Sunday, July 5, 2009

Gastronomy, Gluttony, Gilbert*

When I lived in Buenos Aires, I remember complaining about the blandness of the food, the lack of spice, and the limited Asian food options. Returning to the U.S., I mourned my loss of homemade pastas swirling in creamy sauces; thick pizza slices overflowing with cheese; light, buttery, and yet sweet medialunas (croissants); and chocolate alfajores bathed in chocolate and snuggling dulce de leche. The truth is, I relished in these culinary delights then too (the 10 pounds I gained while there could fully attest to that fact). For four years, I have been dreaming about the large, baked, triangular Arab empanadas stuffed with spinach and blue cheese; the savory crepes filled with soft white cheeses, avocados, mushrooms, and walnuts; the sweet crepes dripping with dulce de leche and chocolate, overlaid with bananas, and sprinkled with shredded coconut; the cappuccinos and espressos served piping hot with cookies on the side. Living in the food black hole that is Paraguay (no offense to any Paraguayans) for the past 10 months, my food cravings have only intensified. Consequently, I decided that my recent trip to Buenos Aires would center on food: it would be a gastronomical quest to, in one week, eat 6-months’ worth of meals – revisit all of my old favorite haunts –, as well as sample dishes at new places that had cropped up in the intervening years (as Elizabeth Gilbert referred to it “the pursuit of pleasure”).
My first two meals in Buenos Aires were, frankly, quite disappointing. Remembering my obsession with the crepe chain Carlitos, I had dinner at the new Carlitos LNG in Recoleta, only to learn that the LNG (La Nueva Generación) in actuality stood for higher prices, fewer options, and less quality. My lunch the next day at a fancy-schmancy Italian restaurant in the new restaurant-strip that has appeared in Recoleta was no less disappointing. I should have known because that area has become way, too touristy in my opinion. At the same time, I can’t say that I wasn’t left just a little bit dissatisfied by the Styrofoam-like ravioli or the dearth of sauce that barely served to hydrate it. I was disillusioned and on the verge of giving up hope. After all, this was Buenos Aires, city of culinary pleasures, a well-deserved inheritance passed down to it by its Italian ancestors.
For dinner Sunday night, I went to one of my favorite places, a vegetarian Chinese buffet known as Los Sabios. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not only still around, but it had doubled in size. I guess I shouldn’t have been; I should have known that unlike the short-lived trendy, pricier restaurants that the guidebooks espouse, the authentic establishments never die. My porteño friends and I each ate three plates of succulent soy, bright green broccoli, and golden gluten; followed shortly thereafter by coconut custard and lemon meringue pie. The delicious food was accompanied by even better company, a delightful Sai couple from Buenos Aires who regaled me with stories that were just as side-splitting as the three plates of food I consumed. As fellow gourmets (self-acclaimed gormets that is) they also proved to be a valuable resource, pointing me in the direction of the culinary delights of city. With their guidance, I was able to continue my week-long quest for good food.
To those of you who may doubt the single-pointed focus, with which I pursued better and better cuisine, know that I spent the whole of Monday strolling through my old-neighborhood of Palermo in search of my favorite Arab empanandas place. Time (or the economy) had taken its harsh toll, and the small, walk-by-window had closed down. I did find, however, another Middle Eastern place. The empanadas there more closely resembled calzones. While they could not match the perfection of those triangular empanadas, they served a flavorful rice pilaf with toasted almonds and two shades of raisins as well as crispy, sweet walnut-covered baklava.
After my Middle Eastern meal, my friends and I paid a visit to my formerly favorite ice-cream chain, Volta. When I studied abroad, my Italian friends and I made it our personal aim to discover the best ice-cream in all of Buenos Aires. We visited one to two heladerías (ice-cream parlor) a week, always ordering Chocolate Amargo (bitter-chocolate, our favorite flavor) and another flavor. After all, in any experiment you need a constant, as well as an x variable. They liked Freddo, while I preferred Persico. One day, leaving our capoeira class, we stumbled upon Volta. Let me tell you, it was love at first site (though it kind of defeated the whole point of going to a gym in the first place). Although Volta was a rare commodity in those days, it has proliferated during the past few years. Unfortunately, as the number of locations has multiplied, the quality has gone down. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my American Cookies and Dulce de Leche Tentación though!
As if we hadn’t eaten enough, an hour later we decided we needed a snack to hold us over until dinner. We ordered milanesas de muzzarela (essentially fancy mozzarella sticks) and mushrooms sautéed with spinach from a bar in Belgrano. The crowning meal of the day, without a doubt, was dinner. I convinced my friends that their entire stays in Buenos Aires would be for naught if they did not sample the ever-so-wonderful Carlito’s. My savory spinach crepe with Roquefort, mendicrim (a type of soft cheese), spinach, onions, and walnuts was offset by a thick and tangy kiwi licuado (smoothie). Even more heavenly was my dessert crepe filled with Crema Americana ice-cream, chocolate sauce, and raspberries.
To top of the night, I insisted that we stop at a bakery on the way back home. The bakery was located near my former university and had the best scones around. To be fair, I only bought the scones to please mom who fell instantly in love with the scones during her visit.
Tuesday, after an hour-long trip to the Basilica of Luján and an hour-and-a-half actually looking around, I spent the next hour in search of the ingredients necessary to make a sandwich (good bread and cheese are a rarity in Paraguay). I had to stop at two panaderías (bakery) and a quesería (cheese store), but the fresh bread with its hard-crust and soft inside and sharp cheese were the exact items needed for a picnic in the plaza.
Returning to the city, I had time for a quick stop at Freddo, followed by long, luscious licks of its deliciously creamy ice-cream. I was greeted at the hostel by the aroma of delicious Asian cooking. In search of the perfect Asian meal, one girl had bought curry powder and couscous from the Middle Eastern place and then raided Chinatown for the rarest, most potent ingredients that set Asian cooking apart from the blander Latin American and European cuisines. The resulting concoction was a type of Thai curry with coconut milk, pineapple juice, peanut butter, baby corn, water chestnuts, and potatoes, served on top of couscous and complimented by cold aloe and hibiscus Chinese teas. After almost a year of being deprived of Asian food, I was grateful for – maybe not the most authentic – a sincere replication.
Two words: fuggazetta and faina. El Cuartito is one of the most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires. Their thick cheesy, onion-topped pizza – the fuggazetta – served with a slice of chickpea patty – faina – reminded me of why I once thought that the pizza in Buenos Aires was some of the world’s best. That wasn’t the end of my pizza adventures; I actually chanced upon another one of the city’s famous pizzerias later that day, Pizza Guermes. I didn’t order pizza though, instead enjoying a cheap, but rich and creamy piece of strawberry and ricotta cake. That was after having dinner at the classic Argentine parillada (grill) Pippo. Pippo may lack ambience, but there is a reason it is an Argentine establishment. Its pasta casera (homemade pasta) was the best pasta I ate during my entire trip. The stuffed vegetable Canelones swirling in a pink sauce I ordered were rivaled by my friend’s gnocchi covered in a Bolognese sauce. Gnocchi is a difficult dish to master, it tends to be overbearing, too chewy or too heavy, but hers were the perfect consistency: light, but filling.
Thursday I decided I needed to relax from all the sight-seeing (or maybe it would be more appropriate to refer to my adventures as food-seeking). I sat at my favorite confitería (pastry place) Quebec and indulged in two passion-fruit-themed desserts: a marakuja soufflé and a marakuja and ricotta cake. I had discovered Quebec returning from an outing in Recoleta on Saturday. When I passed by a window full of cakes and pastries, I couldn’t help but go in (the desserts were calling my name, I swear!). I ordered a strawberry and ricotta cake just because I could; I was on vacation, why not treat myself at every opportunity possible?
For lunch that day I prepared a simple lunch of vegetarian spinach and Swiss-chard milanesas (breaded beef, but in the vegetarian case, soy) topped with melted cheese and balsamic vinegar and squeezed into a fresh baguette. The minute the milanesas hit the pan, I was transported back to my days as a student in Buenos Aires where this was my daily meal.
Spring is a new Chinese-vegetarian restaurant that has popped up in Palermo (am I sensing a trend towards vegetarianism in Buenos Aires?). Like Los Sabios, their vegetarian-only buffet was healthy, diverse, and delicious.
While on an excursion to Tigre with some girls from the hostel I was overtaken by a panic. We were discussing the delights of ice-cream in Buenos Aires when I stopped mid-sentence, startled and began to ponder “What did I eat yesterday?” After a few moments, I answered my own question: “I ate two pastries and an alfajor but no ice-cream. What a waste of a day! I didn’t even eat ice-cream!” I was truly ashamed of myself in that moment because how can you let a day slip past in the city of good food without sampling another flavor at one of its heladerías. Alfajores, by the way, are cookie sandwiches with dulce de leche. They come in several different varieties including plain, covered with powdered sugar, and my favorite, bathed in chocolate. I was so crazy about alfajores when I lived in Buenos Aires that I would often run out of my apartment to the kiosk next-door in order to satisfy an urgent craving for chocolate. My obsession didn’t stop there; I filled half of one of my suitcases with Terrabussi alfajores (in the gold wrapping) on my way back to the States. My new favorite brands are Jorgito and Cachafa. As my porteña friend put it: Jorgito alfajores are “cheap and rich.” As for Cachafa, there is a famous Argentine café and brand name, Habana, known even in Paraguay for their alfajores. As the chains have multiplied, the quality has plummeted, leading its creators to introduce Cachafa, or the return to the original flavor of Habana alfajores. It’s the most expensive alfajor available, but also the best.
The highlight of the trip had to be La Mezzeta, undoubtedly the best pizza place in all of Buenos Aires. I took two buses to get there, but it was worth it. Buenos Aires may have changed, but La Mezzeta hasn’t. The prices are the same and the pizza is just as good. They have been preparing pizza the same way for years, although it may seem unorthodox, upside-down. Baking the pizza facedown gives the cheese an ethereal quality that I have yet to find anywhere else. They sell pizza by the slice and immediately after extricating a slice from a pie, they have to replace it with a wooden wedge to halt the gooey cheese from swimming towards the newly-formed gap. If you ever go there, order the muzzarella; there’s no need to order anything else. That thick, doughy crust topped with even thicker cheese has haunted my dreams for years.
For my last meal in Buenos Aires, I decided I needed a meal at an actual Indian restaurant. We went to Tandoor. Objectively, it may not have been the best Indian restaurant, but the butter naan, green chutney, paneer tikka, palak paneer, and gulab jamun were exactly what the doctor (probably Indian) ordered. The navrathan korma I had ordered “as spicy as possible” had me crying and my insides burning, but it was delicious all the same.
Oh, I almost forgot. Well, I guess I didn’t forget; a meal for the road that is. On my way to grab a cab to the airport Sunday morning, I made a quick stop at a kiosk to buy an Oreo Bañada, an Argentine twist on the classic Oreo cookie. Unfortunately, I forgot it at the hostel on my way out to the door. Oh well, I guess there’s always next time!

P.S. My friends suggested that the next time I will be visiting Buenos Aires, we take advantage of the summer heat “to make pilgrimages to the divine temples of Volta, Persicco, and Freddo [the three most famous ice-cream chains in Buenos Aires].”

*Other possible titles included “Pizza, Pasta, Pastries” and “Deliciousness, Decadence, Diarrhea”

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