Recently back from a week in Chile, I felt like a right tourist, stacking up the differences between Argentina and our neighbours. But the variety of cuisine on offer was notable, with Peruvian, Chinese, Japanese and local fast-food joints dominating street corners, even in small, wine-making towns such as Santa Cruz in Colchagua Valley. If I found gyoza dumplings on the menu in the equivalent Argentine town, well, I’d probably be in someone else’s dream.
But what was also noticeable was a distinct lack of high-end eateries in capital Santiago. Researching the city, there were few standout restaurants that shook themselves at me, bar Boragó and Osaka, both ranked in the recent Latin America 50 Best awards.
Back in BA, high end in the “I’m going to splash a lot of cash tonight” way are a dime a dozen, although that’s not an attempt to cheapen the Chilas, Tomo 1s and Aramburus of Buenos Aires. Simple, that given a special occasion – birthday, visitors in town, any kind of celebration – there are plenty of rich pickings to be had in many neighbourhoods, from all the Palermos to Belgrano and San Telmo.
And while I try my hardest to spread myself fat at top spots wherever I go, there are always a few elusive ones that slip through the net. Tomo 1 was one of those, and when I dined there in October, all I could think as I tried to slurp up a delectable pumpkin soup with a tiny floating basil tartlet as delicately as possible or much down Patagonian lamb gigot with roasted artichokes and fava beans was “why have I never eaten here before?” before kicking myself.
Another spot I’m trying to wrangle my way to is Oviedo, a place renowned for its fabulous seafood. Always a sucker for octopus and friends, maybe this January is the time to tick that outstanding box.
NOT NEW YET IMPROVED
So it was with pleasure and intrepidation that I headed off to the newly revamped Casa Cruz in Palermo Soho last week. The forbidding golden doors have always put me off from stopping by for a drink more than just the once, as have the thick velvet curtains to fight my way through, so much so that I’ve never been tempted to book a table there. Factor in that it must surely be out of my price range, and that’s a date I won’t be making.
Would it still be swanky, and a little bit snotty? Would it be filled with skinny model types pretending to eat a meal? (Remember, I have seen women cutting up pieces of sushi in Buenos Aires restaurants so it looks like they are eating…) And would it still be a wallet-crusher?
Well, there have been quite a few changes at the House of Cross, with a marked shunning of its snobby reputation. Enter stage right, top sommelier Aldo Graziani to lead affairs.
Although it’s been some years since I last battled my way through the curtain, the good news is there’s no more curtain to do battle with. As you slip in, be dazzled by the floor-to-ceiling wine cellar, now so brilliantly lit up at the end of the restaurant it has been transformed into a fully functional work of art, and take up your banquette.
It’s said that Casa Cruz is now a lot better lit in general, although not so brightly for budding photographers to snatch a pic with an iPhone. But the mood has been set, for romance, business and everything in between. Service seemed genuinely friendly although I was directed to the wrong table. No harm done.
Besides the classic way of commencing dining, AKA starters, Casa Cruz has quite the Spanish-style of tapas to kick off with: think tortilla, fat olives, grilled aubergine and tongue on toast. With a 10-strong selection, choose three for 50 pesos or go the whole hog for 150 pesos. Not a bad price.
If you prefer a more traditional starter, the octopus salad (65 pesos), sweetbreads (80 pesos), and pan-fried prawns and baby squid are all great choices. I dipped into them all and was pleasantly surprised at the quality, the preparation and the flavours. The lengthy tentacle was well grilled and not chewy, the glands sufficiently crunchy, and the seafood was fresh and tasty. A more staid palate will be happy with a selection of local porky cuts, or a buffalo mozzarella salad.
The idea is to go back to Argentine basics, much like the eponymous Aldo’s Vinoteca in Monserrat, and clearly if the formula works there, then why not adapt it to this latest project?
This means main courses are meat focused, with fillet, sirloin rump, lamb a la riojana and two styles of milanesa topping the menu. The latter might seem a little out of place, but in the bid to keep thing simple and get bums on seats, it will keep those who might otherwise be intimidated happy. Also of note is the fact that sword fish has a permanent place on the Casa Cruz menu.
But the true winner in the meat category was the skirt steak. This entraña was juicy, often a feat deemed impossible given the thinness of the cut, tender, and totally delectable. Costing 140 pesos, it might seem a little steep but it’s for sharing, and should be accompanied by the puré duquesa, whose egg yolks are added in at the table.
There’s also a five-strong pasta selection, and the seafood fusilli was also immaculate. Loaded with prawns, mussels and squid, there was almost more seafood than pasta. Now that is unusual… A light tomato sauce accompanied yet didn’t dominate; this was a dish that was done right.
Mains start at 90 pesos and work their way up to the 200 pesos mark for a bife con lomo, but the price is no more outrageous than many other restaurants in Palermo. With Aldo working the floor himself, and if executive chef Rodrigo Sieiro can maintain standards beyond the fuss over the re-opening phase, then Casa Cruz might well find itself back on the foodies’ map once again.
Buenos Aires Herald, 29 December, 2013