Sometimes, it’s appearances that count and Buenos Aires has its share of rather good-looking restaurants. Depending on what you fancy, Piano Nobile is a classic beauty, The New Brighton is old-school hip, Tegui is suave and sophisticated and Unik is a design buff’s wet dream.
However, Argentine restaurateurs aren’t especially keen on quirky, verging on outrageous, architecture and design.
Take the concept at Lima’s IK. It’s pretty mad on paper — you’re sitting inside a giant fruit box — and thanks to the wooden panels, seductive lighting and lush foliage, I almost felt like an orange for a few minutes. Add in an intriguing menu and I returned to human form, if not plant form, in the shape of a Venus flytrap gobbling up everything in front of me. But there’s nowhere with such a fascinating concept in Buenos Aires.
Do looks matter? Of course they do. And without getting into a lengthy debate, if a space is cared for, then the chef is probably showing a lot of love in the kitchen too.
A lot of love
While Palermo Hollywood’s latest (yes, another one), Per Se, doesn’t resemble a box of fruit in the slightest, it does enter the handsome category under “new.” A lot of love has been given to chef Emiliano Di Nisi’s newborn.
Last seen up the road at Tô, Di Nisi is now in charge of his own kitchen, and when you throw in all the crucial elements that will keep diners happy — beautiful space designed by the renowned AOPI architects, cocktails curated by a star barman, innovative and sexy-looking dishes, a fancy wine cave, a VIP area and a smoking terrace, plus attentive staff dressed in Garçon García — we seem to have a winning combination.
Before dissecting those elements, a quick prologue.
After hearing a heap of positive comments before I went, along came a negative one on the day of the reservation.
“It’s all modern cuisine — I left hungry.”
Uh-oh. I was startled, of course, because no one wants to leave a restaurant hungry.
End of prologue.
When you arrive, look through the street level window. You’ll want to go in. Mood lighting and a fancy bar will tempt you in.
Ring the bell. That sexy, well-lit bar awaits; look left and a sexy, dimly-lit wine cave awaits. Think important business meeting for lunch and marriage proposal at night (the latter actually happened during the course of our dinner, but not to any of us).
Courteous staff in black ties show you to a table or banquette. With great chocolate-coloured undulating slats above the banquette, the look is contemporary Scandinavian — and who wouldn’t want a little Scandinavian action?
Kicking off with cocktails, the drinks menu is creative and from the hands of Gonzalo Cabado from Nicky Harrison’s, who’s making a name as an executive mixologist.
At 80 pesos, my Bohemian Fizz had everything I love apart from wine in one glass — vodka, lemon juice, soda, passion fruit, mint and berries — it refreshed my expectations and seemed to last all night. That doesn’t usually happen… note too that drinks are made the old-fashioned way (by hand) and take time to reach the table.
Meanwhile, sommelier Marcos Mendieta’s wine list has plenty of French offerings, which is interesting. Prices are not completely outrageous, with the Amalya Torrontés/Riesling starting off at 110 pesos. His cave stocks 800 labels, a decent size bodega indeed.
Using the Tegui style of menu — where one course costs 170 pesos, two costs 260 pesos and so on, rather than pricing up each dish individually — Di Nisi applies various techniques such as super-slow braising or using a Sous Vide water oven to local ingredients, taking pride in mentioning the source where possible (pepper from Cachi or prawns from Chubut, for example.)
The result is contemporary and eclectic cuisine, where familiar ingredients are mashed up to recreate something new and fabulous.
To vaguely return to the prologue, between four of us, we shared 14 dishes and that, maths fiends, make 3.5 dishes each.
One of our party (not me) had even smoked a little wacky tobaccy before we got there. But all four bellies left the house satisfied.
What did we did share? Pretty much everything. With seven parts to phase one of the menu, Di Nisi delves substantially into the ocean with ceviche, salmon tiradito, prawns and octopus before heading back to land for terrine, a soup and ossobuco.
Accompanied by an outstanding and unexpected celery sorbet, the ceviche was a complete hit. The salmon tiradito, so often ruined by too much passion fruit salsa at “top” Peruvian restaurants, also stood out thanks to the oyster sauce.
But the real hit was the smoky octopus with olive mayo. Beautifully presented and cooked in a wood fire, it was charred just enough to bring out all the flavours and was the food hero of the first course.
Round two also counts on seven dishes, from lomo a la leña to catch of the day, pork and risotto. Innovative dishes included apple and smoked eucalyptus gnocchi, which the others enjoyed but I always find this pasta too clogging; and sweetbreads a la leña with a black-sausage cream, definitely an interesting combination. But perhaps we are too set in our ways and only enjoy grilled mollejas slathered in lemon and salt, as it was less than a hit.
We also had the braised ossobuco starter as a main; with the meat separated from the split bone with all its juicy marrow as a gratin waiting to be spooned up, this hearty dish backed up by homemade ketchup, and a fresh apple salad was in fact light yet meaty. Definitely choose it — the squeamish should save the bone marrow for me.
We ate well, we were surprised, we loved the presentation, we were well stuffed. And the marriage proposal added to the excitement.
But if you want to get around paying 500 pesos per head (and that would be for three courses and a bottle of the most economical wine, definitely no cocktails), my tip is to get there for lunch.
Di Nisi just started opening his doors at midday this past Monday and you can sample an appetizer plus a salad, main and a soft drink for a miniscule 140 pesos.
Changing every day, there are elements to the night shift, though you can also expect lamb burgers or spinach and brain ravioli.
After lunch, I reckon you’ll be smitten enough to want to come back for the mood lighting and sexy ambience one night, and you won’t care how much it costs (until your credit card statement arrives).
But if you’re on an economy drive yet still require the sexy vibe, order my Bohemian or a Smoky Bloody Mary at the bar. We won’t think badly of you for trying to get a piece of the action, you cheap bastard.
Honduras 5815, Palermo Hollywood
Buenos Aires Herald, June 22, 2014