Teatime blues

Las Violetas is a stunning example of 19th century French and Italian architecture in Almagro. Shame about the high tea.
Las Violetas is a stunning example of 19th century French and Italian architecture in Almagro. Shame about the high tea.
At the start of January, Buenos Aires lost one of its most emblematic landmarks, albeit one that was constantly on the move and so never really marked land as such. When Mayor Macri suspended the subway’s A Line until March for maintenance works in order to make way for new trains, he also relegated the century-old wooden wagons and their wobbly gymnastic rings doubling up as strap hangers to history books and museums in one fell swoop.

I’ve ridden the A Line, and wondered why some stops comprise a single platform, why others stops are separated by a mere four blocks, and wondered at the safety implications of those wooden doors opening and being manhandled by passengers every day for the past 100 years. I’ve applied makeup in the cracked mirrors, and had wooden slat marks imprinted on my rear end after sitting too long. The A Line and I are mates.

So off we went, my friend Chance the tour guide and I, to ride that train for one last time. Along with the rest of Buenos Aires.

We got on at Perú, on Avenida de Mayo, that Friday afternoon and carriages in all their wooden glory were packed. We sweated our way up to Loria station at the 3300 block on Rivadavia Avenue, and nipped up the escalator to meet our prize: Las Violetas.

I’ve only ever glanced in through the enormous windows as the 151 bus whizzes past this Almagro landmark before turning right. And I thought that one day I’d get off the bus and wander in and turn that glance into a lingering look.

Las Violetas is a regular Argentine beauty with a distinct European heritage, thanks to French-style stained glass windows and Italian marble floors – all symbols of Buenos Aires’ boom period. A stunning and immaculately maintained building, Las Violetas is steeped in history (former, but at the time, future, president Carlos Pellegrini went to the opening in 1884) and is one of Buenos Aires’ greatest survivors.

Bear in mind that it isn’t simply an Almagro stand-in for Café Tortoni: this restaurant and café is a heritage site in own right, whose laborious restoration took six months.

However, that is where beauty remains – at face value.

SDC11186The prospect of afternoon tea for a lowish price was appealing, and two can share a whole spread. We took the higher priced option (160 pesos) as it included some savoury sandwiches. I hoped they would be crustless, perhaps dainty little egg ‘n cress numbers, cucumber would also do, and that they would float across to us on a silver tray in the steady hands of an elegant waiter. When will I learn to manage my expectations?

Although service was impeccable with the most cordial of waitstaff, service in terms of food-reaching-table took at least 30 minutes. Others who arrived after us were served drinks before us.

A note on tea. You can choose your blend. Gringo alert coming up. However, we were informed we should each order a pot, but the second wouldn’t be included in the price but we needed to do so as there wouldn’t be enough tea in the pot for two. But what do you know – it was, in fact, a ruse to get us to part with our hard-earned pesos. There was ample tea for two in a single pot – had they filled the pot with water to the top.

And although I was thrilled to order Earl Grey from tea menu, I’m not sure what was wrong with mine. I’d say it was off but besides that, there definitely wasn’t an iota of bergamot in the pot. Good choice gone wrong.

However, everything was beautifully laid out, all the implements and strainers and what-have-you were perfectly correct. Some freshly squeezed orange juice was even laid on, a lovely touch except the glasses had been over zealously polished with vinegar. Not a mouth-watering combination, but more of a tear-jerker.

Finally, to much fanfare, the teatime treats arrived. Presented most elegantly on a circular dish, there was enough to feed three, even four. Alas, no egg or cress, and certainly no cucumber slivers. Quite a lot of ham, and an excess of palm hearts. Doesn’t work between bread for me.

But the savoury aspect of what would doubtless see us end up hospitalized in a sugar coma was a necessity ahead of the main event, and so we devoured the lot.

Cake-wise, we ran the gamut from sponge to panettone, to a coconut-laced alfajor and a giant chocolate alfajor – this was a week’s worth of calories for two on half a plate.

And none of it was made with cocoa-percentage chocolate – it’s easy to tell because it was just all sugary as hell. Just sickly sweet. When I indulge in the dark side, I want to be sure it’s worth every bite. And it wasn’t. If the objective was being full, then that was met. But full and satisfied with my choice I was not. And neither was Chance.

High tea at Las Violetas was a letdown. But the venue is so stunning, it’s just a shame that this adopted meal – a ritual that many still follow in Buenos Aires – doesn’t receive the same amount of love as the decor.

Wining On verdict: This week, I’ll let someone else (rather, Chance) clarify: “Everything consumed with one’s eyes was amazing. Everything consumed with one’s mouth left much to be desired.”

Las Violetas,
Rivadavia 3899, Almagro
Tel: 4958-7387

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on February 3, 2013

For a decent cuppa in decent china, check out this secret tea house.

Plus, you might like last week’s Wining On – there’s a shakedown in Recoleta

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