Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ravioli and hot showers

Found in a sign-in book at the Cervecería Artesanal, a restaurant in El Chaltén:

Sunday 20th March 2005-
Dear Mr. Bar Man,

We came in this afternoon and noticed that you were really hot……
…….So we brought our friend back to meet you.

….Only to discover that there was a different (but equally hot guy) behind the bar….

From talking to you the night before we knew a bit about you so we asked the (new) guy if he was your friend and you were traveling together….

…..He seemed a bit confused and so did we…..

……until we realized that you are in fact
THE SAME GUY and must have had a shave!

Patagonia is magical like that.

Hot guys aside, there really is something strange, wild, and magical about Patagonia. Most of it is empty of almost everything but wind. There are no bounds to what you are looking at—the sky keeps going, as does the land. And then, in the midst of all this emptiness, there are the glaciers. There is no way to describe what a glacier looks like, only what it did to me to look at them and to feel some of the strongest yearning I have ever felt for something to exist and continue existing, no matter what were to happen to me.

But after gazing and hiking and yearning, you must eat. And the best place to eat in strange, wild, and magical El Chaltén is the Cervecería Artesanal, the very same restaurant in which we found this funny story.

You could almost miss it from the outside, just another wood-hewn building among others, with no clear sign indicating its name. We might have walked right by it the first day, if it weren’t for the hikers who looked so happy sitting outside drinking the home-brewed cold beer.

When you walk in, though, you can see immediately how much the owner loves her restaurant. The walls are papered in articles and photos, from James Dean to Leo Tolstoy, and there are sturdy, good-looking cakes on the counter. The aforementioned sign-in books are scattered on the tables, and you can spend a very pleasant afternoon flipping through the happy memories of people from France and Australia and Spain while the light streams in the windows. It is always a refuge, whether it's hot or windy, and I'm sure even when it's cold.

That same love and attention is obvious in the food. The salad is composed beautifully and creatively. Everything, the pears, tomatoes, celery, walnuts, blue cheese and cream, tasted clear and sure, cut and placed authoritatively in the bowl.

The lamb ravioli was firm and tender at the same time; no fear of sub-par Argentine pasta here. In classic Argentine fashion, you can pair any pasta with any sauce, but I think I did well in picking the light and tangy tomato sauce.

Bodegon is a good place to have a beer with some complimentary peanuts and popcorn at any time, but I highly recommend going there especially if you have camped for five days eating nothing but Knorr instant food.

That is Patagonia. Yearning for something you can't even identify, and then finding happiness in a hot shower, a bowl of ravioli, and a quiet place to read funny stories.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nuevo Hermann, or Buenos Aires-speak for very old restaurant

There is no shortage of hipsters in Buenos Aires, kids in high tops with surprisingly good-looking mullets. But there is also no shortage of restaurants like El Desnivel, or Manolo, or my favorite, Nuevo Hermann, restaurants that don’t seem to have changed in 50 years. It’s what makes Buenos Aires feel like a rich city, rich in a diversity of lives and memories.

We walked into Nuevo Hermann almost on a dare. It was just a block or two from our first apartment on Guemes in Palermo, it was our last night in Buenos Aires before we left for Patagonia, and I wanted to eat someplace that wasn’t listed in any of our guidebooks, just walk in blind. I was afraid to risk not just my stomach but also that of my friend Zizou*, but I had to try it.

The waiter was old and gruff. The menu was enormous. There were dishes that were vaguely German and dishes that were vaguely Spanish, and the usual gamut of Argentine meats and pastas. Milanesa, anyone? We asked him, “What would you recommend? What is the best?” And the answer was, “Everything is the best.” This was not said with much enthusiasm.

But it became clear why the question was so foreign to him as we watched the restaurant fill up with regulars from the neighborhood. Elderly and middle-aged couples came in, didn’t even glance at their menus, and ordered their dinners. One couple, according to Zizou, didn’t even order, the waiter just brought their food.

The restaurant was pristine and proud. It wasn’t being retro; it wasn’t even aware its time had passed.

So how was the food? Zizou’s pork chop was overcooked but still strong in flavor. But I was really scared when my Vienna sausage and ensalada rusa came out. I knew that my ensalada rusa, a classic Spanish tapa, would be full of mayonnaise and not in a good way, but I felt this perverse desire to order it. The sausage looked like my worst nightmares, so pink and clean and consistent. But it was delicious. The smoothness of its texture didn’t mean that it was lacking in character. And even the ensalada rusa was comforting and satisfying, because it was exactly as I had expected it to be.

That’s why everyone else was there, to get food exactly as they expected it. To be so sure of having one’s expectations met—that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

*Zizou, aka my friend and traveling companion, not Zinedine Zidane.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My favorite gelato in Buenos Aires

Scannapieco at Avenida Cordoba 4826.

Flavors like Crema Armenia, a boozy fig and anise, and limoncello, as light and refreshing as anything called "limoncello" should be.

It's true, most Argentine gelato is too sweet, but it's hard to fault a city where ice cream gets delivered by bicycle.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

La Cupertina

There were moments in Buenos Aires when I thought, “Thank God, I chose to study Spanish in Mexico.” These were not the moments when I was dancing till 4 a.m. or eating luscious steaks for criminal prices. I missed small-town Oaxaca the most when I sat staring at my “ensalada caprese,” a sorry mass of tasteless arugula, hunks of “mozzarella” or pizza cheese, and the saddest, blandest tomatoes to ever bear the name. To be fair, I was at an all-night eatery, as Zizou* and I had few choices after getting back to BA late at night. But Argentine traditional cooking just can’t compare to the zingy surprise of a street emapanada de mole amarillo or the complex curiosity of mole negro.

When there wasn’t steak, there were Argentine empanadas, and as Zizou found, most empanadas were a doughy excuse to carry some meat around in an easy way. When she complained the dough was utterly forgettable, we imagined gauchos carrying them cold in their saddlebags, caring little for texture or flavor.

This is where La Cupertina came in, to make us more gracious towards our host country. Located in Palermo Soho, and specializing in food from the province of Tucuman, La Cupertina is a very pretty place—heart cut-outs in the wooden chairs, green plants spilling over an antique stove. The owner, whose fame is apparent in the framed articles on one discrete wall, clearly cares a lot about what she is doing. I love people who care, and I loved her food as much as I’d hoped as we sat waiting in the sunny dining room.

The empanadas were baked, the ham and cheese empanadas with sugar. The tamal, more meat than masa, was moist and so good we ordered another one after finishing the first. The locro, though, was my favorite. A traditional stew of whole corn kernels with white beans, beef, and sausage, there was an intensity and range of flavor that I’d been missing while chewing the excellent Argentine beef.

Their desserts, too, are beautiful to behold, and although they were as sweet as all Argentine desserts, they weren’t so singular in their sweetness.

(But to be totally honest, the best empanadas we had the entire time we were there were from El Mazacote, the corner pizzeria in Montserrat. Flaky, buttery, revelatory—Zizou felt vindicated—“I told you the dough could be flaky!”)

* aka, my non-“French soccer star” friend and traveling companion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning to love food for what it is and not what you want it to be

Most people who love to travel are running away from something. I know this because that’s why I travel. That can be bad, when you’re avoiding persistent problems in your life, but it can also be good, when you ignore your preferences from back home and learn to accept things on their own terms.

In short, Argentinian pizza is quite good if you accept it for what it is. Not New York pizza. Not Neopolitan pizza. Not Chicago-style, nor New Haven. But Argentinian.

Our first pizza experience horrified Zizou,* and she didn’t even taste it. We had gone to Kentucky Pizza (what a name!) after lots of dancing to La Bomba de Tiempo at Ciudad Cultural KONEX with some new friends. I was so hungry I ate my pizza without comment or even consciousness, but Zizou could not forget it. “It was so thick and doughy! It looked disgusting!”

She wasn’t mollified when I ordered the above fugazetta, an onion-intense pizza at Bodegon, our favorite restaurant and local brewery in El Chalten. We had just come off five days of camping, where we ate nothing other than instant oatmeal, Frutigram cookies, and gummy Knorr-mix pasta. I was not going to complain about the crazy amount of cheese or the flatbread crust. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, but it was good enough that I ate it cold for breakfast the next day.

When we got back to Buenos Aires, and I mentioned that my former boss’s grandmother had invited us to have pizza, Zizou looked scared. But it was she in the end who steered us, even before we went to dinner with Nilda, to El Cuartito, one of the oldest and most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires.

The look of relief on her face when she bit into her slice! “It’s good!”

The cabresa was layered with cheese, many pieces of longaniza (essentially pepperoni), and a strongly tomato-flavored tomato sauce, which is not a redundant thing to say in Argentina. (For a country populated by Italian immigrants, they have sadly forgotten the taste of a true tomato.) The crust was crunchy, but not doughy. The famous faina, the thin chickpea flour pancakes Argentines like to eat literally on top of their pizza slice, was tasty, too. It must be a descendent of farinata, no? It wasn't like any pizza we'd ever had before, but it had everything right-cheese, bread, and sauce.

El Cuartito itself is wonderful. It proudly declares that it began in 1934, thanking its customers, their parents, and their grandparents for their patronage. The walls are covered with memorabilia, except unlike TGIF, the memorabilia has age. Marilyn Monroe sits next to Diego Maradona, as well as Muhammad Ali.

But the crowning moment for Argentine pizza came on our last night, at dinner with Nilda, an 84-year-old former human rights lawyer who I would call feisty if that word didn’t sound so inadequate when applied to a woman like that. Sitting at her kitchen table with her pale gold hair, she watched closely as she asked us, “What do you think of Fidel Castro?” This is a woman who said, “Of course I am not Communist, just in my thoughts!”

The pizza she served us, urged on by my former boss, was from the family’s favorite pizzeria, El Mazacote, a neighborhood place in Montserrat on the corner of calles Chile y Jose. It was a revelation. The dough was yeasty, chewy, flavorful. The sauce and cheese were sharp with salt. We loved it, the Argentinian pizza.

*Zizou, a pseudonym for my good friend who wishes to remain anonymous, and not an indication my good friend is Zinedine Zidane.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Desayuno en Argentina

Medialunas (literally “half moons”) are the Argentine version of the French croissant, except they are very different and very delicious at the same time. They come in three variations—de grasa, de manteca, and dulce.

The first kind is my favorite, the skinniest, more of a thin crescent than a half moon. They’re almost crunchy while also being flaky and more than a little salty.

The second and third, I have to confess, I have a hard time distinguishing. They both flake in softer layers and have a shiny wash of sweetness.

All of them are small and lovely.

I had a bagel this morning in commemoration of my return to New York, but I miss my café con leche con tres medialunas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Argentine cookies

You may have already heard my theory on how a country's junk food reveals a lot about its culture. Ta-da, here is Argentina's rendition of the Oreo:

An alfajor is two cookies bound together with a filling, dulce de leche in Argentina, and then covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Like all Spanish words that start with "al," it's derived from the Arabic word for "relleno" or "filled," and entered Spain with the Moors during the time of Al-Andalus. Hmm, that would explain their extreme intense sweetness.

And then there are the chocolate cookies with beef fat in them:

And cows everywhere:

The best drink in the world

I don’t want to sound like an ass, but you haven’t lived until you’ve had some whiskey on ice from the glacier you’re standing on. It doesn’t even need to be good whiskey. It can be Famous Grouse, and it will still leave you with a weird and wonderful feeling of chilliness, warmth and delirium.

Zizou* and I arrived in El Calafate in southern Patagonia bleary-eyed and dog-tired. We’d stayed up all night drinking with new friends before getting on a 5 a.m. flight, which was unfortunately dominated by a very loud and boisterous group of French tourists. Despite being half-awake, with only one eye open, I distinctly remember hearing one of them say, “J’ai peur! J’ai peur!” (“I’m afraid! I’m afraid!”) as the pilot went for a second try at landing around the giant lake. I was especially surprised that I understood what he was saying, because I don't understand spoken French.

But we somehow managed to haul ourselves to our hostel, America del Sur, and to book ourselves for a “mini-trekking” trip on the glacier the next day from Hielo y Aventura.

We approached the ice by boat on water that was a milky blue from the sediment in the glacier. Marco, our guide, was waiting for us. As Zizou said, “Good God! You get off the boat and there’s a handsome Argentine waiting for you on the dock!” There is mucho eye candy in this country, mucho.

The guides tied crampons, giant metal teeth, onto our boots, and we soon marched onto the ice in groups of ten. The crampons felt fantastic—we could walk up steep slopes like we had been given Spidey powers. Our group was the “English-speaking group,” though it was mainly Germans and French people, which meant we got to hear Marco say in his very flat and funny way, “Now we go hi-gher,” with a hard “g.”

We marched up, we marched down, in a quiet single file, too awed by what we were seeing to say much. We walked around pools of water and looked down deep blue holes. We cupped water into our mouths, and I surreptitiously crunched on ice. The glacier, as smooth as the ice looked from far away, was made up of tiny little bits of ice, so that we were walking on a path of crunchy glass shards. We were told to wear gloves, despite it being a warm day, because if we fell, we could cut our hands.

There is so much more texture and color and variation in a glacier than I’d ever imagined. I had learned, from a book, that glaciers move, but nothing could have prepared me for the sense of movement beneath my feet. From the viewing balconies, the peaks had looked like giant teeth crowded and pushed against each other. Up close, there were also soft, undulating waves that reminded me of Gaudi.

Near the end, we marched up one last slope and found a little tableau, like a movie set, two small tables with glasses, a bucket, and a few bottles of whiskey. We stood around, finally laughing, while Marco poured drinks and we ate alfajores, the national sandwich cookie.

The whiskey tasted sweeter than any whiskey I’d had before. I could feel happiness spreading through me. It was the best drink I have ever had.

*My friend has asked me to identify her as "Zizou" to protect her privacy. I, unfortunately, am not a traveling companion of the great Zinedine Zidane.