Two weeks for food

I’m feeling weak for food. Actually, I’m feeling two weeks for food.

That’s right, 14 whole days of Buenos Aires Food Week are back, and from today, we are almost half way through this eating festival.

Organizers Marina Ponzi and Anne Reynolds have managed to up the ante for round three of this gastro celebration, including 40 restaurants in their listings for the duration. If you’re unfamiliar with the Food Week concept, the aim is to get the people out and about dining at restaurants they might not usually go to, to tuck into a fixed price menu.

In fairness, last time round I ate at one diamond out of several rough duds (“Fourth Time Lucky,” Buenos Aires Herald, September 29, 2013) and I re-emphasize, these restaurants ordinarily perform well and do a great job, but for me, they let their standards slip over the last Food Week in September.

Demuru was my top spot last time out, while Sipan Palermitano, Social Paraíso and Restaurant Jardín Japonés battled for last place — interestingly, the latter two aren’t participating this time round.

Perhaps it didn’t work out for them like it didn’t work out for me?

Let’s quickly recap Demuru (Honduras 5296, Palermo Soho), which is back in. A refreshing menu, abundant portions, the carpaccio could have been shared easily between two, and that dish was tasty and fresh. The confit octopus was also substantial and nicely dressed. Succulent rib-eyes. A lot of food, so an amazing price-full belly ratio. A night only marred by an old cow testing out her ring tones in a restaurant full of people. (A vein just stood to attention in my neck on recalling that obnoxious behaviour.)

This time round, Demuru’s starters are seafood based, with a tempting pork bondiola and pumpkin-stuffed ravioli for mains. I haven’t been, but I’d go in a heartbeat after last year’s Food Week performance.

A unique lunch
I have, however, lunched at Unik (Soler 5132), and I know it was a feather in BA Food Week’s cap to get the upmarket, modern Argentine restaurant involved.

Although chef Fernando Hara, who created simply yet elaborate menus, has left to go private, Unik is now in the hands of Maximiliano Rossi, and they seem pretty bloody capable.

I previously accused Unik of being pretentious (see Water and Wine Designs, Buenos Aires Herald, July 1, 2011) but the service and attitude was far from that. A warm welcome from the only waiter-slash-manager, a greeting from one of the cooks from the open kitchen, it was all easy breezy and very friendly.

Mr Links and I went on Tuesday, the very first day, and it was surprisingly quiet. But that was a good thing, certainly for us and the other diners looking for a classy yet laidback dining experience. In fact, it gave me a chance to appreciate the eclectic interior that forms part of owner, Argentine-French architect, Marcelo Jouilias’ private collection in the daylight.

There was no physical menu as such — perhaps the special BAFW ones hadn’t arrived – but I went for the smoked fish and string beans salad, while Mr Links selected the slow-cooked egg with oval chips and a romesco, red pepper, sauce.

Unik has a special and very clever smoking machine that surely helped the fish along with its flavour and there were several decent slices, meaning it wasn’t top heavy with just beans. The egg was declared delicious thanks to the supporting cast of the sauce and the potato texture. A satisfactory starting point.

I had a craving for beef about two weeks ago but I was diverted from going to my current preferred steakery, Parrilla 22, for top pizzeria Siamo nel Forno by one Jed Rothenberg, who was in town (Palermo) for one night only from the province (San Telmo).

So I went with the Angus rib-eye with potato terrine; Links, with the fish of the day. His was boom-bass-tic. One large bass fillet cut in half, surrounded by capers, onion relish with white pepper and fennel. Stir-fried green tomatoes were very tasty, adding brightness to the fish without overpowering it. He loved it.

While my steak, perfectly medium rare as requested, was flavourful, annoyingly it was a little bit tough. But the smoked mash potato was totally dreamy. Whole, peeled, cooked potatoes go into this legendary smoking contraption and emerge unscathed yet smoked. The outcome of this mash was creamy, smoky, rustic yet sophisticated and detracted from the slight disappointment of a toughish steak. Upshot? Unik was a veritable treat and a great lunchtime bargain.

Azema's salad.
Azema’s salad.
Wednesday night, it was dinner at Azema Exotic Bistró. I haven’t been for three years, so it was high time to give it a go again.

They very vigilantly called me to confirm the booking, but my phone had fallen on the floor and I hadn’t put it back together. I then called to move the reservation to a bit later and they were very flexible.

Although the colourful space wasn’t packed at 10.30pm, diners had evidently been there. Strangely, like Unik, a mirror tops the upholstered banquette so everyone gets to check out the eclectic artwork, including a very cool portrait of chef and owner Paul Azema, resplendent with indigo hair.

At our table for two, a vast Gancia aperitif turned up smartly, most welcome and unexpected it was too.

Refreshing and with plenty of ice, it almost never ended thanks to the melting cubes. Our orders, as taken by Paul himself: starters were a sea bass ceviche for me and a long-winded whipped farmhouse cheese with cooked and raw greens, crunchy crackers with beetroot salsa and a virgin olive oil vinaigrette. While my ceviche was fresh, it was lacking a little in the citrus and lime department but made up for it with julienne red and green bell peppers. The heat, when it came through, was warming but I’d have liked a bit more.

The salad was an immediate blast from the past for both of us, thanks to the cheese that was verging on identical to a French Boursin, a creamy herby cheese. The veggies retained their crunchiness, the leaves were fresh, and there was an abundance of cheese that Mr Links didn’t mind sharing. Note: all the starters are suitable for those on gluten-free diets.

For the mains Linksy chose Boeuf Mode, braised in white wine and veal stock. Sliced young sweet carrots and roasted potatoes with rosemary backed up this tender cut of roast beef, Argentine style. Meat and two veg done up a treat.

I (obviously) opted for the London Bombay prawn curry — I chose medium heat — and it was scrumptious. It seemed to be made of shrimp stock, which gave it a solid base, there were plenty of prawns — a good eight to 10 — circling the timable of sticky rice, and the curry didn’t overpower the prawn. It was simple yet tasty and well balanced, and some spicy oil was on hand to pep matters up every now and then.

Add in yoghurt and honey ice-cream for dessert, and the upshot is that Azema managed to transport me in three courses to Peru, India and a Greek island. Another winning meal.

My other Food Week tips? Head to Olaya for a budget version of the delectable Nikkei menu; Astor for a dip into a newish restaurant that is earning a solid little reputation; and Gonzalo Aramburu’s latest offering Bis, a very cool bistro spot on the edge of Constitución — if you can get a table.

More about Bis next week.

Buenos Aires Herald, April 6, 2014

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