Friday, January 16, 2009

Beef before Tango!

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Buenos Aires recently. Our guide, German, (the ‘G’ is pronounced like a hard ‘H’) was fantastic. He allowed us to discover a great city in the little time we were there and booked us in to see an amazing Tango show at Piazzolla Tango.

The Tango, he reminded us, is not indigenous to the whole of Argentina but a product of the city of Buenos Aires, where it grew up out of the slums. Originally performed by men only, as women were not allowed to be so physically close, it, the dance and the music, became a conduit through which immigrants of different races and backgrounds could express themselves as one. It was only much later, once it had become a hit in Paris, that it was accepted by the upper classes as late as 1940 (??) and recognized as an art form.

On the history of the city and the nation, German was also very knowledgeable as he tried to piece together what seems to have been a somewhat twisted, complicated and often brutal past, reflected in the architecture of the city, the obvious divide between rich and poor and the fascinating stories behind some of the families whose tombs grace the Recoleta Cemetery, including Evita’s (interestingly enough she is buried here but her husband President Peron is not!)

When it came to food though, there wasn’t much to say except of course Beef!!! According to our guide, unlike Brazil or Mexico, Argentina does not have much of a national cuisine. Most of the restaurants that we saw were Italian and that is the cuisine that has been embraced by Argentineans. That’s when you’re not eating Beef!

Not surprisingly then, our first dinner in Buenos Aires was Beef! We arrived at the restaurant at 8pm, 3 hours before any self respecting Argentinean would, as we had our Tango show to go to later (it started at 10.15pm – there was one suggestion that we should be more normal and eat after the show!).

Cabanas Las Lilas is one of the more famous steak restaurants ‘Parrillas’ in the Puerto Madero district. Once home to Buenos Aires’ second harbor, this area is now a renovated dockside with 19th warehouses turned in to restaurants, shops and expensive condos. Here it’s all about the beef. Walking towards our table we can see straight in to the kitchen through the glass windows that separate us from a roaring wood fired grill that is covered with all imaginable cuts, rib-eye, rump, skirt, sirloin, tenderloin, T-bone and a strange looking one that looks more like a lethal weapon (Imagine a lamb chop, on the bone but 6 times as big!). This it turns out is the house special ‘Las Lilas’ cut!

The view from our table on the terrace is all about people watching. The menu is all about the grill and the beef! I’m delighted to also see sweetbreads, liver and kidneys – my friends are not! The wine list is all about reminding us what a great wine producing country Argentina is with over 200 wines on offer!

It’s Crostini (see the Italian influence) for everyone else and kidneys for me to start. Then we tuck in to our order of beef: a rib-eye, tenderloin and a house special – all Medium Rare as per the Maitre D’H recommendation with side orders of fluffy potatoes and mixed vegetables. This we’ve decided to wash down with a bottle of a 2003 Mendoza Malbec.

Horrors of horrors!!! The lethal weapon is overcooked! Medium, bordering on the well-done – and the real shame is that this piece of meat is as tough as leather once it’s overcooked. A quick question to the waiter – “Is this Medium Rare?” elicits a flurry of activity. There is absolutely no argument, the offending weapon is removed and a second bottle of wine is brought to the table. I enjoy a taste of everyone else’s meal as I wait for the back up artillery to appear. Sure enough, just as everyone else is finishing their meal a new and improved version is set in front of me amidst profuse apologies – there’s no question as to where the fault lies here (and for a change in Argentina it’s not with the Brits!).

So far the situation has been dealt with very graciously – now in my book they surpass themselves and show that they are extremely service oriented. As I dig in to my steak they bring out a completely new set of vegetables and fluffy potatoes, not just for me, but for the whole table so that my dining companions can also have something to eat instead of just watching me – very impressive.

The meat is delicious and the whole Michael Pollan grass-fed/forced-fed/whatever-fed debate tangos through my mind – briefly – before I tuck in to another piece and reluctantly share some with my friends. Tonight is a night to enjoy a great piece of meat, we'll leave the dancing to the professionals - and what a show it turns out to be!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Perfect Gift?

There are some people who are easy to buy for during the holidays. Part of the challenge is just finding something that they’ll enjoy, the real trick though is to make sure that you can renew this gift every year!! My mother now gets flowers and a subscription to ‘The Week’ delivered every month, my brother and sister 3 bottles of wine each month. These all seem very popular and have made holiday shopping that much simpler, although it’s still nice to get them some other little thing to keep the element of surprise!

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law have found that perfect gift for me. They’re so pleased to have found this that they’ve forced me to swear on my favorite Espresso machine that I’ll never jump the gun and get this for myself.

It’s not the Michelin guide or the Zagat survey, which would make perfect gifts for me except that they are now published in October and no one could get me to wait till December for my copies. There’s a whole blog waiting to be written there as to why Zagat and consequently Michelin (the newer competition - in New York that is!) choose to publish in October - I seem to remember that after 9/11 Zagat bought its publishing date forward from November to October and that seems to have stuck, but otherwise I’m baffled why they don’t publish closer to the year which they are supposed to represent – I’m sure there’s an easy explanation.

No this is the “Best Food Writing” compilation that has been coming out annually since 2000 and is edited by Holly Hughes. For all I know this may also be published in October but this one I can wait for!

For anyone who’s interested in the food industry this is a must have – leave the research and the tedious sorting through all that is written on, about or around food to someone else and enjoy a great collection of food writing.

I haven’t read all the articles yet, but it’s well laid out so that you can go to one section and read articles on the restaurant business, including a hilarious piece by Dan Barber where they mistakenly identify a certain food critic, or you can go to other sections to delve into the whole localphile movement, another for the origination of our food, yet another for the economics of the industry or just the importance that food should/does/did play in our lives.

In the ‘Dining Around’ section there are some great articles on dining outside of the US, including a trip by Calvin Trillin to the Hawker Centres in Singapore that bring the old street sellers into a sanitary environment where the most amazing street food can be tasted - safely! - (it’ll make you want to book your air ticket tomorrow!)

My favorite article though has to be “New Day, New Devon” by Raphael Kadushin. As a Brit, from Devon no less, who is somewhat used to having my country’s cooking prowess unfairly maligned, this piece is a breath of fresh air and really does reflect the culinary revolution that has taken place in the UK. Interestingly enough it is the same addiction with locally sourced produce, naturally reared meat and fish and seasonal freshness that we find in the US that is responsible for this interest by some of the UK’s greatest chefs to move away from the cities to the more traditional pubs and hotels in the countryside.

Which brings me to my only peeve with this collection of articles. It’s a little bit like the World Series – if this is the ‘Best Food Writing 2008’ where are the other countries’ authors represented? I know, a little pedantic, but still, in the spirit of the more modest and globally integrated atmosphere that we will hopefully soon be embracing and fostering, perhaps we should call this ‘Best U.S. Food Writing 2008’! Meantime – I’m looking forward to digesting this collection over the next few months, and will keep it with all my other back copies to occasionally reference or just pick up for a quick, entertaining read, as I longingly look at my espresso machine waiting for the next year to arrive!