Friday, September 04, 2009

Buenos Aires: La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar Review

Food can be a cure for what ails you.

Let our last meal in Buenos Aires at La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar be a testament to that.

My friend and I had just had a bad encounter and were quite shaken. I was bruised and in some pain. But we had been looking forward to this meal that had promised to be exciting and delicious - the chef has worked at Spain's famed El Bulli restaurant, an altar of molecular gastronomy. So we decided to go ahead with the lunch. There was only one other table in the gorgeous little restaurant at the time and three people who worked there - there was an open kitchen so we could see just how few people were working there. Despite that, they were incredibly nice - assembling a bag of ice for my swelling leg and even going out to get pain medicine.

The charming server, who turned out to be Alejandro Diglio, the chef and owner himself, explained to us the 10-course tasting menu for 160 pesos (about $40). For this city, the prices are considered expensive, but compared to the price for any comparable meal in the United States, it's a genuine steal. When you factor in the quality of the food I'm about to tell you about, this could be one of the best meals in Buenos Aires.

There is one caveat: to properly enjoy such a tasting menu, you have to be the sort of person who is willing to try or eat anything, barring allergies (they did ask about them). To some this type of meal may seem showy and precious - it IS just food after all, isn't it? But, if you are open minded, this is a meal that proves eating can be not only tasty and fulfilling, but also fantastically fun. This place not only fed us food good enough to at least temporarily make us forget our terrible morning encounter, but entertained us by showing off an art form. Though it sounds a bit cheesy, I was excited every time a new course landed on the table and I relished the creativity apparent in sight, smell and taste.

Sadly, we have no photos, so I'll have to point you to other blogs to get an idea of La Vineria's offerings.

Funny aside: Because we were taking notes and sketching images of our food, the server asked us if we were chefs. No, actually, we are just food-obsessed tourists.

Things didn't begin with the first course - even the bread served was interesting. Skinny sticks of white toast in a round glass container with olive oil butter.

A long, skinny plate of amuse bouche. Five single-bite tastes. A Fois gras bon bon served on a small metal spoon was creamy and light, not too earthy; a parmesan croquette had a surprisingly liquid center; a refreshing passionfruit sorbet; a tiny, pita pocket filled with a squirt of vinegar; and a toothpick-stabbed piece of soy sauce-soaked salmon sashimi. A terrific introduction - a combination of simple and interesting.

*Ensalada de portobelos confitados
Salad of cruciferas (brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, pickled radish) and a portabello carpaccio with an orange-colored pepper jelly (made after cooking peppers for 10 hours) and lettuce emulsion. A very healthy tasting salad with a vinegary undertone. Interesting to see lettuce used as an emulsion - it's not a vegetable often used creatively, likely because it has such a mild flavor. I liked its addition here.

*Huevo-Pan-Trufa (Egg-Bread-Truffles)
An egg yolk encased in a two thinly sliced pieces of bread - they were wrapped around the egg like a box. It was topped with salt and truffle oil and sat atop a puddle of savory chicken broth that tasted of roasted chicken juices. Black olives impressively imitated truffle shavings. All served with a swoosh of goat cheese cream to the side. This was a delicious and playful dish that we loved.

*Mar y Montaña (The Sea and the Mountain)
A line of alternating scallops and lamb's tongue topped with cilantro, served with pumpkin puree and clementine reduction and zest. The small scallops were slightly charred and tender; the lamb's tongue was delicate and mild without the strong gamey taste of lamb meat. The pumpkin puree was sweet and complemented the other components well. I'd never had lamb's tongue before and liked that my first introduction to it was successful.

*Té Negro y Salmon Blanco (Black Tea and White Salmon)
Salmon served in oyster broth with a gelatin tagliatelli of black tea and spices. The watery broth was fishy-tasting in a good way. But the salmon was overcooked - it seemed to have been seared before being placed in the broth and thus hadn't absorbed enough of the broth's flavors. While the black tea "noodles" were inventive, they lacked much flavor and were more about the texture.

*Carrillera y Manzana Verde (Beef Cheeks and Green Apple)
Chunks of beef and a cube of green apple jelly were blanketed by green apple air. The beef cheeks were wonderful bits of softly stewed meat that at the same time managed to have crispy edges. The green apple air actually had flavor and added a crispness to the dish - perhaps even more so than the solid jelly.

*Lamb without Lamb
This looked like a spring roll standing upright atop a bed of pea puree. It was in fact an egg roll wrapper holding a bundle of peas and diced carrots and potatoes with a cube of bread on top. The entire thing was drizzled with lamb juices. While I liked the idea of this, the dish was probably one of the least successful of the meal. It was messy and hard to eat and had an overwhelming gritty pea flavor.

*Ojo de bife (Ribeye)
Two chunks of criss-crossed beef with a Malbec reduction, three kinds of pepper and a ratatouille "ravioli". The highlight here was the "ravioli" - the ratatouille was wrapped in thinly sliced translucent daikon radish. Our eyes widened as we recognized how sublime this one bite was. When this dish was set before us, it had a strong meaty aroma. The meat was served quite rare topped with sea salt. Not being much of a beef eater, I don't know how ribeye or rare meat normally tastes. This meat had good flavor, but was on the chewy side.

*Pera Especias (Spiced Pears)
Rectangular slices of pear sandwiched between sliced spice bread, like an ice cream sandwich served standing on its side. It came with a small pile of pear "caviar" and a caramel-anisette reduction. This reminded me of a standing s'more, reminiscent of a Richard Serra sculpture. The pear caviar was made of little gelatinous bubbles with a subtle pear flavor. I loved this dessert and give it all the more credit for impressing me despite being simple and fruit-based.

*Otoño y Montaña (Autumn and Mountain)
Three little scoops - one of creamy chocolate mousse, one of ice cream and one of yogurt foam covered in crispy chocolate - all covered by a meteor-shaped chunk of frozen chocolate air in nitrogen on a bed of flourless chocolate cake crumbs. This truly seemed out of this world - the chocolate air was like eating light chocolate-flavored ice. It was an incredible backdrop for the scoops, making the dish a perfect balance of sweetness. The cake crumbs channeled Carvel crunchies. This was a such a strong end to the meal, punctuating it by reinforcing the chef's creativity while simultaneously appealing to the tastebuds.

On our way out, we were handed homemade lollipops on the way
out. These were beautifully delicate swirls of sugar dusted with
 clementine zest. While they didn't have much taste and were an ephemeral token of our meal, they were visual delights.

While we hadn't entirely recovered from the day's earlier events, we left this restaurant feeling taken care of and were at least able to smile and take home a good last memory.

Thank you, La Vineria.

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