The pearl of sandwich

La Alacana 3 a menu of the dayDefault? What default? Despite Argentina’s monetary woes, the local food scene still refuses to show any sign of slowing down, with Buenos Aires’ new eateries continuing to open as fast as dollars change hands.

A quick recap. There’s been the Latin America 50 Best chef treading terroir nouveau (Roux/Oh My Gourd), Tô’s cook branching out (Per Se), the young pick-up-the-pork specialist in Monserrat (Chochán/Pump Up The Ham), another 50 Best winner opening up in a soon-to-open downtown hotel (Marieta/Meet Molteni’s Marieta), the Hollywood wine bar and restaurant (Trova/Unwind By The Glass) and the gastropub (NOLA/Chicken Chic).

This week’s fresh-faced fancy is a hop and a skip from the latter and just a few blocks south of Scalabrini Ortiz, a great indicator that this neck of Palermo is on its way to being a new gastro hub.

There’s a great pedigree at La Alacena, a sign of what to expect. Woman-ing the kitchen is Julieta Oriolo, recently released into the world to set her own culinary path after leading BASA Basement Bar and Restaurant’s kitchen into considerable glory.

It can’t be easy to leave such a successful joint, given that its founders are also responsible for Gran Bar Danzón and Grand Café. But Julieta has taken the plunge and her latest mission, together with friend and business partner Mariana Bauzá who takes care of front of house (they studied at Gato Dumas culinary school together), allows her to go back to basics and run things her way.

A couple of weeks ago in Belgrano, I was lured into a pretty spot for a quick lunch. But as is often the way, good looks equals little substance. The sandwich was dull, no imagination or flavour to pep up the national (read as fake Serrano) ham while the oven-roasted potatoes might have had a brief encounter with oven a few days ago but had more recently rubbed shoulders with a microwave. It was all a bit sad and sucked, basically. And I let myself down for being lured in for superficial reasons…

La Alacena 1Prime thoroughfare
Unassuming from the outside, La Alacena could simply be A.N. Other café. The location is prime thoroughfare, on Gascón and Honduras, a corner that branch three of the 39 bus whizzes around.

But knock on the door and grab a table — you’ll be hard pushed to sit on the plush dark brown banquette at lunchtime, given its popularity in the mere six weeks since it opened — and the difference is in the menu’s details.

It’s just unusual these days to find an eatery that isn’t all aesthetic puff. Dont get me wrong, it’s not to say La Alacena isn’t a cute spot but the investment and love is also apparent in the ingredients.

This is a daytime “café-bazar” as the ladies have touted it, open from 9am to 7pm, and they deal in breakfast, lunch and teatime.

Take the midday rush. Drop by on a Monday and the daily special is an ambiguous pasta, Tuesday it’s chicken and Wednesday fish. But the joy, for both customer and cook, is that those chicken or pasta dishes will change up week in, week out, keeping everyone enthused and tastebuds on standby. With a sharp and not overly sweetened lemonade thrown in, lunch is a reasonable 80 pesos.

Other savoury specials include prensatti, sandwiches squeezed just enough in a cast-iron grill plate. Pressed and golden, the toasted farmhouse bread is buttery enough to be lip-licking without feeling unhealthy, plus the selection is smart enough to hopefully revolutionize bloody ham and cheese crustless miga sandwiches for life (I do hope so!).

I dived into the Zucchini, a griddled courgette, broccoli, goat’s cheese, ricotta, peperoncino and almond prensatto. Backed up with some homemade pickles, my word there were some flavours going on.

The goat’s cheese was the real deal, dreamy and creamy given that it was slightly warmed, crunchy pickles enhanced the overall picture, while the greens were great matches with the goat’s cheese. While it might seem pricey at 74 pesos, trust me, this is a pearl of a sandwich and no ordinary stuffing slapped between two slices of bread.

And despite the fact it was well filling, another time I’d back it up with a portion of aioli fries (30 pesos) or fried yucca doused in lemon juice (32 pesos). See. Creativity doesn’t always come at a high price.

Other tempting-sounding panini include Queso, a trio of Italian style cheese drizzled with pesto and Tagliatta, sliced steak vamped up with rosemary, aioli, arugula and Parmesan.

Salads also support the menu, with chicken, avocado, zapallo cabotea (sic) butternut squash and roasted tomatoes the main focus. Supported by capers, almonds or dressing such as mustard or alioli, Juli’s greens also prove that there is more to salad than a battered piece of lettuce drowning in some god-awful vinegar.

photo (35)Change it up
While Mariana officially manages the front of house, that’s not to say Juli doesn’t get down and dirty on the shop floor. And fortunately for mine and La Westie’s sakes, otherwise we’d never had sampled her phenomenal chocolate tartelette (34 pesos) a few weeks ago.

As she says: “We use a semi-flakey, savoury pastry for all our tartlets as the idea is to change it up from the more typical sweet dough.”

Anyone who has ever said that chocolate and salt don’t go together are very much mistaken, and La Alacena is the place to make the crossover. Choccie mousse sprinkled with chunks of Maldon sea salt equalled a heavenly fusion, sweet yet savoury yet crunchy and smooth all in one go. La Westie and I reluctantly shared it.

Overall, there’s a strong line of sweets made in house including medialunas as well as croissants while other tartelettes include lemon curd, bitter choc and caramelized bananas.

Of note, Juli kicked off with a strong, egg-based, brunch menu this past Saturday, just to ensure all your daytime food needs are met. And once La Alacena closes for the evening, head over a few blocks to NOLA for the last 60 minutes of their 25-peso-a-pint happy hour.

La Alacena
Gascón 1401, Palermo
Tel: 4867-2549

Buenos Aires Herald, August 3, 2014
Ph: La Alacena, me

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