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Don't plan too far in advance if you visit Buenos Aires. That was the lesson I learnt when I visited the city for the first time in 2010. I had drawn up a list of restaurants to eat in based on recently published city guides and online reviews. But, when I tried to make reservations, I discovered my list was seriously out-of-date: several of the most intriguing-sounding options had ceased trading. I had a similar experience when I returned to the city earlier this year: favourites from my previous trip - including Standard and the cosy neighbourhood wine bar, Lobby - had also fallen by the wayside. There are plenty of examples of restaurants in Buenos Aires whose reputations were established long ago and who seem set for many more years' active service - Oviedo and the popular parrilla La Cabrera are two of the most notable - but they tend to be fairly classic/traditional in approach. For those restaurants that aspire to more cutting-edge, contemporary cuisine, staying in business seems to be a significant challenge.
The reasons seemingly successful restaurants suddenly close are hard to establish. Goings-on behind the scenes are apparently murky and pay-offs not uncommon. Competition is also high, especially in the sprawling Palermo neighbourhood. Argentina's tempestuous history could be a factor, too: perhaps porteños have become so accustomed to change that they now demand it of their bars and restaurants?
Whatever the explanation, visitors to Buenos Aires certainly don't lack for choice. When one restaurant closes another two seem to open in its place. The following four were highlights from my most recent 10-day stay in the city.
Chef Rodrigo Castillo lived in Bethnal Green for a few years while working for Gary Rhodes. His former adopted city seems to have influenced Las Pizarras, the small bistro he opened in Palermo shortly after returning home. There's a tiny open kitchen and tightly configured tables, which result in a fair amount of clatter and chatter respectively. The menu, which changes daily, is chalked up on a board and sourced entirely from local markets. Service is friendly at first then a little frenetic as the restaurant fills up. Las Pizarras wouldn't look out of place alongside the Soho new school of Ducksoup and 10 Greek Street. But similarities with London end with the wine list: specifically, the mark-ups, which are non-existent. That, coupled with a focus on Argentina's smaller and (usually) more interesting bodegas, meant we visited twice in the space of three days. Not everything we ate impressed us. Some dishes were under-seasoned. A pasta sauce was a little pallid. But, much more often than not, they hit the spot: a light, fluffy calves' liver parfait, tiger prawns with mango salsa and beautifully-cooked venison and Patagonian lamb were the standouts across both evenings.
Unik is an altogether more ambitious project. It's the brainchild of Marcelo Joulia, a French/Argentine architect whose practice occupies the floor above the restaurant. The large dining space is filled with iconic pieces from design luminaries including Charles Eames and Arne Jacobsen. Every chair and light fixture is different. If it were anywhere else, it might feel a little over-stylised. But, in this corner of Buenos Aires - itself a collision of styles - close to the Belgrano flea market, and its dozens of vintage furniture stores, it fits right in. The same attention to detail applied to the décor is replicated in the kitchen: everything we ordered looked, and tasted, stunning with a scallop in crab bisque starter especially impressive. Attentive service by staff who knew the menu inside out was also a notch above the Buenos Aires norm. (Both pictures were taken there.)
Setting aside the rather functional and uninspiring food, there are two reasons to visit the wine shop-cum-bar-cum-restaurant Aldo's Vinoteca. In mid summer it provides air-conditioned solace for those visiting San Telmo's world famous weekly feria. It also boasts over 500 Argentine wines, sold at retail price regardless of whether you drink on or off the premises. You can browse the list via iPad. Or on foot: a display of bottles - arranged regionally, then by grape - occupies almost the entire perimeter of the art deco-inspired room.
Aramburu is tucked away on a dark, quiet and slightly eerie street on the fringes of San Telmo; the once wealthy neighbourhood that fell on hard times after a yellow fever epidemic, then became the city's most bohemian quarter, and now, with gentrification gathering pace, appears set to go full circle. There's a brief, illicit thrill after the intercom permits you entry via an unmarked door. Inside, the setting is intimate: subtly lit with half a dozen or so tables generously spaced throughout what looks to have previously been a boutique. The kitchen is visible - but completely inaudible - through a large window in the far corner of the room. Inside it, a small team silently, and methodically, go about their business surrounded by glass tubes of varying sizes and other paraphernalia. Intermittent plumes of smoke and flashes of blue flame from a blowtorch draw the eye.
The waitress confirms the suspicion that this is not a typical Argentine restaurant, explaining that there is a 10-course tasting menu and no à la carte. It's expensive by Argentine standards (280 pesos per person; around £45). But, based on the quality of ingredients and precision with which they are put together, it's a bargain by international standards. And, while there are plenty of theatrics, and increasingly inventive 'plating' for each successive course (martini glasses, hot lava stones, slices of oak trunk etc), it's clear that the kitchen's primary focus is flavour and balance. Each course was impressive but two in particular stood out: one for its complexity (a thin disc of Portobello mushroom, served beneath a glass dome and infused with Cuban cigar smoke); the second for its simplicity (a quinoa risotto that had amazing depth of flavour but was almost implausibly light).
Las Pizarras, Thames 2296, Palermo, Buenos Aires
Unik, Soler 5132, Palermo, Buenos Aires
Aldo's Vinoteca, Moreno 372, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Aramburu, Salta 1050, San Telmo, Buenos Aires