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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
30 Dec 2003
 

Argentina - land of bargains 

Since the pesification of the Argentinan economy, as they call it, in mid-February 2002, this beautiful country has suddenly become one of South America's less, rather than more, expensive tourist destinations. Backpackers who used to hurry as fast as they could through the country when its currency was tied to the American dollar, can now afford to linger awhile.

Overnight (at the beginning of my own work and play visit, fortunately) prices halved for those paying for their pesos in foreign currency - although some of the smarter hotels are still trying to charge visitors US dollar rates.

I stayed in four very different hotels in Argentina and each one was absolutely stunning in some way or other. The first three are in wine country, the last a thoroughly recommended, efficient, characterful, luxurious but definitely Argentine stopover in Buenos Aires. They are listed in ascending price order.

Hostal Provincial de Molinos, Molinos, Salta

This is an extraordinary, unselfconscious throwback to another age. High up in the Andes in the far northwest of the country, not far from where Chile meets Bolivia (if you're a condor), these simple, whitewashed, rather monastic rooms are set round a large courtyard between the desert and the mountain village of Molinos, eerily quiet because so few of its inhabitants can afford trucks and cars. A sign that we are far from concerns about the dollar/peso rate here is the scrabbling noise outside one's room soon after six in the morning. The same kind woman who brought a late-night bottle of mineral water is stuffing sticks into the wood-burning stoves on the outside wall of occupied rooms to provide hot water for a morning shower. Marcelo Cornejo (Rabbit being a common name in these parts) runs this historic site and can with notice provide a fine dinner in an inner courtyard or the slightly gloomy dining room, though no internet connection.

Tel +54 3868 494002 Fax +54 3868 494004

Bodega La Rosa, Cafayate, Salta

Cafayate is a popular Argentine holiday town two to three hours south-east of Molinos on many an unpaved road (4x4s a necessity in these parts). Even here (many spectacular hours away from the nearest airport) there is at least one rather trendy modern restaurant; the Spanish and Italian influences in Argentina's multicultural mix do no harm at all. Cafayate is also an important wine town and the bodega that seems to have a monopoly on sponsoring the street signs is Michel Torino. Its headquarters is the Bodega La Rosa on the northern edge of town, part of which is run as the most beautiful estancia (an Argentine phenomenon whereby owners of grand houses and estates take in paying guests). The charming hostess/manager goes by the name of Florencia Perkins, typically multiculturally Argentine, whose youth is matched by her enthusiasm for the mature, shady garden (quite a luxury here) and reviving local recipes. Enormous, high-ceilinged rooms have been furnished with colonial furniture made to a high standard locally and their number is being increased. Courtyard layout again, with vaguely Moorish fountains and flowers. Molinos might seem a little too ascetic after this. Visit Molinos first.

Tel +54 3868 421201 email fperkins@psinet.net.ar

Park Hyatt, Mendoza

Opened barely a year before my visit, this came as the most extraordinary surprise (as, perhaps, the sluggish state of the local economy has to Hyatt). The grand, almost Ruritanian facade of the old Plaza Hotel has very sensibly been retained, and restored to icing-sugar white, but behind it is a thoroughly modern hotel of the highest order with vast amounts of glass, space, style, goodies in the bathroom, top-quality service and a dedication to wine. For Mendoza is THE wine town in Argentina (albeit it far closer to Santiago de Chile than Buenos Aires) and a high proportion of business must be wine-related. The wine list here is one of the coutry's finest. Not cheap but unexpectedly luxurious for a hotel in the middle of what is basically a farming region.

Tel +54 261 441 1234 web www.mendoza.hyatt.com

Hotel Loi Suites, Recoleta, Buenos Aires

Some hotels are stupidly modern for their own sake. (The Grand Hyatt in Shanghai has a special booklet called Technical Guide to your Room which explains how many knobs and levers have to be coaxed into providing you with light and a shower.) The Loi Suites looks good - all cream and black with some interesting original Latin American art - but is staffed by the genuinely helpful as opposed to the fashionably apathetic. There's a pool in a rather handsome giant conservatory; sauna, fitness centre, business centre and a decent breakfast in the basement. The Recoleta district is one of the city's most interesting for visitors, with an atmospheric cemetery (Eva lies here), a weekend craft market, and masses of restaurants and cafes favoured by Porteños (as inhabitants of BA are known) themselves. Plus no shortage of smart shops. It's about 15 minutes from the domestic airport (disconcertingly central in BA) and an hour from the international one.

Tel +54 11 5777 8950 email venta@loisuites.com.ar

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How safe is Argentina?

To judge from the photographs and news footage in the media, the whole of Argentina has been in a ferment of protest and revolt and you would be forgiven for hardly daring to set foot in the country for fear of finding yourself stunned by a rubber bullet or choked by tear gas. As usual however, this extremely partial news coverage is highly misleading. During my five days travelling quite extensively round the leafy, well-planned grid system of Buenos Aires (a thoroughly stimulating and cosmopolitan city), I neither heard nor saw any sign of anything at all disconcerting - apart from the Liquidacion Totale signs in every shop window. I did catch some live coverage of a few rightly incensed speechifiers in the famous Plaza de Mayo on the television in my hotel room one afternoon, but the streets outside were perfectly calm, not to say dozy in these dog days of summer, and the square (overlooked by the famous Eva Peron/Madonna balcony - rather modest in reality) was deserted when I visited it later that evening. Outside the capital, life seemed to go on very much as normal, the way it tends to do. In fact I felt rather stupid having to explain to Argentine wine producers that I had switched the destination of our forthcoming family trip from Argentine Patagonia to Uruguay (just over the River Plate from Buenos Aires) so as to not to alarm the grandmothers. Many of them knew the Tesco supermarket wine-buyer whose brother had recently been gunned down in the streets of London by car thieves. London seems a great deal more dangerous than the hard-working wine town of Mendoza in western Argentina, I can tell you. And Brits need have no fears of any residual aggression from the Falklands War - although of course the F-word means absolutely nothing to Argentines who know these godforsaken islands as the Malvinas. The World Cup of course, is another matter.

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New York

A slowdown may be forecast for the American economy but for the moment everything seems as buoyant as ever, to judge from the difficulty we had in early January getting restaurant reservations in Manhattan. If you're planning a trip to New York, book good (and/or hot) restaurants well ahead of time. Some of the current best for wine lovers are Danny Meyer's (good old Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, etc) whose wine lists never fail to introduce me to something new and good (though I don't recommend the Israeli Merlot that was on the Gramercy wine list recently). Veritas in Chelsea is an even more obvious choice with its vast wine list which can be accessed online at www.veritas-nyc.com for perusal before you go. The food here is excellent here too. The food may be a low point at Tavern on the Green actually in Central Park at W 66th (though salads and brunchy things are fine), and the decor adds a new dimension to kitsch, but the wine list is rather a find, and much more gently priced than the New York norm, which we found suddenly more rapacious this time.

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Vancouver

Here's a frontier town that is not only very beautiful but a great place to eat and, provided you can hack the duties and taxes, drink.

The hotel restaurant Diva at the Met has built itself a well deserved reputation for very fine cooking indeed. The Metropolitan Hotel also boasts the only hotel general manager I have ever met who is also a sommelier and truly mad about wine.

Raincity Grill and the Boathouse at English Bay have the additional advantage of overlooking the water and both take wine, particularly the lively local wine scene, admirably seriously.

But for great food, the Beach Side Cafe of North Vancouver is well worth checking out for the ex-chef of Diva started cooking there in late November and is obviously extremely talented.

PS  The Museum of Anthropology on the shore at the University of British Columbia may sound dry as dust but the stunning building, position and unusual layout is well worth the (scenic) 15-20 minute drive from the centre. Among the many vast ships in the bay, ready to ship cereals to Asia, you may well see one of the Tokai Line.

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San Francisco, food city

I've been in love with San Francisco since my very first visit there in the flower-powered summer of 1969. I love the way it feels as though it's on the edge of the world. By 8pm it's almost too late to ring anywhere to the east, and to the west the icy Pacific that keeps the temperatures fresh and appetites keen throughout the seasons stretches all the way to Japan. San Francisco still feels like a raw, adventurer's city. Its fortunes have been buffeted by gold rushes, earthquakes, fires and, most recently, the dot.com boom but San Francisco keeps its own, distinctive character quite unlike any other American city's.

Wine may have brought me to San Francisco almost every year for longer than I care to remember but it is food that keeps me coming back. As a family we have twice turned a holiday into a house swap in the Bay Area, as greater San Francisco is called. And it seems to me in retrospect that we spent practically all our time eating.

For make no mistake about it, San Francisco is heaven for the hungry. I was reminded of this when I arrived quite late on a Sunday evening on my last visit. We drew up to the Slanted Door, a popular restaurant in the Mission district, about 8.45 on distinctly ordinary Valencia Street. A long line of would-be diners snaked on to the pavement from the reception desk of this extremely minimal purveyor of Vietnamese food with a California slant. With great good humour they waited, and they waited, and they waited before eventually being allowed in.

We leant against the bar for 90 minutes sipping Mosel Riesling and watching chefs of at least six nationalities manoeuvre around each other in the steam of the tiny, open kitchen before finally being seated and, amazingly, it was worth it. The two of us shared (so much San Francisco eating is communal) a couple of enormous cool-wrapped shitake spring rolls scented by fresh mint and enriched by a thick chili cream ($7.25) and a grated green papaya salad with sweet roasted peanuts and slivers of crisp-fried pancake ($7) before moving on to a blackened ahi tuna fillet, chili-sautéed lemongrass tofu and spicy organic green beans along with our lacquered cylinder of perfectly cooked rice. With such exciting and accomplished food at such relatively reasonable prices, I began to realise why the Slanted Door is so popular.

Our fellow diners were very far from being style slaves. It was not fashion but food that was the draw. Indeed a typical crowd in any San Francisco restaurant looks quite different from its London or New York counterpart. There is huge variation in age (young families with children up to the hobbling elderly), and in apparent income brackets. Eating out is what everyone does, not just the young and affluent.

And yet this is a city of keen cooks too. Wander round any of the many districts with fine food shops - Chinatowns Old and New, the junction of California Street and Fillmore, or Laurel Village further west in Laurel Heights - and you will see purposeful people with lists, and no shortage of questions for the men behind the counters. 'Do you have any halibut heads for my fish chowder?' asks an oriental gentlewoman. Another customer wants to know exactly how to best to cook today's catch of fresh lake smelt at a fish counter as smart as many perfumeries. Meat is just as carefully presented, whether in the better food stores or in the hands of specialists such as Bryan's Meats which shows butchery at its best.

San Francisco prides itself on its delightfully eccentric and eclectic array of privately owned retailers of all sorts. Every time 7-11 tries to open up shop here, they are greeted with howls of protest. The city's army of quality-conscious shoppers are more likely to head for a store such as Mollie Stone's or Trader Joe's where they can graze what seem like fresh fields of beautiful fruit and veg, or 'produce' as it is known here. Tomatoes on the vine may be red, yellow or a rather strange orange. Neat little bundles of rainbow chard have stalks in the varied citric and pink colours of wet Refreshers. Baby beets with reassuringly earthy skins come complete with fresh leaves and pointy tails. Even the humble carrots, their ferny fronds neatly crew-cut, are stacked so that each seems aimed outwards from a single central point.

For the visitor, one of the most obvious of the city's edible specialities is sourdough bread, miraculously crusty on the outside, tartly squidgy on the inside. San Franciscans tend to be fierce in their preferences for one of the three most revered sourdough bakers, Acme, Grace and Semifreddi, all based across the Bay in and around Berkeley, source of so much culinary inspiration in the form of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and her many fresh-food initiatives.

The most obvious reflection of this in San Francisco is the farmers' market which sets up its glistening stalls at Ferry Plaza on Embarcadero, the renovated old dockside, every Saturday morning.

Another great area for a stroll would be Pacific Heights (California and Fillmore) where Artisan sells the city's best cheese selection, imports via the likes of Neal's Yard and Jean d'Alos of Bordeaux, together with superlative triple cremes from the owners' Cowgirl Creamery at Point Reyes up the coast and such unexpected delights as Vermont goat fontina. Just a step away is Pascal Rigo's Boulangerie, a recreation of the perfect French bakery that is nowadays, alas, almost impossible to find in France.

For what San Franciscans would deem a 'light bite', Boulangerie's nearby crêperie Galette on Fillmore would fit the bill for lovers of all sorts of pancakes. Brioche French toast served with fruit salad, egg or, curiously to me, roast potato is just $6, sweet pancakes $4, various savoury buckwheat galettes (with individual wine suggestions) from $6 to $14. Round the corner is a pastiche greasy spoon [old-fashioned diner] (plus white linen tablecloths). The Curbside Cafê is by no means special by local standards but its menu gives some indication of what San Franciscans take for granted. Andouille sausage, roasted pepper and cheddar omelette is $9, Szechuan chicken salad $10. The city is also now sprouting all sorts of variations on the tapas bar, of which two of the best are Destino on Market Street and Andalu in the gastronomically burgeoning Mission district.

I have given suggestions for all sorts of places to eat in the box below. Perhaps more truly representative of San Francisco's special appeal for the food lover than the sort of high-end restaurants a hotel concierge is likely to recommend are its superlative neighbourhood restaurants. The city has been influenced by so many immigrant waves and their cuisines that the Zagat Guide, for instance, divides its San Francisco entries into no fewer than 30 of them (compared with 22 and 31 in the much larger cities of London and New York respectively). Italian food is every bit as important as 'American (New)', Californian, Mexican, Fusion, Thai and Vegetarian, for example, and one of the finest Italian-influenced restaurants is Delfina in the Mission district.

The setting with its steel-topped tables and wooden benches may be entirely unpretentious but Craig and Anne Stoll have worked so hard here that reservations, preferably some time in advance, are essential for any who want to eat between 7 and 9pm. (Unusually, they serve up to 11pm when walk-ins stand a considerably better chance of success.) From an outstandingly alluring menu which changes every day, I slavered over the tenderest carpaccio of local Niman beef that was at least up to Harry's Bar standards, as well as a salad (leaves with real flavour are a Bay Area speciality) with purple beets and crumbled, miraculously fresh Humboldt Fog goat's cheese. The texture and vitality of a buttermilk panna cotta also lingers on my palate.

But of course for me one of the great attractions of this quintessential West Coast city is the wine culture there. There is no shortage of serious wine expertise in the form of sommeliers such as Larry Stone of Rubicon, wine merchants such as Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, specialist restaurant wine list compilers such as Mark Ellenbogen (Slanted Door et al) - not to mention all those hundreds of local wineries so anxious to get their bottles seen around town.

It is difficult to find a restaurant or bar that doesn't offer a decent selection of wine by the glass, but one pair of sister establishments really push it to the limit, Eos and the newer and much larger bacar (sic). At bacar you can choose from 100 of them, served either by the glass, two-ounce taster, quarter- or half-litre. They'll put together an instructive 'flight' of tasters, or indulge you while you construct one yourself. A set price three-course lunch of baby greens, pan-roasted pork tenderloin with a surprisingly successful sweet potato risotto cake and a fresh pineapple and jalapeno compote and a Valrhona chocolate crème brûlée seemed well worth $19.95. bacar offers comfort in what was once the vast, brick-walled office of a well-known architect in the hot new district SoMa (south of Market), invaded and then just as quickly abandoned by the dot.commers a year or two back.

San Francisco will continue to ebb and flow commercially, but culinarily the tide seems all one way.

EATING OUT

SPLASHING OUT

Fifth Floor, 12 Fourth St (tel 348 1555)
Ultra-comfortable, dark enclave of fine French-ish food in the Hotel Palomar on Market Street.

Gary Danko, 800 North Point (tel 749 2060)
Another cosseting experience by Ghirardelli Square from talented chef who puts a California spin on French favourites and encourages diners to construct their own menus.

Redwood Park, 600 Montgomery St (tel 283 1000)
New, hip and happening venture from George Morrone (ex Fifth Floor) in the famous TransAmerica building in the financial district.

AMERICAN

Boulevard, 1 Mission St (tel 543 6084)
An old favourite in a pretty site by the Embarcadero that just seems to go on and on, in a city where restaurants come and go almost as fast as in New Yotrk.

bacar, 448 Brannan St (tel 904 4100)
Newish mecca for wine lovers. Sister to Eos in what was once known as Haight Ashbury.

CHINESE

R & G Lounge, 631 Kearny St (tel 982 7877 )
Noisy but (and?) authentic Chinatown hangout for lovers of real Cantonese food. Recently expanded.

Ton Kiang, 5821 Geary Blvd (tel 387 8273)
Great dim sum.

VIETNAMESE

Slanted Door, 584 Valencia St (tel 861 8032)
Smart, in a minimalist way, halfway house between Vietnamese and Shanghai cuisine.

ITALIAN

Delfina, 3621 18th St (tel 552 4055)
Daily changing specials. Real flavour. Every neighbourhood should have one.

VEGETARIAN

Greens, Fort Mason, Building A (tel 771 6222)
Overlooking the Bay, this is defiantly upmarket vegetarian food as is completely unknown in Britain.

EATING IN

Artisan Cheese, 2413 California Street
Great range of artisanal cheese from California and way beyond.

Boulangerie, Pine Street at Fillmore
Bread as the French no longer make it.

Mollie Stone's, California Street just west of Artisan Cheese
Large upscale supermarket. Foccaccia slabs with four different toppings, tubs not just of grated parmesan but also shredded parmesan, the same of pecorino romano and Reggiano parmesan.

San Francisco Farmers' Market, Ferry Plaza (Saturday mornings only)
For Niman ranch beef, Monterey fish, Marinelli seafod, Aidell's sausage plus a host of fruit and veg stalls.

Sunset Super, Vicente and 41st St in the far west of the city
Vast Asian supermarket with great prices and unusual meats (anyone for goat?) and seafood.

Trader Joe's, Masonic Ave and 9th St
Gourmet national supermarket chain with top-quality convenience foods and great prices.