Latin American food porn

After my usual routine of working in the morning, by the time lunch came around I was starved for something Argentine and a spot 2 blocks from me would fit the bill.  Specializing in empanadas, El Horno de Argentina is a classic neighborhood hangout.  Old pictures hang on the wall with weathered old chairs and tables covered in white cloth.  There were 12 different types of empanadas from which to choose, and I was told that 3-4 would make for a good meal.  I decided to get a mix of 4 different types – chicken, beef, Calabresa and ham & cheese.

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These empanadas were much smaller than the ones I had a couple of weeks ago but were bursting with flavor.  Although not obvious from above picture, each empanada was in a different shape and I had been provided an illustrated guide to determine what each was.  As mi amigo Chris had said, empanadas truly were the first Hot Pocket.  I will definitely be back to try other types soon.

For dinner, I was heading to one of the hottest spots in all of Buenos Aires, iLatina for a multi-course feast.  Situated inside an old home in the barrio of Villa Crespo ,iLatina is one of the latest puerta cerradas (closed door) which are all the rage here.  A bit more formal than a pop up but not quite a restaurant either, puerta cerradas allow young and aspiring chefs to have a space for their food without the overhead of a traditional restaurant.  Reservations are required and only then is one even given the full address.

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After the usual routine of having my cabbie drop me off on the corner, I headed up a quiet street to a large house with a massive gate.  A man soon came to the gate and asked for my name on the reservation.  After that was confirmed, I was escorted into the large main room, which handsomely decorated with Latin American art.  There were 4 other couples who also arrived (there’s only 1 seating) around the same time.  I had been sent an email with the entire menu so I already knew what to expect and was very excited to these exotic dishes.

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The owner explained that his brother was the chef along with his sous and one other server – 4 people total.  The music was a mix of classic Latin tunes along with more current versions and helped set the mood.  Soon, I was presented with a very impressive array of breads – Banana bread, cornbread, rosemary olive oil bread, chipá with lime butter.  The cornbread with chunks of sweet corn and the banana bread were particular highlights.

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Along with the bread, I was presented the first of the 5 wines that would be paired with each course.  Known as a blanc de noir, it was a champagne made with Pinot Noir grapes but without the skin so there was no tint.

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The first course was a modern spin on a classic ceviche, salmon ceviche with “leche de tigre” and a fresh salad of cucumber, melon and lychee.  The leche de tigre acidity helped balance the richness of the salmon chunks, with a nice heat underneath that wasn’t overpowering.  The cucumber and melon salad helped cool down some of the heat from the ceviche and together with the dry, light champagne was a fantastic complement to the dish.

The owner explained the rest of the wines would be coming from the same vineyard, Manos Negras.  Ironically enough, that was the winery who made the Pinot Noir I had the previous night, would apparently soon have again.  Next up was their Torrontes. 2011. Valle de Tulum. San Juan.  It was perfectly chilled and had a surprising amount of body for a relatively mild varietal.

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To pair with that, the 2nd course consisted of crispy langostinos with grilled fennel, spicy pineapple and achiote.  I only ever had achiote in a paste form so it was a nice surprise having the actual fruit, which was just sweet enough to help temper the truly spicy pineapple that sat along aside the prawns.  The grilled fennel added a nice spice note to the prawns.  Another winning dish.

The third wine was the same one I had at Bar du Marche, which was fine as I quite enjoyed it – Manos Negras. Pinot Noir. 2009. Añelo. Patagonia.  I asked if Pinot Noir was a relatively new variety for Argentina and the owner explained that it has become a popular grape to grow in the colder Patagonia region.  While nothing special, it was a very solid, fruit forward Pinot.

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To pair with this, the 3rd course was perhaps the most interesting of everything I had – Encevichado duck in tamarind sauce with white corn arepa and goat cheese.  The duck had been slow cooked for hours and then shredded.  Next, it was combined with traditional ceviche ingredients and essentially became a duck “ceviche.”  Normally I’m not a fan of cold duck but this was superb.  The arepa (similar to polenta cake) was warm and topped with a great goat cheese.  Very creative and very Latin American.

The fourth wine was one again from Manos Negras, this time their Malbec. 2010. Altamira. Mendoza.  It was a very robust Malbec, which was needed with the 4th course.

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This was the big one.  The fourth course was beef tenderloin in sugar cane syrup served with mashed potatoes and peanuts.  The owner explained that pairing peanuts with beef was a Colombian staple, ditto using sugar cane syrup.  I was initially afraid that combination might be too sweet but the richness of the tenderloin helped mitigate that.  The real surprise was that there were also peanuts in the mashed potatoes, which gave them the slight taste of peanut butter, an usual but quite delicious melding of flavors.

A small glass arrived and I knew that was meant for a late harvest wine.  Sure enough, it was for the 2007 late harvest Malbec from Manos Negras.  I’m normally not a fan of dessert wines but this was closer to a port in that it wasn’t overly sweet.  This was paired with a guayaba cheesecake with brie cheese layered on top.  I skipped the brie as I thought that was a bit much but the cheesecake was tart and delicious.  A great way to finish the meal.

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Since I don’t drink coffee, the owner asked me if I wanted some more wine.  I decided to get some more of the Torrontes in the hope that the lack of tannins would mitigate the headache I was sure to have tomorrow.  For the record, it was a noble effort but given that I’m still nursing the hangover, not entirely effective.  It was a very special night and thanks to my increased buying power, only cost about $65 including tip.  I doubt I’ll be able to get back there before I leave but I definitely plan to return someday.

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