The Uruguay files (2)

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 20.53.32Perched alongside the River Plate to the east of downtown Montevideo, the former Hotel Casino Carrasco’s glory days were the roaring 20s and 30s. Hosting literati such as Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca — Lorca famously didn’t complete the third act of his play Yerma because he was having such a good time at the hotel — and genius brainiac Albert Einstein, this was very much the place to be seen at for upper-crust members of society from both sides of the river.

But after more changes in owners than it deserved, each less caring than the previous one, the Carrasco fell into an abyss, closing down for good at the turn of the 21st century. Instead of housing wealthy families in Uruguay for the summer season, nesting pigeons took up residence for some 13 years until a knight in shining armour arrived in the shape of global hotel group Accor.

To cut a lengthy and fascinating story short, Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco and Spa threw open its doors last year following an elaborate and costly overhaul. And of course, little expense has been spared on its bar and restaurant.

Thays Bar, named after Franco-Argentine landscaper Carlos who is more normally associated with Buenos Aires, is set in the former lobby and while its stunning oval stained glass ceiling has been cleaned up, a memory of bygone check-ins, it is very much a contemporary lounge space. Grab one of the black leather armchairs with a watery view — all-enclosing, it’s a private moment where you can keep a beady eye on proceedings but are rather hidden from view.

The drinks list is creative, formatted in chronological order, starting with Hydromel, concoction that goes back to BA times. The usual suspects — think Grasshopper, Gin Fizz, Manhattan or Old-Fashioned — are lined up but there’s a great virgin list too, with a great selection of refreshing alcohol-free beverages such as Manzanita (US$8) comprising mint leaves, sugar, lime juice, apple juice and soda water, perfect on a blistering summer’s day.
There’s a short and sweet selection of sandwiches; I went for the chivito gourmet (US$28).

Beef free, it was a stunning ducky delight and a welcome diversion from cow meat. No grande dame hotel’s bar menu would be complete without a club sandwich (US$25), and this abundant affair is spot-hitting, laden well with turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Accompanied by cute vertical dishes of hand-cut fries and a salad, it’s a good idea to join this particular club.

Thays also has a brief yet tempting soup selection; I dipped into a delicious broth of mussels and saffron (US$14), although it was a little on the small side. However, it seems that soup spoons have fallen out of fashion, not just at the Carrasco but other places, so it was tricky to ladle it up with a massive, almost tablespoon size implement. I ended up lifting the bowl and slurping up the yummy remains — not ideal in a polite setting. Luckily I was sitting in an enormous leather chair, shaming myself in private.

Still, onwards and upwards, and dinner on the other side of the building at 1921 Restaurant, combining French flair with Uruguayan ingredients. Former home to clicking roulette balls and whirring card dealings (the casino is now in the basement), 1921 also has a great view of the coastline.

There’s an ample wine cave stashing Uruguayan, Argentine and French varietals, as well as a few Italian and Spanish numbers. In the hands of the country’s finest sommelier, Federico de Moura who ranked in the world’s top 20 last year, Fede also prepares an immaculate wine flight — the ideal introduction to Uruguay’s classics. The most interesting was a 2009 Tannat from the Deica winery that went extremely well with the cheese selection that included gorgonzola.

Soup again, simply because it’s unusual to find unusual flavoured broth in BA. Perfectly presented, legumes at the of bottom the bowl, the waitress carefully poured the consomé over from an elegant white teapot. And as tasty as it was, that massive spoon reared its ugly head again, making draining the bowl a taxing experience.

A fish knife was on hand, though, for easing through blackfin tuna (US$29). Steamed and encrusted in squid ink and resting on a thicker lemongrass consomé, a smattering of edible petals added colour to this dark steak. Succulent, I wolfed this down, barely touching the accompanying couscous, smearing the inked pieces into the consomé. A creative and delicate main from executive chef William Porte.

Rambla República de México 6451, Montevideo

Buenos Aires Herald, January 26, 2014

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