Thursday, February 28, 2008

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar

It was not the best meal of my life.

There was a lot to like: The food was good. The service was friendly and gracious. The room was sleek and clean. The wines — five of them — were delicious and well paired. I roped Robert into going and we had a great time.

But the place really screwed with my head. I still don't know exactly what to make of it.

We paid just under US$60 each for the meal (including the wine and the tip) and my fear was that I would leave feeling I had overpaid. But no; that's not it. And I didn't leave disappointed either.

I just left a little confused.

Robert (whom I thank for most of the photos in this post) was definitely onto something when he said the dishes were a little muted — no flavors really popped.

It's sort of the Argentine interpretation of the foams-and-small-plates school of cooking, complete with bife de chorizo and papas — though, of course, the potatoes were partly a foam.

I wouldn't not recommend this restaurant, I just don't know who I would recommend it to.

If you're coming from outside Argentina, then, sure, US$60 probably sounds like a great deal and I think you'll probably enjoy your meal, though I don't know if you'll be blown away.

I wouldn't recommend it to my Argentine friends because, frankly, I'd be embarrassed to tell them I spent US$60 on one meal. If they could get past that, I think they'd actually be more likely than people from abroad to enjoy it, but that just brings me to another point:

None of the diners in the restaurant was a native speaker of Spanish. Like so many other aspects of the meal, I don't know quite what to make of that either.

* * *

This is not a complete rendering of our meal, nor am I going to be able to accurately describe all the plates. We practically begged our waiter for a written list of what we were eating. He said he'd write it out if we'd like, but in the end he didn't.

Working left-to-right, top-to-bottom, among the dishes were seaweed and fish-skin candy (resting in a bowl of salt); remarkably crispy deep-fried dill and basil; a beautifully buttery potato foam with a potato, egg and truffle square resting in a pool of butter; trilla (fish) sitting atop a grilled plum; duck confit cannoli with a peapod; bife de chorizo with roasted tomatoes and chimichurri sauce; a tea jelly coated with citric acid, and a dessert plate that included a pistachio ice cream, a square of warm chocolate cake, a chocolate cream and two other things that I'm quite sure I was able to identify at the time.

There were other elements, too — a shooter of ceviche; a pork cheek swimming in a deep, smoky broth; a meaty piece of pollack served alongside puffed rice in a paella reduction; a two-temperature pea soup; candied almonds; bonbons, and a lollipop that tasted like toothpaste.

No pictures of the wine, but we enjoyed two glasses of a Malbec rosé, a Viognier, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend, a Tannat and a glass of Malbec port to wrap it all up.

I'm looking over this list and wondering (a) why is it we didn't need a crane to get us out of the restaurant? and (b) why in the world am I so conflicted after all this great food and wine?

* * *

We got to the restaurant at 9pm. It was 1am when we walked out. We covered a lot of ground — foodwise, obviously, but also conversationwise. Mostly it was me expounding on my philosophy of blogging . . . until Robert threatened to get up and leave, at which point I started talking about fruit.

We also found time to talk about the best meal of our lives and what kind of things play into that.

For both of us, the best meals of our lives had been while we were traveling. It's easy to see why this might be.

When I see tourists here, I sometimes flash to how exotic and mesmerizing Buenos Aires must seem. Seeing what I see every day and knowing what I know, it can be hard to put myself in that perfect place, but I do at least remember how exotic and mesmerizing it seemed to me — enough so that I quit my job and moved here.

Wednesday night's meal wasn't the best of my life, but I did like it. I also liked walking around for half an hour afterward and talking about the city, both as it once was and as it is now.

It's not hard for me to see how you could have the best meal of your life in Buenos Aires. And why not have at La Vineria?

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar is at Bolivar 865 in San Telmo.


Lor said...

The meal sounds fantastic, and its definitely visually appealing. But maybe it was trying to hard? I don't know. I agree tho, someone telling you it was the best place ever only sets you up for disappointment.

Dan said...

Right. The presentation was very nice. Ultimately the meal was bound to be colored by the whole "best meal of my life" thing. And it might just be that I prefer simpler stuff over high-concept food.

Two further notes:

1. One of the great parts of the meal was not having to do the dishes. That's a nice part of any meal at a restaurant, but there were so many more dishes in this case, so it was that much nicer.

2. Also, to anyone reading this who might question my take on this place or my credentials to be writing about it, let me clear that up for you: I am some guy on the Internet.

Matt said...

Well at least it wasn't the worst meal of your life...and I'd like to know how you found the time to actually go to this restaurant when I'm still waiting for that 5000 word piece on why Italian food is pants in Argentina. If it's the method of payment that's causing a problem, I can advance you 40% of the milanesas, with the rest on receipt. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Someone should pay you to write resto reviews. But fruit is good too.

Last night after getting over the price shock, Jeff asked me if I'd recommend it for a good one-time experience. My answer was, "uhhhh, no" qualified with a "but I don't regret going."

How weird is that?

Matt said...

Oh yeah...that's a pretty expensive meal by any standards (although it does appear you ate rather a lot). I don't think i've ever managed to break the us$50 per head barrier in Buenos Aires. I tried back in December but just missed out. I'm hoping i'll be back in BA in a couple of weeks for a few days so I might try again. Maybe if tomato prices sky rocket again?

Dan said...

Robert — It's totally weird but I'm right there with you.

Matt - Your Italian food essay ... where did I put that? It's around here somewhere. I'll send it right out.

It's true that US$60 is a lot of scratch for a meal here. But considering how easy it's getting to spend, say, US$40 or so in Palermo (or Recoleta or San Telmo), it seems like a good deal to realize how much more you're getting (not just in terms of quantity, though there is that) for the extra 20 bucks.

Yes, this requires thinking in dollars to start, but I'm also finding that easier (a) as I get closer to going back to the States and (b) as prices here go up and up and up.

Anonymous said...

I went here last month. i thought it was the best meal I have ever had! Yes, it's pricey, but worth it! I have never had my food and wine compliment each other so well as I had here. And, I have traveled a lot, so I'm not just some random person who eats at McDonalds every day (now that stuff is trash!)

Syd said...

You must remenber that, and eating, is much more than bacon, beans and awful Budweiser beer.
Then you wouldn't feel confused anymore.

marcy said...

We ate there a few weeks ago. I liked the opening dishes but something about the meats was the lamb was tasteless and grey and the bife was not even cooked. I was expecting great things and was let down for the most part, although overall I'm glad we went, just for the experience.

Anonymous said...

We ate here almost two years after this review (before Xmas) and I agree with you. The flavors we muted, nothing popped. At one point we couldn't even tell what we were eating, if it was lamb or beef. We didn't hate but we didn't love it. & I did feel that I over paid.

albert said...

Had dinner (Wednesday 24 November 2010) for fifth time in two years in this place. My first two experiences where great, the third good and the last two disappointing.

I think the biggest problem is that chef Alejandro Digilio got a bit spoilt with all the attention he got with his restaurant. Forelast visit he was very busy entertaining his boyfriend at a table instead of being in the kitchen. Last visit although i was told he was going to be there he finally didn't show up.

Kitchen was sloppy (too many noises of falling kitchen material and a lots of laughing). I don't mind that people who work in the kitchen are having a good time but the dinner tasted as the atmosphere in the kitchen: sloppy not concentrated on their work. On this level of cooking it's all about discipline and concentration.

Serving staff very uptight and cold. Although I come to Buenos Aires already for 23 years and speak fluently Spanish they came with very stupid information about the wine. "this is wine from mendoza this is in the middle region, this is wine from cafayate it is in the north"

I had informed them that i had been to most wine regions and had visited a number of the fincas/wine houses they offer.
I like always to experiment new tastes of wine but they left me blank and couldn't advise me properly. On this (price) level you may expect more knowledge.

It seems that the staff/ Alejandro is not concentrated / sharp anymore because most visitors are foreigners who maybe will come once in their live time to this restaurant.
Next to this i had informed them 8 hours on forehand that i have a low sodium diet ( i went to the restaurant to make the reservation) that was noted in the reservation book. But i got completely the same food as my table partner, Some of the courses really salty. Which i couldn't eat.

Not worth going anymore.

Other fact: I made reservation at 2pm for dinner at 9 pm. At two pm the 16 step dinner was offered for 230 pesos in the evening it was 250 pesos.(50 euro) I asked what the reason was. Just a stupid smile from serving staff. They didn't give any reaction. Just smiled like sheep.

It's proofs again that if you really want to have a top restaurant you never can get easy, at vinoteca it's clear that they think that they have arrived and that they don't have to proof themselves anymore. A pity but fortunately there are many other very nice restaurants in Buenos Aires, which are also much more balanced according price and quality!!

jen laceda said...

So it was a disappointment? Hmmm, I am now rethinking my plans to go here...