Dinner last night in Buenos Aires was going to be something special, my wife promised me. A “sharing menu” at a quite new, positively reviewed restaurant that wasn’t the typical parilla joint one finds in just about every corner of the country. A nouveau Argentine cuisine as filtered through a European chef’s sensibilities.
I wasn’t so sure, but, heck, we’re on a long vacation and I’d already consumed a fair amount of steak and sausage, so I went along for the ride.
We had made our reservation a day earlier, so at the appointed hour we showed up at the restaurant. We were greeted by a young waiter, dressed in black (as were they all), with a “hi” (no “buenos tarde”), before he scurried off to a table of diners.
As we waited at the small bar, the sound of those diners started to come through–American English, without exception. Our hopes began sinking.
We were fairly quickly seated at our table in a quiet garden section of the restaurant, and handed menus and the wine list.
Shock: there was no “sharing menu.” Instead, the listed “tasting menu” was double the price of the sharing menu posted outside the restaurant, and the wine pairing was a separate, hefty charge.
We called the waiter over to discuss the matter. An accommodating fellow, he told us (in nearly uninflected English) that the sharing menu was meant only for lunch, but he offered to go back to the kitchen to see if something could be worked out. It didn’t take him long to return telling us that the night kitchen crew wasn’t prepared to give us what we’d expected.
My wife and I looked again at the menu for its a la carte offerings; we shared a glance; we decided to leave, making a reservation for lunch in a couple of days so we could try the sharing menu. The waiter asked us where we’d be going for dinner, and when we mentioned a restaurant that had been recommended by a local resident, he wrinkled his nose in not-at-all disguised disappointment. He suggested instead a “French bistro” that would likely be packed at that hour.
Leaving the restaurant, and already feeling somewhat relieved, we decided to at least check out the place that had been recommended by a local. As it was still only 9:30, the “resto” had only about four or five tables occupied, and the menu looked okay. We were getting hungrier by the minute, so we decided to give it a try.
The waiter greeted us in Spanish, and although he quickly tried out his English after learning that we were from the U.S., it was easier to communicate with him in his native tongue.
I ordered a grilled chuleta con ciurela pasa salsa; my wife ordered a “pollo wok;” we ordered a Malbec rosado. Looking around, the diners all seemed to be Argentines, as were those who came in during our meal, some of whom were warmly greeted by a man who I guessed was the owner.
The food was a mixed bag–I liked my cutlet in prune sauce (in the spirit of the evening, I passed on the steak that was on the menu) more than my wife liked her chicken Chinese style. The wine was pretty good. Our shared chocolate mousse with whipped cream was sinful. And the bill was reasonable.
As we ate our meal, conversation naturally turned to what we had done, and why. The first restaurant scene–its all-American clientele (picture couple at one table, guy sitting slackly in his chair and wearing LA Dodgers baseball cap), English-first speaking waiters, precious menu, high-priced wine list–was exactly what we were not looking for. We’d come to Buenos Aires, and more generally to Argentina, to experience the local, not another permutation of sophisticated America.
Feeling relaxed, “at home” and anonymous in the many restaurants and cafes we’ve frequented in Argentina was what we wanted, not to be in an enclave with the vibe of American ex-pats. By the time we’d finished our meal and left the restaurant, we were again at ease, sated, a little tipsy and ready for a walk around the quiet streets of “our” neighborhood.
As to our reservation for Monday lunch? We won’t be showing up, we agreed, with a laugh.