Article by Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Gill
But in the last decade, a number of notable restaurants have opened in B.A., from neighborhood bistros with lengthy wine lists to tasting-menu-only spots helmed by internationally recognized chefs. These new eateries go far beyond rib-eye. And right now, Buenos Aires is extremely affordable for travelers holding U.S. dollars.
It’s an unhappy situation for locals—the economy is stagnant, and this summer the Argentine government defaulted on some of its debt in a legal dispute with creditors. But the situation may also be incentive to visit: At current exchange rates, you can find elaborate tasting menus with wine pairings for under $50 a person—in some cases, half that.
If you’re willing to use the black-market—or “blue dollar”—exchange rate, eating can be even cheaper. While the official peso-dollar exchange rate is around 8 to 1 (compared with 4.8 to 1 at the start of 2013) the unofficial exchange rate is hovering around 16 to 1. You have to go to special exchanges to get the blue rate, which is illegal but very common—the rates are even listed daily in newspapers. When I checked into my hotel on a recent trip, the receptionist handed me a map of recommended restaurants and nightspots, then marked a place where I could change money at the blue rate.
Another tip for getting the most out of the dining experience: Be sure to book reservations at the more popular spots, as even in the current economic climate restaurants do fill up. Things tend to start late in Buenos Aires; you’ll see tables more crowded at 11 p.m. than at 8 p.m. And though the city is generally safe, it’s best to take a taxi from place to place—you can also use Uber or the local version, Dinero Taxi—since restaurants and bars are spread around the city.
FINE DINING ON A DIME
One of the first stops on my foodie tour was the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighborhood in northern Buenos Aires. There, behind a windowless, graffiti-covered facade, is Germán Martitegui’s Tegui (Costa Rica 5852, tegui.com.ar)—the ninth best restaurant on the continent, according to Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, a list compiled by Restaurant magazine.
Tegui serves dishes such as burrata with strawberries, basil, balsamic vinegar and pistachios. Nicholas Gill for The Wall Street Journal
An open kitchen full of stainless-steel equipment occupies one end of the five-year-old eatery; a glass-enclosed courtyard planted with banana trees is at the other. Mr. Martitegui is a judge on the Argentine version of “MasterChef,” and his menu—which changes every week—includes fresh, surprising dishes like burrata with strawberries, basil, balsamic vinegar and pistachios, and almond soup with figs and crunchy ham. Perhaps best of all, three courses with wine shouldn’t run over $40 a person (though the tasting menu costs double that).
Modern-looking Chila overlooks the water in glitzy Puerto Madero (Alicia Moreau de Justo 1160, chilaweb.com.ar). Chef Soledad Nardelli spent several years cooking in Spain—including a stint with pastry master Paco Torreblanca. The seven-course menu I tried (about $70) favored bold, unusual flavors like wheatgrass foam and shaved dried quail egg. Half the dishes spotlighted seafood (a rarity in the city). In one creation, wild boga, a mild white fish from the Río Parana, was embellished with pecans and eucalyptus. But the most interesting course was partly cooked at the table in a siphon vacuum pot, which looks like a coffee pot that was crossbred with lab equipment. An umami-rich broth flavored with seaweed was brewed and poured over clams, sea asparagus and celery.
The cooking at Aramburu, which features exposed-brick walls and a large window into the kitchen, is sometimes molecular, often whimsical (Salta 1050, arambururesto.com.ar). Sample dish: steak tartare layered with black quinoa and a dollop of mustard ice cream. Before opening the restaurant in the Constitución area in 2007, chef Gonzalo Aramburu worked with Michelin three-star Basque chef Martín Berasategui, as well as Joël Robuchon. The wine list is quirky: Sommelier Agustina de Alba has broken it up into sections like “Wines that you must try before you leave my country” and “Beyond Malbec.” She excitedly described for us the egg-shaped concrete fermentation tanks used to make Zorzal’s Eggo wines in Mendoza. For about $70, we enjoyed 16 courses paired with wine. If you can’t get a table, head to the owners’ laid-back bistro, Aramburu Bis, which opened across the street in February.
The garden at the Fierro Hotel in Palermo Hollywood Jocelyn Mand
Wild boar with fried polenta balls at Astor Bistro in Belgrano Ana Fanelli
Some of B.A.’s most enjoyable restaurants aren’t fine-dining spots but casual eateries where you can feast for under $20. Take the wood-paneled Uco, inside the Fierro Hotel in Palermo Hollywood (Soler 5862, fierrohotel.com). The food, like the 18-ounce rib-eye Milanesa or the lamb shoulder that’s been cooked for 12 hours, is hearty and meant for sharing. There’s a full Irish brunch on the weekends and a Friday night happy hour that draws hip neighbors.
Martín Rosberg, who owns the Fierro, was also a great source for off-the-radar restaurants. La Cabrera in Palermo Soho is a common tourist stop for steak dinners. But to eat more like a local, Mr. Rosberg recommended Don Julio, a family-run spot in the same neighborhood, where wine bottles signed by past guests cover the walls (Guatemala 4691, parrilladonjulio.com.ar). Opened in 1999, the restaurant is neither sleek nor too traditional, with cowhide tablecloths and waiters who can recommend a wine that perfectly complements whatever cut of meat you’re ordering. Owner Pablo Rivero encouraged my wife and me to venture beyond typical choices like sirloin or tenderloin—to mollejas (sweetbreads), as succulent as any I’ve ever had, served with thick quarters of lemons, and a melt-in-your-mouth entraña, or skirt steak, which cost just $13.
Mr. Rosberg also recommended Restó, a tiny slow-food restaurant with high ceilings and Art Nouveau-esque window frames within the Central Architect’s Society in Tribunales (Montevideo 938, 011-4816-6711). I dined on stuffed quail accompanied by a glass of Torrontes for around $10—not all that far from the price of a McDonald’s extra value meal in the U.S.
“We’re actually more excited about vegetables than anything else,” said Antonio Soriano, the chef and owner of Astor Bistro, who grew up in Peru and France (La Paz 393, astorbistro.com). The relaxed Belgrano restaurant, which opened in 2013 and is named for tango composer Astor Piazzolla, grows much of what it serves on a farm outside the city. Tomato season was just getting under way. “For three months this gives us a palette of flavors and textures that did not exist a few years ago,” Mr. Soriano said. He brought out a handful of the 25 tomato varieties they just harvested, ranging in color from yellow to red to black, then served us a snack of watermelon skin, julienned and sautéed in butter. Other bites included cuts of lamb served with splashes of colorful vegetables, like fresh-out-of-the-ground baby carrots and tiny purple eggplants. A three-course menu cost around $17.
An owner of Florería Atlántico cocktail bar makes gin infused with yerba mate. Nicholas Gill for The Wall Street Journal
The city’s night life scene has blossomed in recent years—and now, its bars are arguably on par with San Francisco’s or London’s. Florería Atlántico, in the high-rise neighborhood of Retiro, is one of dozens of exclusive cocktail joints that have sprung up lately (Arroyo 872, floreriaatlantico.com.ar). When we arrived all we found was a flower shop—open, weirdly, at 11 p.m. The cashier pointed to a refrigerator door, behind which lay a staircase. We climbed it to a narrow, dimly lit room with exposed beams and murals of sea monsters on the walls. The long bar was packed with a hip clientele—men with handlebar mustaches and women with tattoo sleeves—ordering intricate craft cocktails. (They cost $8 instead of the $16 you could easily pay in New York.) One of the owners makes his own gin, Príncipe de los Apóstoles, infused with yerba mate, the bitter, antioxidant-rich tea that is Argentina’s national drink.
The Harrison Speakeasy in Palermo Soho had a similarly quirky entrance; you walk through a sushi restaurant and pass through a vault-like door in the back (Malabia 1764). At least, that’s what you do if you are with one of its 2,000 card-carrying members—this watering hole is a private club.
Inside was a Prohibition-style scene with a wooden bar and crystal chandeliers. The crowd kept rolling in well past midnight, and despite all of the problems in the country, the mood was upbeat. Everyone seemed to shake it off. Things like this have happened before. Buenos Aires just keeps going. There’s always time for one more drink.