Water and wine, fine

Introducing another food partner in crime, and one who really knows his stuff… A chef and advanced sommelier, I respect his opinion, and there’s nothing like opening your mind while opening your mouth. Dan Perlman and I recently bumped into each other at Casa Mun, we’ve since tarted about with brunch and an organic lunch, and now it was time to get serious. Dinner.

A new addition to the French family, which comprises a Parisian restaurant and El Galpón über-upmarket grocery store, Unik soft-launched in May in Palermo Viejo. Unique, due to the intense design strategy which has been incorporated, every piece of furniture, every lamp fitting, has been sourced by Argentine-French architect Marcelo Jouilia for his private collection, which is now on public display in his second restaurant. The effect is glorious, sophisticated, intensely smart, yet also pretentious.

Hidden away in the back corner, either because other diners aren’t supposed to see us not pay the bill or because we’re too unattractive for this place, I’d have preferred a mid-way seat to infiltrate the ambience, spy on the open kitchen and check out the one-off pieces. I hear that the very concept got a Brazilian journalist in a tizz because according to her, the chairs should be locked away in cabinets and not be subjected to wear and tear by any old derriére on a daily basis. If the concept is all about design, then I want in and I want to embrace it.

Actually, after reading that paragraph back, I remember I was using a laundry bag (made of organic cotton, of course) as a handbag that day, so it was probably just as well my mediocre attempt at unique hipster chic was tucked away at the back of the joint.

An easy-going diner with just the one allergy, to avocado, sadly, as well as an aversion to baked beans, I let Main Waiter choose my aperitif. Graciously, he accepted the challenge. Although it was a chilly evening, I was flustered at being late and required “refreshing” and “energizing”. A mojito appeared in a beautiful blue glass, mint springs peeping over the sides. A favourite cocktail of mine, he got my whim spot on although I’d have preferred crushed ice to the chunks.

Main Waiter, who “previously worked in Paris”, was polite if a little officious. Perhaps it was confidence learned from the Old Continent. The chef would choose the courses, he said, from the four-strong starters and six-strong mains menus. Obviously carefully designed (but not as much as the interior, perhaps) that shouldn’t take long. I said, make my steak medium rare, then mumbled to Dan that I didn’t want the quinoa dish as it was often a let- down and either too gloopy or undercooked.

A very generous size plate of home-smoked fish (unknown) arrived and vinagrette. Dan beadily eyed up the beautifully poached egg, accompanied by Iberian ham, and delightedly watched the yolk splurge.

A note on bread. Buttery, perfectly warm, that poached yolk was ripe for mopping and I didn’t care who was watching. Perhaps it was foresight that had assured our destiny in the back corner… I literally downed two bread baskets, it was that good, with Dan lining up a third for me to smuggle out in my gigantic laundry bag. I didn’t really do that. But the starters were an absolute win and had set a benchmark for the next round.

Although I’d made rumblings about needing to up my red blood cell count, it was Dan who was presented with a lethal weapon to take on, an Aberdeen Angus rib eye. Please note, dear diners, that very few restaurants in Buenos Aires serve Aberdeen Angus. Lamb, slow cooked for at least a day, with cumin-infused quinoa came to me, which was disappointing given my earlier grumbling, and was probably payback for some bad behaviour at some point.

The biggest letdown came seconds later when Main Waiter came out with a decanted Chardonnay. First, Chardonnay and I are not friends. No big deal, but, you know, just saying. Second, a white wine with two red meat courses? Are you kidding? Insult to injury, Dan’s infinitely more refined mouth sensed corkage (in fact, he later concurred that he felt it on the nose, which is far more likely. Two strikes, one hit.

I have a feeling the Chardonnay was meant to come out with the egg and fish. Some mis-communication, perhaps? Problem was, the seed of doubt had been sown. Frankly, sommelier Rodrigo Calderón needs to know about such matters.

The Angus was delicious, succulent. We were lucky to be eating it, said Moustache Waiter, who “had lived in Paris and London”. The Hilton quota of beef in Argentina is impossibly low, given that we eat different cuts here, and most of it is sent to Europe. The lamb needed a dousing of Chubut sea salt to bring out its true flavour. The quinoa was a little chewy but flavourful. But what a shame we had to wait, beg even, for some red to appear.

Water Waiter, who “is Parisian” but had spent a year in Sheffield (to learn “English”), was efficient to the point of annoying although made up for that defect in attractiveness. My back to the main floor, I later worked out he was filling everyone up on a water round. Nothing unique about that.

I’m not going to mention Teapotgate. Okay, I will. So Moustache Waiter knew I was English, offered me tea. I went for an orange-infused one. I poured my tea, but leaves rained down into my little white cup. Ah, the filter inside the pot was designed for bags rather than leaves. No matter. A strainer please, Water Waiter!
I waited quarter of an hour. The smallest strainer in the world (come and check it out, Mr. Guinness) appeared, 15mm in diameter, probably pinched from some other unsuspecting pot. Water Waiter literally had to hold it between his fingernails while trying not to burn himself with the boiling (well, now tepid) water.

The miniature strainer was relieved of duty, and I was under instructions to call Water Waiter again should I wish to refill my cup. About a minute later I did, given the doll house-size drinking implement and the tepid water, I had sucked that cuppa down. This time, a strainer fit for a giant was rustled up, large and bulky, and only unique for its awkward size.

Unik is certainly specific in its design outlook, and I’d loved to have learnt more about the individual pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. It’s an original concept, for sure. The starters were impeccable. The service was perfectly adequate if a little French. But something didn’t quite add up. Maybe Unik was simply trying too hard – to be unique.

Unik, Soler 5182, 4772-2230.

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