Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Travel Dish: La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar (Buenos Aires)

This is the last in my series of reports chronicling my eating adventures in Buenos Aires this past October. And this final post is a doozey, so pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of wine (preferably Malbec) and enjoy the reliving of my best meal there.

Nine (Plus) Courses to Remember for a Lifetime
Bolivar 865, Buenos Aires
San Telmo neighborhood
PH: 11/4361.4709
Dinner tasting menu only, Tue.–Sun.; and Sunday lunch
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

On my last day in this city, my flight didn’t leave until 10 p.m. so that meant one last meal to squeeze in. And I can’t think of a better place for a farewell meal than La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar in the funky San Telmo neighborhood.

Just 1 year old, this small restaurant is the master lab for Chef Alejandro Digilio, who has been drawing attention for his molecular gastronomical creations coming out of this tiny kitchen. Seems like these days, anyone interested in molecular gastronomy—which fuses technical creativity with culinary flavors—has to make a stop at El Bulli, the famous Spanish restaurant outside of Barcelona and belonging to noted Chef Ferran Adrià. Digilio has done his stint there, and it seems to be paying off for him.

La Vineria only offers a nine-course tasting menu for dinner (AR$130 or $45), but the chef works double time on Sundays when he provides a tasting menu for lunch and dinner. So I arrived on a Sunday afternoon to taste the delicacies to be created by Chef Digilio.

The nine courses—scribbled at the top of one wall on a chalkboard—are determined by the ingredients the chef finds at the market. To give you an idea of how long this post will be, let me just say that this last meal in Buenos Aires lasted four hours.

The restaurant has just 18 seats on the first floor, including a few stools that face the open kitchen, where you can see the chef at work. On this day, La Vineria was filled mostly by tourists like me. Sitting at the table next to me were this fun couple of ladies, Marge and Karen, from Ohio. They ditched their tour group making the rounds of the neighborhood’s art studios to grab some lunch instead. I had a lot of fun talking to them about their travels and their impressions of the food, which came in a parade of small to medium to large plates.

To start the meal, the chef sent out an amuse bouche of three one-bite items. The first was described as a “bread vinaigrette,” which was a crusty bread shell shaped like a tiny pillow that was injected with balsamic vinegar. It was a quaint marvel with a burst of acid from the vinegar.

Second was an “apple caramel,” which was a slice of apple with a thin sliver of caramel candy. This was beautiful and delightful in a crunchy, refreshing way.

But my favorite has to be the “liquid ravioli,” or a pearl-shaped gel of roasted red bell peppers served on a spoon. The flavor of the liquified red bell pepper was intense, like taking a big bite of a sweet pepper but instead doing it with one quick scoop of the spoon.

Next came a “Two Temperature Split Pea Soup” topped with tomato powder. The pea soup, served in a shot glass, was served warm on one side and cold on the other. This interesting combination of hot and cold in your mouth was an experience I never felt before. (It wasn’t hot soup like how a hot pizza burns the roof of your mouth; instead it was just a mingling of warm and cold textures awakening the insides of your mouth.) The soup was a bit thick for my tastes, but I found the play on hot and cold intriguing.

This was one of my favorite courses: a tiny provolone croquette with a zest of lime and served with a side plate of curried cashews. The melted provolone encased in the perfectly fried croquette was amazing. Chef Digilio would make millions if he set up a shack just selling these little fried delights.

Also served in a shot glass was the chef’s ceviche, which is raw fish cured with lime juice. He used a type of tuna that was mixed with some diced onions and cherry tomatoes and garnished with pea shoots. It was tart because of the citrus, but it also had a savory underpinning to the flavor profile that reminded me a lot of poke, which is the Hawaiian version of raw fish cured with soy sauce and seaweed. This course had the least innovation of the meal.

At this time, I’m going to talk about the wine. You can request a wine flight to come with your tasting menu for an additional cost. But the lead server, a friendly young Argentine and also the wine expert in the house, will instead present you wine glasses in a very organic way. Which is to say that he pours you different varieties of wine until you request another one or until you say stop. All the wine he poured for me came from small wineries in Mendoza—Argentina’s wine region. I started with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc and then moved on to a Torrontes, one of the country’s most famous white wines (often overshadowed by the red Malbec). And to be honest, I stopped keeping track after a few glasses, but they were all lovely and well-balanced with the meal. The server charges you based on what you drink, and like the tasting menu, it’s all reasonable and worth it.

This was one of the larger plates and it was a salad made with 30 ingredients. This was also a combination of flavors, texture and temperature since some vegetables were raw and others were cooked. It was a fun mixture again of contrasting feelings, but I did feel the dressing was a bit too salty. Overall, it was a beautiful dish but it didn’t compare to the balanced salads at Ubuntu in California. Still, I applaud the chef for preparing 30 different items just for one course. (Disclosure: I didn’t get a chance to count whether there were really 30 different items; I just took my server’s word for it.)

The next few dishes really demonstrated the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy dining. This is goat cheese foam with a slow-cooked egg. (The server claims the egg was cooked at a low temperature for 50 minutes.) The entire dish was drizzled with truffle oil, so you can bet this combination of flavors was rich, and it was. The egg, despite its 50 minutes in a warm bath, was still creamy and runny like a poached egg, and blended so nicely with the savory taste of the goat cheese foam. I really enjoyed the flavor combination for a savory dish that wasn’t, thankfully, too savory.

This is shrimp served with a lime and chili salt. The shrimp was fresh and nicely cooked, but wasn’t anything surprising.

Octopus was served covered with a tomato foam and olive oil emulsion. My server corrected to say the tomato foam was “air,” which apparently is the new way of calling foam in the molecular gastronomy world. And while I have misgivings about foam or air because I never understood how they complemented a dish, this particular foam actually tasted like tomato. The olive oil emulsion on the side also had a distinct olive oil flavor and melted away as you bit into it. Definitely eating calories light as air. (The octopus was a bit chewy, but that was to be expected.)

Some of the dishes could actually be an entrée selection at other restaurants and not just a tasting portion. This sea bass is a perfect example. The filet was a nice portion and it was prepared sous vide-style (cooked slowly in a special plastic bag to preserve the tender flesh) and sitting in a liquid of paella broth. This Spanish-influenced dish was enhanced by a bowl of crispy saffron puffs that was served separately. I was told by the server to sprinkle a few on top of the fish and this is how it looked combined…

The sea bass was excellent and I loved the paella broth, mostly because I love paella in general. The saffron puffs, which didn’t taste like saffron but definitely embarked the color, added a nice texture to the top and, I admit it, it was fun just playing with the rice crispies!

At this point I felt like a guest at a Chinese banquet where the food never seems to stop coming. Next up was this dish of beef cheeks served with beans and mushrooms. The beef cheeks were incredibly tender, and reminded me of cow tongue, which of course totally grossed out Karen sitting next to me. But I remember eating cow tongue prepared by my mom when I was young and this dish was like total comfort food for me. The preparation seemed simple but I’m sure Chef Digilio had to do something special to make it taste so elegant and tender.

Being in Argentina, you have to have beef. And while this portion is much smaller than what you would get at a parrilla (the Argentine steakhouses), it is much more creative. It’s your basic meat-and-potatoes dish, but instead of French fries, Chef Digilio created a French fry-flavored “air” encased in a thin strip of potato chip. The air carried an intense flavor of French fries, so this is definitely a way to eat fries without feeling the guilt of all the grease. I could drink a cup of this. The beef was perfectly cooked, and seasoned simply like it’s often done in Buenos Aires.

I should note that our server told us the chef wasn’t feeling well that day, and I saw Chef Digilio actually leave right before we were served dessert. What that meant was we ended up with just one plate of dessert instead of a few courses, but I wasn’t really complaining at this point. In terms of tasting menus I’ve had in my life, this was definitely one that made me feel like I got my money’s worth and then some. The courses (which really numbered more than nine) added up to a filling and enjoyable dinner. Oh, but you want to see what we had for dessert, right?

A trio of desserts came on a plate, meant to be combined at your leisure. In the center was a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Next to it was a drizzle of a mandarin orange reduction. Behind it was more of the goat cheese air from an earlier course, and next to that was a sliver of orange-almond cake. Everything was perfect on its own but taken to another level when playfully mixed on the plate. The savory goat cheese foam provided an unusual contrast to the sweet chocolate, and the orange-almond cake simply helped fill you up while tasting light at the same time. The mandarin orange reduction was intense (like all of Chef Digilio’s flavorings) and is the classic pairing for dark chocolate.

This four-hour lunch at La Vineria is one of those meals of a lifetime. But it wasn’t in a fussy hotel dining room nor did it cost me my life’s savings. This was an extremely affordable dinner in an unassuming casual restaurant that makes you feel like you’re on the ground floor of something great. I just know that Chef Digilio will one day have a larger, and perhaps, grander playground to display his talents. So I feel lucky that I’ve had this memorable chance to get just a taste of his culinary talents. And really, what better lasting impression to remember Buenos Aires by?

Single guy rating: 4.75 stars (a meal worth traveling across the globe for)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Bueno … life in BA

Sunday in the San Telmo neighborhood is clearly a day to stroll around the antiques fair at the Plaza Dorrego. This weekly event draws a large crowd of tourists who take over the streets, which are closed for street vendors and tango dancers. The antiques fair is in the actual cobblestone plaza, and you can see an array of blue-tinted antique seltzer bottles and maté tea gourds for sale. Get there early to beat the crowds or get there late to see the impromptu tango dancing that occurs right after the antique vendors pack away their stalls.

As my last gift to you of this memorable trip to Buenos Aires, I made this video of this really fascinating street performer/artist at the San Telmo Sunday street fair. He drew the most crowds and he would create paintings quickly to music, using only his hands. So just for fun, here you go!


Passionate Eater said...

Wow, your comprehensive review left me speechless. I feel like I ate the food next to you! Hmm, next time, I think you should come along with me during my travels, just so that you can later recap it on your blog! The hot/cold soup and liquid ravioli particularly caught my attention. I am guessing the thickness of the soup helped it to keep both hot and cold elements separate.

agent713 said...

Wow. Sounds like an amazing meal. I'm sad to see this series end. I've enjoyed being an arm chair traveller/dinner guest!

Moving said...

Your dish looking yummy.I will definitely visit La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar when I will be in Buenos Aires.

federico said...


I have also been to this restaurant! I loved it!

I am writing a blog about the restaurants I have been to in Buenos Aires



jen laceda said...

Hmmm...I'm getting mixed reviews about this place...

Single Guy Ben said...

Jen, keep in mind that I reviewed this place now more than 2 years ago. So can't vouch for whether the chef has maintained his standards, but I do have to say it was fantastic and just the perfect casual sitting for a Sunday afternoon in Buenos Aires. It's one of my memorable travel meals.