Let’s play word association. What three things do you think of when you think of Argentina? (Let’s leave out Eva Peron and economic woes.) For me, it’s steak, tango, and polo.
We begin our journey with not just a steak, but a steak in a speakeasy.
What is it about me and speakeasies? I guess I like being in on a secret. At a speakeasy, everybody’s cool, even me. You may recall my speakeasy fetish in New York. Well, in Buenos Aires, they have these things called puertos cerrados, or “closed door” restaurants. The concept isn’t particularly new – people open up their home to guests, who are thrown together in a dinner party-like atmosphere. It’s a little different in Buenos Aires. These puertos cerrados act more like restaurants but they occur in the home. Like the blue market for currency, there seems to be a blue market for dinner.
We’ve been to two so far, and the first, Paladar, was a big winner. The restaurant is in an apartment building in the residential part of the Villa Crespo neighborhood. We arrived at the address, rang the bell, and were led up the stairs to an apartment that is converted on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays into a lovely mid-century modern dining spot. (I wonder what the neighbors think about all this. Would you want the people downstairs to host a dinner party three days a week? Me neither.)
The meal was five really good courses, each paired with a cocktail or a dandy Argentinean wine. A husband and wife team run the show – he’s the chef and she’s the sommelier. We had a lovely corn croquette amuse paired with a welcome cocktail. There was a nice appetizer of baked ham, mozzarella balls, and cherry preserves served with a great Malbec rose. The main was one of the famous cuts of beef in Argentina, the bife de chorizo, (we call it the New York strip), dry rubbed with the North African spice mixed called ras al hanout. Be careful how your order your steaks in Argentina. They grade on the curve here. Rare means medium, medium means well done, and well done means you want them to turn your steak into flooring, which they will. As far as I can tell, you cannot get a steak that is actually rare unless you cook it yourself. We ordered rare and got medium rare, which we considered a victory. This was served with a really terrific cabernet from Mendoza that tasted like black cherries and velour, if such a thing is possible. One of the joys of this particular place is what appears to be the bottomless glass of wine – our hostess Ivana roamed the dining room seeking out empty glasses to refill. This is the kind of dinner party you want to go to, unless uncle Hershel can’t hold his hootch. The whole shebang came to 400 pesos per person, which is thirty one bucks if you’ve gotten a good rate on the blue market. It may be the dining deal of the century, if you don’t count koshery.
Our other closed door effort was somewhat less successful. It was called Almacen Secreto, or Secret Warehouse, although it was simply an apartment that had been converted into a restaurant (unlike Paladar, which actually seems like it could be somebody’s home). We went to Almacen for New Year’s Eve. The food was fair at best, but the fun happened at midnight when they passed out party favors and turned the backyard into an impromptu disco.
Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. You can’t think of Argentina without thinking of tango. Tango seems to be everywhere here. There was a free tango show at the flea market, all over town you will find tango lessons followed by an evening of dancing at events called Milongas, and you can even give it a try yourself walking down the street.
We even went for an evening of tango-y jazz without the dancing. At Café Vinilo in Palermo, we caught Noelia Moncada and the Orquesta Victoria. The band was like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard before. There was a piano, a bass clarinet, two concertinas, four violins, one viola, one double bass, one cello, and a sultry, deeply wrought singer who sang a lot about the heart. Either that or she sang many a lot of songs about cardiology, because I heard the word “corazon” a lot. The music was earthy, sexy, soulful, and playful at the same time. And it was a ridiculous bargain. Tickets were eight bucks and drinks were cheap. How do they do it? Anyway, Noelia and her pals made you want to undulate across the dance floor, although if you didn’t know the steps, you could seriously hurt your partner or yourself, or both.
Here’s a clip:
Finally, my missive about cliché Argentina tourism would not be complete without a trip to the polo field. For some reason, Argentinians are the world’s best polo players, so how do you pass up the chance to watch a polo match? My mother still owns and rides horses, so this sounded like a particularly fun outing for her.
Somehow Janine managed to find what appeared to be a freelance polo player who would pick us up in town, serve us lunch, and take us out to the polo fields to watch a match. He signed his emails “Vito, Professional Polo Player.” This was going to either be really fun or we were in for trouble.
The economics of polo are scary. To play a single match you need at least four really well-trained horses, all of which need to be fed, boarded, groomed, saddled, and ready for action. If you are rich enough to do this, why do you need to drive tourists around? Vito, Professional Polo Player’s fee would scarcely pay for a single polo mallet. Something wasn’t quite right here.
Well, Vito, Professional Polo Player arrived and the guy was right out of Argentine Central Casting. He’s young, handsome, and fit. His English is excellent, and of course there’s that charming South American accent. My daughter, my wife, and my mother all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely and we hadn’t left the apartment yet.
VPPP drove us out to the polo fields, set up a table in a meadow next to the field, and served us finger sandwiches.
He was particularly gentlemanly with my mother – jumping up to get her chair and otherwise turning on the Latin charm to which she seemed particularly susceptible – and we watched him and seven other guys with thirty some-odd horses scrimmage on a private polo field for about an hour and a half. Polo is gorgeous to watch. The horses are extraordinary athletes, as are their riders. The game itself is uncomplicated and fun – hit the ball with a mallet through the uprights while riding full tilt on a thousand pound animal. What’s not to like?
During our couple of hours in the car, we chatted with our new friend about the life of a professional polo player (although he is also an architect – some guys…), life in Argentina in general, and our day of polo turned out to also be a game of a hundred and twenty questions with a local. We ended the day with Vito dropping us off one of his favorite Argentine steak houses, which lived up to its billing. As it turns out, our day was a big winner, and it may be a while before my mother wipes the grin off her face.