucker for a fishy dish. The cebiche criollo was a mix of the classic marinated white fish but also jalea, lightly fried seafood which in this case was baby squid. The flounder (lenguado) was perfect, fresh, succulent, and was surrounded by leche de tigre (the citrus-based ceviche marinade), perfect for slurping up the flounder chunks. Cubed sweet potato popped like a little cloud on the tongue.

Round two was a twist on the classic causa de pollo. A potato base, stained with red pepper, supported shreds of chicken and mayonnaise, and there was plenty of creamy salsa huancaina for mopping up the colourful remainder and edible flowers.

A pea risotto and sausage-stuffed, grilled then pan-fried baby squid was the third starter and one of the meal’s most interesting. Despite the autumnal weather, I was transported forward to spring, and this week’s saus-urge was cancelled out immediately. Who’d have thought I’d be wolfing down a banger in the name of Peruvian-haute cuisine?

Of the three mains — Chilean octopus, a lenguado stew in a basil jus and succulent beef cheek slow-cooked for 12 hours — it was the grilled then pan-fried eight-legged friend who won out for me, hidden under foam, and surrounded by squid-ink tainted gnocchi.

Although most of the seafood courses were flounder-based, Christopher had been quick to point out that the menu naturally depended on what the market was offering — but no matter, it was all creative and more to the point, delicious.

Clearly this is not the award-winning number 35 restaurant on the World’s Best list, but for some fresh and exciting tastes, Buenos Aires’ little sister restaurant is doing great things of its own accord — and without the Peruvian ingredients so readily available in Lima.

Wining On verdict: Ace for a foody date, especially if the date is paying.

Astrid & Gastón
Lafinur 3222, Palermo Chico
Tel: 4802-2991

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on May 6, 2012.
Photo by Allan Kelin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *