The Lima files: 50 top tables

Inside Central Restaurante.
Inside Central Restaurante.
The results are in, Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants have been named, and the fireworks began not long after the awards ceremony ended on Wednesday night in Lima.

Fireworks not so much in celebration but with regard to the outcome of some results, in particular the Argentine rankings.

Of course the men — and one woman — who make the cut in the World’s Best list dominate the top six. It’s of little surprise to see Gastón Acurio’s original Lima branch of Astrid & Gastón leading the pack; Sao Paulo’s D.O.M. led by Alex Atala in second spot; Mexico City’s Pujol led by Enrique Olvera ranks third; Virgilio Martínez and Central in Lima rank fourth; it’s back to Brazil with husband-and-wife team Daniel Redondo and Helena Rizzo at Mani in fifth place; and sixth is D.F.’s Biko.

There’s been a little shifting around since the World’s 50 Best: Astrid & Gastón now tops it as opposed to being the second-ranked Latin American establishment, while Central has made quite the leap from 50th in the world to fourth in Latin America.

And then the first Argentine restaurant — and Argentina is the most ranked country with a whopping 15 eateries in the entire 50 — is Germán Martitegui’s Tegui, at nine. Let it be said, phenomenal news that a Palermo restaurant has slipped into the top 10! No quibbles from me, apart from the fact that almost two years ago a main dish cost 150 pesos, lord knows what it costs now and I am priced right out.

My only dalliance with Tegui was in December 2011, almost two years ago. This might get a bit Dear Diary as I reflect upon meals demolished and digested, but the reason I went — and I quote — was this: “With a demanding Londoner in town, the dietary requirements were: excellent food, excellent setting, no expense spared. Tegui, thought I, and off we went.”

And that summer night, Tegui met that demanding Londoner’s expectations. Oysters were a highlight — “they were mouth-watering, lightly coated in bread crumbs and lime juice, and large and juicy,” — as was the pre-dinner cucumber martini, that “practically felt like a liver transplant, so soothing it was on my weary organ.”

That’s right, it was pre-Christmas, the liver had been taking a pounding and the goose was getting fat….

To sum up, it seems we had a most excellent dinner: “Chef Germán Martitegui, who also runs Palermo’s Ølsen and Casa Cruz kitchens, is doing everything right that a high-end, ultra-cool, gastro’s wet dream of a restaurant should be.” Praise indeed!

Needless to say, on a peso salary I haven’t been back, so it’s difficult to confirm that “One week his menu could resemble that of a European restaurant, the next it could take on a more diner-like feel, depending on which ingredients the chef has been seduced by,” as per the 50 best website. To simplify, did I like Tegui? Yes. Would I go back? Yes, if I could afford it and didn’t have to rely on handouts from friends with pounds.

15 OUT OF 50
So Argentina features 15 times in the Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants list. No mean feat, given the regional competition in Peru and Brazil. Keeping up the rear end were Elena Restaurante at the Four Seasons and Hernán Gipponi Restaurant, in 50 and 49 respectively. Also taking spots in the 40s were Casa Umare, Paraje Arévalo and Unik respectively at 45, 44 and 40. Great news for the smaller enterprises such as Umare and PA, and of course for Unik although it does have the backing of its French owners who have other restaurants in Paris and Shanghai.

Was Aramburu robbed in the rankings?
Was Aramburu robbed in the rankings?
The only regional representation (and that was a surprise, given the rich pickings available around the country) came from a rather obvious 1884 — celebrity chef Francis Mallmann’s Mendoza restaurant. While the space is eclectic and the menu ravishing — I’ve dined there though I’ve never reviewed it as such and I do recall a fantastic strawberry and mint soup for dessert, as fresh as the morning it was — it’s a shame other Mendoza-based chefs such as Pablo del Río whose innovative regional cuisines at Siete Cocinas didn’t get a look in.

Meanwhile, another surprise, mainly because it also didn’t get a look in, was Dante Liporace’s Recoleta-based Tarquino, known for its Sequence of the Cow tasting menu. His experience honed at the now-closed El Bulli is highly relevant, especially given that his dishes now take on an Argentine twist.

Another short sharp shock came at what I consider to be a low ranking for Aramburu. Gonzalo Aramburu deals in molecular cuisine, and has one of the most exciting kitchen proposals in Buenos Aires — I expected his magical fusions to rank between 15 and 25. It wasn’t to be.

The couple that have surprised me for featuring, and rather harshly on my side, because I haven’t eaten there are Pura Tierra, Oviedo and Tomo 1; the latter two seem very much to be part of the old guard, which isn’t hugely appealing to me personally. That said, Tomo 1’s reputation does precedes it: a family affair founded by siblings Ada and Hebe Cóncaro, the next generation in the shape of Ada’s son Federico Fialayre now manages the kitchen so perhaps I should get off my high horse and drop by one evening.

To summarize, it seems as if the youngsters have been ranked lower down the scale in order to give them a goal to aim for next time around. Maybe there’s no truth behind that statement at all, but the grandes dames, excluding Tegui, are the top scorers.

Part of Astrid & Gastón's tasting menu.
Part of Astrid & Gastón’s tasting menu.
But the biggest surprise was La Cabrera. Not the fact that it is on the list, but its top 20 position. Recently I held my own fun “battle of the cattle” (Herald, May 19, 2013) between La Cab and Don Julio, a head to head of legendary Palermo steak houses.

There’s no denying the giant slabs of meat aren’t the stuff of every vegetarian’s nightmare and every tourist carnivore’s dreams. “Brandish your weapon and cut into the perfectly seared steak. Succulent, tender, bordering on the rare side of medium-rare, it’s fabulous, the stuff of photos, an art-attack on a plate.” The rib-eye absolutely lives up to expectations, no doubt about it.

But the winner was… “Don Julio, for a more genuine, all-round experience.” Spanish isn’t the first language heard, and neither is it English — the Brazilians have moved in and you should feel grato (thankful in Portuguese) to get a table.

And my issue is this: La Cabrera has turned into a tourist ghetto with the main and obvious intention of making money. While until recently there were two La Cabs, owner Gastón Riveira has shut down sister and neighbouring pasta restaurant Marcelino & García to open a third steak house, sexing up the name by adding Boutique to it. So he gave Italian a whirl, closed it down, and I ended up at the new joint three weeks ago, one lazy Saturday afternoon.

A friend’s boyfriend was hosting some ravenous Peruvians whose first port of call was the legendary steakhouse. To make it brief, we had to send back the overdone skirt steak, the normally vibrant dips were crusty due to their time in the open air and the selection was not as elaborate as usual, the fries were frankly taken out of any old packet and fried up, not hand cut or anything special to match the elevated price. On the plus side, the boyfriend winemaker was able to open his own vintages and although they were wowed by the rib-eye, the Peruvians weren’t blown away by much else.

I came away from that lunch thinking “thank God, I didn’t have to pay.” Sad, but true. The price to quality ratio simply wasn’t up to scratch that day.

But the question is this: what does La Cabrera have over other beef giants such as Don Julio, La Cabaña or Cabaña Las Lilas? DJ doesn’t serve the photo-worthy rib-eye, but the others do; plus, Las Lilas breeds its own cattle. Surely that counts for something? Plus there’s no need to put your name on a list come 8pm at Las Lilas,then angrily glare at diners as they slowly tackle their steak slower than a cow chewing cud.

I appreciate the need for an Argentine steakhouse to feature on Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants list in order to keep up appearances, because right now, Argentine chefs generally aren’t heralded for their molecular gastronomy although Aramburu et al. are trying to break the mould. But I am less appreciative of a restaurant whose primary role (these days) is being the cash cow.

Chefs speak:
Emilio Garip, Oviedo:
“We’re happy to be in Lima at such a large celebration, and to have received the honour of ranking 27.”

Hernán Gipponi, HG Restaurant: “Happy to be on the list with some many other Argentine resturants; now we need to keep on working in order to keep progressing.”

Juan Gaffuri, Elena: “We’re very happy with this achievement and the large commitment to continue offering what diners want.”
With Martín Rosberg in Lima.

How Argentina ranked
#9 Tegui
#17 La Cabrera
#18 Tomo I
#27 Oviedo
#28 Chila
#29 Sucre
#31 Aramburu
#33 Pura Tierra
#37 Francis Mallmann
#39 El Baqueano
#40 Unik
#44 Paraje Arévalo
#45 Casa Umare
#49 Hernán Gipponi Restaurant
#50 Elena Restaurante

Buenos Aires Herald, September 8, 2013
Ph: Central, Aramburu, SMW

Check out my review of Latin America’s #4 restaurant, Central, here.

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