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Beyond the Beef: Eating like an Argentine in London

When we talk about Argentine food we’re talking about steak, right? That tender-as-the-day-it-stopped-breathing melt-on-your-tongue beef that’s proving so popular with Londoners these days.

Well, yes and no. Once grills and steak houses started popping up across the city, a sexy sirloin and a smooth bottle of malbec is probably how most of us were first seduced by Argentine cooking.

The classic image of Argentine cuisines - a slab of fine steak (photo courtesy of Moo Grill)

The classic image of Argentine cuisine: a slab of fine steak (Photo courtesy of Moo Grill)

A handful of restaurants played a significant role in that and it’s impossible to write about Argentine restaurants in London and not mention Gaucho. Founded by the same people behind Sucre in Buenos Aires, it can be credited with raising the profile of Argentina in the city and indeed the rest of the world, with the chain now counting 17 restaurants globally from Dubai to London’s O2 Arena.

But fresh winds are blowing across the city. New eateries like Moo Grill are looking to educate Londoners about some of the unsung heroes of Argentina’s cooking. And it looks like London’s ready to listen.

What Is La Cocina Argentina?

But before we dive into the city’s Argentine food scene, what is exactly is the Argentine food scene? Because in many ways it’s meaningless to talk about Argentine ‘cuisine’ in the way we talk about, say, Japanese cuisine.

Multiple waves of foreign settlers in the country’s short history mean you’re more likely to find variations of European dishes like pizza and pasta than distinctive native cooking, in Buenos Aires at least.

Trying to get a handle on what defines the food from Argentina, I caught up with Argentine chef Martin Milesi, who now too lives in London.

“It’s a cocina of influences,” he says. “A mixture of native cooking, Spanish conquistadors, and then a second wave that came when the country opened its doors to Europeans in the 1800s. Native cuisine was pushed to one side when European settlers came – first a lot of Italians and Spanish and later a more Arabic influence. What we ended up with was European food made in the Argentine style.”

Argentina is, perhaps necessarily given its sheer scale, a country defined more by regional specialties than a national cuisine.

Sheep on Cerro Cazador with Cerro Castillo and Cerro Tenerife in the background. (Photo: Brian Romans)

Sheep grazing in Patagonia (Photo: Brian Romans)

There’s lamb from Patagonia, which has a very singular taste because – so the story goes –  the animals graze on grass swept with sea salt that blows over the land from the coast, as well as herbs particular to the region, which infuses the meat with their flavour.

Further south there are succulent Ushuaian crabs hooked out of the sea at the very end of the earth, fat trout from the icy lakes of Bariloche and acres of Mendozan vineyards, where around two thirds of Argentina’s wine comes from.

Then there’s the beef of course. Actually a British import, the meat traditionally came from cows free to roam across the vast plains of the Pampas. However, the uptick in feedlot dairy farming in the country, combined with a market that dictates that the best produce is exported, means we’re more likely to eat meat from grass-fed Argentine cows in London than in Argentina itself.

Educating London

But while Argentine beef must truly be the most sublime there is on the planet, there’s a lot more to la cocina Argentina than that and I spent some time talking to the chefs that helped raise the profile of South American food in the capital.

Argentine restaurateur and Moo Grill co-founder Alberto Abbate, originally from La Plata, has been here since 1998.

He helped set up Buen Ayre with fellow Argentine John Rattigan in Hackney back in 2004 and then went on to establish a string of restaurants from Santa Maria Del Sur in Battersea to La Garufa in Highbury. Moo is the latest and it sounds like there are more projects in the pipeline.

He tells me that Londoners’ perceptions of his home country are still relatively limited to stereotypes.

“People in London still know us for meat and malbec,” he says. “All the Argentine restaurants in London are steak houses. When we opened Moo it gave us the opportunity to do something a bit different.”

The high price of meat in England means that steak houses are usually a rare indulgence for most of us. The concept behind Moo, Abbate says, is to offer more affordable classic dishes including street food staples like lomitos and milanesas.

“We have meat, of course, but the menu is a bit more varied and accessible. People are starting to realise there’s more to us. I mean the good thing about London is that people will try anything.”

South American Wave

And it’s not just Argentine restaurants – London is finally waking up to the virtues of South American food, with Brazilian and Peruvian kitchens also gaining momentum.

What Gaucho did for Argentina, Martin Morales’ Ceviche is doing for Peruvian food, winning over Londoners with its swish Soho restaurant and introducing them to fresh flavours and snappy pisco sours.

A plate of Ceviche (photo via Flickr by James)

A plate of ceviche (Photo via Flickr by James)

Are Londoners ready to step further into the unknown? Morales thinks so. He opened Andina – a restaurant that focuses on traditional recipes from the Andes – just before Christmas.

From fried cassava and quinoa dumplings to pumpkin doughnuts and an entire suckling piglet glazed with pisco and red berries, he’s bringing food cooked in the remote, emerald green foothills of the Andes to Shoreditch.

“Ceviche tells the story of the coast of Peru, which is where I grew up,” Morales tells me. “My heritage on my maternal side is from the Andes. It’s a beautiful world where I also grew up and I think it’s crazy that more people don’t know about it. Nobody outside of Peru has told that story and we want to be the first to do that.”

I ask how he approached the challenge of communicating his home country to Londoners.

“South America has not been in the spotlight for a long time and when it has it’s been the same commonly recurring themes touched upon in ways that have become boring. We created Ceviche to bring a new type of Peruvian Latin experience that is real, fresh, exciting, and not with the tired cliches of days gone by.

“Our waiters and managers are intelligent, creative people who care about you and our music is 100% Peruvian punk, funk, chicha, and cumbia. We don’t serve cheap rum nor cheap tequila here, Ricky Martin and the Macarena boys wouldn’t get in, and you won’t see a bongo nor maracas at our restaurant.”

The Pioneers

Our eyes (and bellies) might be opening up to Latin American food in London, but that hasn’t always been the case.

I spoke to Buen Ayre co-founder John Rattigan about how London’s food scene has changed over the past few years. He’s the son of an Irish mother and Irish-Argentine father, who ran a farm in Buenos Aires province. As the eldest son, he says he was in charge of the asado aged ten and shows no sign of leaving the fire-side just yet.

Arriving in London in the 1990s, he says it is now one of the best places to eat in the world, but that definitely hasn’t always been the case.

“Thirty years ago the food in London was awful,” he says. “My god. The transformation! It’s gone from being the pariah of European cuisine to one of the most exciting places to eat.”

No wonder, then, that his restaurant was so popular when it first opened – booking second sittings within six months and packed to the gills each night. The restaurant opened at a good time in the city. Mad cow disease had killed London’s steak houses so there wasn’t much competition. It might not have been the most adventurous food city at that time, but steak was something they could get on board with.

It’s restaurants like this that put Argentina on London’s food map and while there’s plenty more to Argentina than steak, it’s not a bad place to start. Salud!

Lead image by Christian Ostrosky

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A Taste for The Argentine Experience

Argentine food culture can sometimes be slightly intimidating, full of deeply held traditions that if done wrong, can generate looks of dismay. The tastings and events at The Argentine Experience aim to make Argentine traditions accessible, while offering travellers, new residents, and locals some of the best food the city has to offer. Their ethos lies in the belief that the beauty of travelling and experiencing a new country can be enhanced in the company of others from all corners of the globe in a relaxed atmosphere.

Juan Garcia mixes a few custom cocktails (Photo: Terra Borody)

Juan Garcia mixes a few custom cocktails (Photo: Terra Borody)

The Argentine Experience started life as a closed-door restaurant; in this case in a tiny residential flat in the heart of Recoleta. The passionate team quickly found an investor and set up shop in a sumptuous and prime space in Palermo.

The evening began with a ‘wine cocktail and aroma class’, where guests are invited to sample 20 glasses of various aromas – from lychee, violet, and smoke – in the hope of awakening those senses for the subsequent wine and wine-cocktail tasting. Mixologist and sommelier Juan Garcia hosted a mini-wine tasting featuring Malbec and Torrontés reds, where he guided the group into unlocking the nuances of some of Argentina’s flagship varietals, before preparing three red, white and rosé wine cocktails. The fruits of the knowledgeable and talented Garcia’s labour were served alongside a selection of wine-based canapés; bites of heaven that offered a glimpse into what chef Interadeck Hoontrakul had in store for us for the rest of the evening’s food tastings.

Diners diligently construct their empanadas (Photo: Terra Borody)

Diners diligently construct their empanadas (Photo: Terra Borody)

The night continued upstairs with a brief introduction by charismatic hosts Richard Porter and Stefi Speranza, who would be our guides for the rest of the evening. They spoke of the company’s concept of offering more than just a dinner, but a dining experience; an experience where guests are immersed into Argentine culture and cuisine, in a relaxed environment, surrounded by other likeminded people.

The main course- a juicy steak with cooked vegetables (Photo: Terra Borody)

The main course- a juicy steak with cooked vegetables (Photo: Terra Borody)

Diners were seated around two communal-style tables in a rustic setting of high ceilings and hardwood floors, and were treated to an interactive empanada making and tasting session. This was followed by one of the best meals my photographer and I had ever experienced. The focal point of the main course was of course the Argentine classic: steak. Juicy, succulent, tender, and every other adjective you could possibly think of to describe a perfect steak. It was all of them. Roasted vegetables and puréed potatoes acted as accompaniments, and wine – which was switched to a deeper, more complex Malbec – flowed freely throughout the entirety of the evening thanks to attentive server Jose Valdivia.

After we had been floored by the steak and unanimously decided that it wasn’t going to be topped anytime soon, we were handed two further Argentine classics: mate and dulce de leche. Mate, as you probably know, is a national institution – one with a ritualistic process and an often-dividing taste, and an aspect of the country’s food culture that our hosts were especially keen to share. As a group we then prepared from scratch, served, tasted, and discussed the mate on offer, complimented by perhaps the more crowd-pleasing alfajores. Tables were filled with temping bowls of dulce de leche, coconut shavings, melted chocolate, and vanilla biscuits, and diners were asked to dig in, get making, and taste until there’s no room to taste more. As Argentine experiences go, that is something hard to complain about.

The Argentine Experience
For more information check out their website or Facebook page.
+54 911-6715-0330
Fitz Roy 2110, Palermo Hollywood, Buenos Aires.

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Top 5 New Year’s Eve Options

Although Buenos Aires is undeniably a party capital, New Year’s Eve is a surprisingly low-key affair and many people spend midnight with their families before heading to a party. Others join the mass exodus that is indicative of the start of the holidays, leaving the capital and either crossing the Río de la Plata to head to one of Uruguay’s many resorts, such as swanky Punte del Este to mingle with the jet-set, or to one of Argentina’s beach towns.

But if you aren’t able to escape the city over the period and are still at a loss as to what to do, The Indy brings you a variety of ways to see in 2012.

Fireworks shoot over the Buenos Aires night sky (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Some key things to know: Don’t expect to get public transport or a cab anywhere around midnight on the 31st – so get wherever you want to early and be prepared to stay there until at least 4am, as it will be nigh-on impossible to move around the city. Do expect to spend money! For the holidays, many restaurants, shows and clubs jack their prices up, so throw out the idea of doing this particular Saturday night on the cheap. Also, book ahead! Many of the restaurants and shows will fill up in advance – don’t expect to wing it by just dropping by as you risk being disappointed.

If you are feeling you want to fit in with the local spirit, don’t forget your pink undies! It has recently come to our attention that it is tradition to wear them on New Year’s for good luck (something the Indy staff have not been doing, so imagine how good 2012 is going to be now we know this!)

One of the many beautiful dishes from El Baqueano-Carnes Autoctonas available on New Years'

1. Eating: Restaurants

A number of Buenos Aires’ fine eateries are doing special menus to see in the new year. As there is a word limit on this piece, we can’t highlight all of them here, instead bringing you a small overview of the restaurants we know are doing something special this Saturday. If you would like a complete list of the capital’s restaurants to find out what they are offering for yourself, visit our directory. Bear in mind that not all restaurants are open, so check in advance to avoid disappointment!

If you want to see 2011 out in true Argentine style (eating half a cow washed down with a malbec) La Cabrera parrilla in Palermo has a special New Year’s menu. For modern Argentine cuisine de autor, Casa Cruz in Palermo is offering tasting menus with wine. And if you want to go a little away from traditional Argentine, and move more into the experimental, El Baqueano in San Telmo has national meats that move away from the obvious ‘cow’ variety, into llama, caiman, wild boar and other offerings.

For something more international, try the following: Almacen Secreto (closed door, Colegiales), Astrid & Gastón (Peruvian, Palermo), Dehli Bar Downtown (Indian, San Telmo), Filo (Italian, Microcentro), La Maison (French, Palermo), María Félix (Mexican, Palermo), Sette Bacco (Italian, Recoleta), and Sipan (Japanese-Peruvian fusion, Palermo location).

If it’s more about drinking than eating, Aldo’s Vinoteca y Restorán is guaranteed to satisfy, as well as tantalizing your tastebuds with their New Year’s menu.

2. Eating: Big Hotels

As you would expect, the big hotels are all offering special menus for those wanting to dine in traditional luxury on the 31st. The evenings cater to a more international crowd, with a more European or North American approach to bringing in the new year.

The Park Hyatt (Recoleta), Alvear Palace Hotel (Recoleta), Four Seasons (Retiro), Marriott Plaza (Retiro), Hotel Castelar (Microcentro), and the Sofitel (Retiro) all have special evenings planned. The fare is pretty much the same with all of them – dinner with a show, followed by dancing in old style glamour.

For a hotel with a difference, offering a more up-beat New Year’s celebration, gay-friendly Axel Hotel in San Telmo has a special dinner with tango show, followed by set by DJ Tomas Abella. The dinner is for guests only, but the party and copious amounts of champagne can be enjoyed by all who want to drop by.

3. Dinner Shows

As to be expected in the world capital of tango, many venues are putting on a special new year’s menu and celebrating the coming of 2012 with spectacular dinner shows. Esquina Carlos Gardel (Abasto) is hosting a ‘Noche de Gran Reveillon’; Complejo Tango (Once), Confiteria Ideal (Microcentro), El Viejo Almacen (San Telmo), La Ventana (San Telmo), and Señor Tango (Barracas) are all hosting special dinner shows.

Bored of tango? If you are after a dinner show with a difference, why not go for flamenco at Tiempo de Gitanos or Al Shark‘s Arabian Nights show, both in Palermo.

For a complete list of tango shows, visit our directory, and  those looking for non-tango shows, can visit the website Reserva Tu Cena Show, where many have special nights planned for the 31st.

The view from the top of Palacio Barolo will give a spectacular vista on New Year's Eve. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

4. Outdoors

Want to revel in the summer night rather than sweating it up in a club or bar? Well, Buenos Aires has some great options for hanging out and watching the midnight fireworks in more natural environs, and could be either a pre-club plan or an option for those who want to make the most of the first day of 2012.

A popular choice is to head down to Puerto Madero and watch the fireworks from along the docks or on the bridges. The neighbourhood has a huge variety of restaurants where you could choose to dine before the clock strikes, as well as at least one club that is hosting a new year’s party, making the fireworks a solid option to build a night around.

Across town, the Planetarium is another option for those wanting to lie back on the grass and watch the skies light up as the clock chimes. Generally a popular choice with locals, the parks fill up and make for a festival-like atmosphere which feels far away from the bustle of Buenos Aires.

A final choice, technically outdoors, is Palacio Barolo’s New Year’s tour, culminating in champagne on the building’s terrace at midnight, with a spectacular view of the fireworks 100-metres above street level.

5. Dancing

Want to party like it’s 1999? Well, many of the big clubs are hosting special new years parties, although like everything in Buenos Aires, they start late, most kicking off after midnight. So they are great options for continuing the night into the morning of the 1st January, but won’t play host to your midnight toast, alas.

Buenos Aires clubbing can be an all night affair (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

If you want to mix with an international crowd, from 1am onwards you can head to Piso Compartido’s party at Club Niceto in Palermo. They are expecting to see 1,400 revellers from all over the world dancing in the club and promise surprises, games, and medialunas at 7am for everyone still standing. The music is a mixture of rock, pop, latino and 80s.

Asia de Cuba is a great post-fireworks option for those in Puerto Madero. The party kicks off at 1am with music that promises to be varied and very danceable, including electronic, house, rock and regatton.

Over in Palermo, the clubs along the costanera will fill up late, and any one of them could be a great option if midnight was spent by the Planetarium. Many have international DJs over from Europe or North America, who will be playing the best techno and electronica beats well into the morning. Crobar and Pacha are a couple worth noting.

And outside of the Palermo circuit, Amerika in Almagro and La Boutique (formerly Museum) in San Telmo both have big nights planned.

Posted in Food & Drink, The City, Top 5Comments (1)

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As a possible ‪Grexit‬ looms in the old continent, we revisit Marc Rogers' article comparing Greece's current situation to Argentina's own 2001-2 crisis.

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