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Wander around Palermo ‘Hollywood’ these days and you would be hard pushed to miss the plethora of ‘natural’ restaurants and cafes that have sprung up in the last year or so.
Kensho may be the newest kid on the block, having opened its doors at the end of August, but it is by no means the newest in town, having moved from its previous location. In fact, Buddhist founder and chef Máximo Cabrera has nearly a decade of cooking experience under his belt, having cut his teeth in the kitchen at Bio, Buenos Aires’ first organic restaurant, in 2002. After a few years, Máximo founded Kensho, which began as one of the first closed-door restaurants in Buenos Aires. He then opened Kensho publicly a few years ago in Villa Ortuza, before moving to the current location in Palermo, where he has expanded to include the boutique and deli that feature next door to the restaurant.
So what makes Kensho stand out from the eco-masses?
The slick, chic appearance? True, the interior fits in with true Palermo style – clean simple décor, with not a lick of apple-coloured paint or a hint of wicker in sight. The green philosophy goes much deeper than appearances, so deep in fact, that the restaurant does not try to prove itself on appearances alone. It looks like any other classy, good restaurant with its timeless style.
This was a conscious decision on Máximo’s part – he aims to appeal to people beyond the regular consumers of restaurants whose fare is organic, vegetarian and raw. Yet the philosophy is a throbbing vein that runs through the heart of everything the space is about – every detail has been taking into account. Customers have the option of bottled or filtered tap water, the menu is made from 100% recycled paper, the cover of which explains the ethos behind the food, which changes with the season – proof of Máximo’s adherence to the philosophies of slow food, a movement he is part of in Argentina. The Slow Food movement was born in Italy, and adheres to the policy of using food that is local, grown in a sustainable way – aka organic – and offers a fair price to producers. In Kensho, the concept of changing the menu with the seasons also follows ancient Chinese methods.
So does the food cut it?
We opted for the ‘experience’ which comes in four courses, at a price of $160 for two. It is a good way to try more of a range of food on the menu, especially if some of the options sound alien to you.
The Trio de Dips were accompanied by a variety of different breads, all of which were 100% wholegrain and homemade. Tastebuds were tickled by the fanciful black bean guacamole and nut pâté; a little green ball made of sunflower seeds, rocket and honey. The combinations made a change from a cream cheese dip and processed white bread that is the standard fare in most restaurants, as well as being healthier and far more interesting.
These were followed by two soups: lentil soup with cashew nuts and parsley; and butternut squash with an apple chimichurri, made of apple, canela and spices. Both were hearty, filling and warming for a chilly Spring evening.
Tofu Tandoori, tofu in a tandoori and orange sauce, accompanied by rice with basil and seaweed, was one of the main courses. I am not a tofu fan at all, fearing it falls into all the traps of being beige and bland, a stereotype of bad vegetarian fodder – but as Máximo explained, it is all about what you do with it, as it doesn’t have a particularly overwhelming flavour of its own. And he may have converted me with this one plate.
The other main, Crumble de Calabaza, was a combination of intense flavours and textures. The base was butternut squash coated in a crumble that was sweet in taste, but contrasted strongly with the melting goat’s cheese on top, accompanied by wild mushroom and beansprouts.
Dessert consisted of a platter with different tastings, each carrying names that reflect Máximo’s love of music: the vegan James Brownie, Banana Nirvana, a banana in a kind of batter, as well as vegan ice cream, and other delights.
We finished full, but not bloated, having tried various new food combinations. And it lives up to its name, in both senses – it really is a dining ‘experience’, and Kensho, which means ‘to wake up the imagination’, carries the slogan ‘food to wake you up’. And it does just that. It brings a new, different focus to the concept and act of eating, encouraging customers to think about where the food has come from, and to try new flavours and combinations. It is a three-dimensional experience, not one that is flat and leaves the diner lacking, as so many vegetarian restaurants unfortunately tend to.
Kensho is a place for food lovers – vegetarian or not. This is what Máximo had in mind when opening the new locale, and he has hit the bulls eye. He wants people to experiment, to alternate between meat and two veg (or meat and more meat, as is often the case in Argentina) and wants Kensho to open people’s eyes – and tastebuds – up to new ideas.
He is realistic in this aim, and the balance he has managed to strike is an intelligent one. Rather than painting the place green, Kensho is stylish and the philosophy goes deeper than a trend or a passing fad, ensuring that it will survive any changes in fashion. The wine menu is a reflection of this, and the emphasis is on quality above and beyond anything else.
As well as organic and biodynamic wines, the menu contains regular wines – again a conscious decision by Máximo. He says that when he first opened Kensho across town, he had wanted to only serve organic wines, but the industry is not as developed as the regular wine trade in Argentina, and he found that often the wines were somewhat lacking, and not up to the standard he wanted to reach. So now he has wines of varying prices and includes organic and biodynamic wines on the list, but the emphasis is on quality. This is mirrored in the drinks menu generally – there is a long list of cocktails and ‘refrescantes’ (longer drinks with less alcohol) and the clients are welcome to drop in to have a drink just as much as they are welcome to eat, another move aimed at tentatively opening Kensho up, and helping Máximo’s food philosophy reach a wider audience.
And he seems to firmly desire growth of a more sustainable food movement – so much so, he teaches cooking classes on Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, in Kensho’s kitchen.
We leave feeling we have learnt a lot and been given a privileged insight into Máximo’s ideology, which he translates into edible delights on a daily basis.