Planning our first visit to Buenos Aires, I had the benefit of lots of advice and recommendations of friends who had been recently. Patagonia Sur was included on a few lists as a top B.A. dining destination, though truth be told, no one went into specifics.
Still, current guidebooks waxed rhapsodic, giving it the highest marks. From the ultra trendy "hedonist's guide" Hg2 Buenos Aires: "Frances Mallman is probably Argentina's favorite chef...it is worth getting to Patagonia Sur for dinner, even if it means risking getting your taxi being hijacked [it's located in La Boca, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood]...Patagonia Sur La Boca is B.A.'s only real dinner candidate."
We were five nights into our stay and had enjoyed every meal. Dives in Palermo Soho; the tourist trap cafe at Museo MALBA; a spectacular meal at the brand new Astrid y Gaston. Some favorite neighborhood joints with local friends. So -- off to Patagonia Sur, expectations running very high.
Yes the neighborhood was truly skeevy, looked as unsavory and potentially dangerous as friends, locals and guidebooks had said. We needed to ring to enter; they were slow to respond, so as we rang the second time while watching our cab drive away it was a tad creepy. Just for a moment.
Tiny dining room (we counted only 16 seats) but beautifully appointed. Vermillion walls, dark lighting, lush crimson velvet curtains, interesting displays of books, repro-antique French porcelains, dimly lit cases of crystal stemware and tarnished loving cups and trophies, American jazz playing thoughout the night at just the right level, audible but not intrusive.
First shocker: Prix Fix Menu: 410 pesos. At the time of our visit (April '10) $1 US = 3.8 Argentine pesos. By comparison, the highest menu price we'd seen so far was 190 pesos for the brunch buffet at the Alvear Palace Hotel, an infinite spread of spectacular bounty. The aforementioned Astrid y Gaston was 320 pesos total, for 2. Note: we don't drink, so none of these prices take wine into account.
Three courses offered. Menu in English. Nothing jumping off the page but everything sounding good. Known for steaks, I ordered the tenderloin wrapped in bacon and sage. A local friend told us that Argentines like their meat much more well done than Americans -- he advised us to always order steak "jugioso" or jucy, which is our medium rare. So asked server for my steak this way. Got a shake of the head, "you'll be sorry" response. Discussed my notion of medium rare -- red, juicy inside; not pink. She said that is their medium rare preparation too; and smugly assured us no one has ever been unhappy,
For starters, I had a nice salad of thinnest sliced fennel with almonds and circles of dried tomato (grid marks from the dehydrator evident), a lovely vinaigrette. Dining partner: A generous salad. a standard mix of greens with blue cheese, nicely ripe pears and walnuts on a thin crisp flat bread (carte de musica). Both salads fine, certainly not rapturous or even unfamiliar.
The main event: immediately cut into the heart of the filet -- only faint traces of pink in the center, a true medium-well by US standards. Bacon and sage added, as did a wine reduction sauce, but steak very dry. Server didn't come over to check in for at least a few minutes, told her it wasn't how I had asked, she did offer a replacement, but I can only blame myself that I am reluctant to send things back unless they are truly inedible or incorrect. Grass fed Argentine beef packs a much deeper flavor wallop than what I'm accustomed to, even with a filet, so I soldiered on. To accompany, a nice salad of wilted greens with fried potato wedges, crisp and puffed like French pommes souffle. Partner: excellent gnocchi with shaved jamon, cheese and butter/oil sauce.
Desserts: a not-sweet passion fruit souffle with vanilla ice cream on a white chocolate-dusted serving plate. Souffle preparation was perfect -- though so very odd that it wasn't sweet since sweetness had turned up in so many other savory dishes. I longed to drizzle it with honey or even a tablespoon of sugar. Net/net: not enjoyable. Partner: hot peach/plum crumble, scoop of ice cream, as good and imaginative as what we make ourselves in the summer. Yawn.
Now, for this kind of money, not one amuse guile (sp?) or chef's treat at any point in the meal, no surprise extras. Even with tea after dinner, not a biscuit, petit four of cookie in sight, even more surprising since EVERY coffee or tea from EVERY restaurant, bar, coffee shop comes with a tiny sweet and a small glass of water to boot. Also, diners seated after us were offered specials of the day we weren't told of.
Summary: uneven, just adequate food, nothing you couldn't find in a nice NYC restaurant. Nothing to create the feeling of an authentic Argentine experience. Big disappointment. A bummer. Dare I say rip-off...? Yes.
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