We now travel back in time to last month in South America, when for a few short days steak maintained a certain primacy in our existence.
The first encounter with a proper Argentine grass fed beef is more about the social experience than the meat itself. We meet up with Silvio et posse our first night in Buenos Aires for Christmas Eve dinner at the Four Seasons. With all that free flowing, unlimited Catena Zapata wine, the night becomes a big fuzzy blur, much like the homemade cotton candy we're served at the end.
A clump of salmon tartare with a briny oyster is a big contrast to what's to come. And it all comes quick – in fact, I can't believe how fast the staff is pacing this meal. Crazy. It's not as if we're forced to vacate the table either; we wind up occupying it for over three hours. So much for the reputation of laid-back South America. I too hope this experience proves to be anomalous, because the food arrives COLD. At least it's a thick, moist filet with a mildly sweet reduction, and we're able to cut through it with our um, butter knives. Again, the wrong cutlery is thankfully not the norm in Buenos Aires steak culture.
We then get turned away at the über of-the-moment Faena Hotel + Universe, Philippe Starck's design attack on BA (and where the Apple store will soon open). We'll be back, bitches! Our bruised egos do return for drinks – twice, in fact. Anyway, this most expensive meal of the trip isn't the best food-wise, but it's definitely among the most fun.
The next night for Christmas dinner with H's aunt, uncle and cousin we get to walk in the well-trod path of the great Johnny Apple. (In case you can't tell, we socialized a lot with friends and family whose trips coincided with ours.) At Cabaa Las Lilas restaurant located along the revived waterfront, we might not get the royal treatment like Mr. Apple did at the restaurant and the estancia, but we do get to marvel at the parrilla station from the viewing window. I feel like I'm in a maternity ward, but instead of cute wrigling newborns in basinets, I'm watching very sweaty yet well-groomed men jockey for position while throwing slabs of hot pink flesh onto the unique custom grill and replenishing the stash.
Between the five of us, the sampling of juicy Ojo de Bife, Bife de Chorizo, and Medalln de Lomo is enough. (The waitstaff divides the pieces for us. Nice touch.) There's no need at all to order one steak per person. It's all great as to be expected, if not slightly under-salted, like I find a lot of food in BA to be. The meat aspect is rounded out with the tasty antipasto of cheese and various marinated veggies platter they give you when seated, a delicious fresh mixed salad, as well as garlicky French fries and championes a la Provenzal.
Forty bucks a head is among the priciest meals you'll find in Argentina, and it's also a clear indication of the nation's gradual economic recovery since Apple's visit in 2002 when $20 would buy you that same meal. But it'd easily cost three times more at Ruth's Chris, right?
We take a meat respite on our third night in town for a satisfying chic Italian dinner. Amazing to think 48 hours feels like enough of a break to recharge in order to take on El Estanciero in the Las Caitas section. Until Calle Baez, never have I seen such a concentration of hip, sleek, and dazzling restaurants, as well as a seemingly endless march of patrons who match said description. Not to mention the affordablity factor (at least for dollar-toting Americans).
El Estanciero is hard core parrilla with a slightly edgier, Nuevo Gaucho attitude. And with the highest end of the wine list $25 bottle of a bold and well-structured Terrazas Malbec, about half the price of Las Lilas, with even better food. I have to taste the flavor-packed entrana (skirt) steak, which arrives nearly charred on the outside, and is red and buttery when cut open. (Those two pieces actually comprise one $6 order, BTW.)
Just when I think we're done with Red Meat Tour '05, we go to Rio.
And when in Rio, you gotta try churrascaria. Because eating at Fogo de Cho is reserved for H's writer man dates, I had to rely on memories of Churrascaria Plataforma in NYC to psychologically prepare me for the experience of Porco Rio's. Without them, I might've passed out from the sheer volume of well, everything: the mile-long salad bar and hot foods buffet, to the teeny tiny chicken hearts, to the continuous hawking of cow parts.
The scene blows my mind. Not to mention that the supply of the waiter charged with dolling out chicken hearts must represent about fifty dead birds.
The "No Obgrigado" side on my "chip" doesn't do much to stem the flow of offerings. I hold out for the picanha, that special re-carbonized, fat ringed meat that's the churrascaria signature. I also nibble on some rump roast, chorizo sausage, and other non-veggie delights, but mostly gorge myself on the grilled shitakes, palmitos, red leaf lettuce, mozzarella, and artichoke hearts. I've got my limits.