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El Bistró

El Bistró

There aren't many restaurants in Buenos Aires that are experimenting with molecular techniques. One of which, El Bistró, is located in the Faena hotel and universe -- a shiny new hotel with which I have a love-hate relationship. One the one hand, the hotel is incredibly tacky and somewhat obnoxious. This is apparent even before entering the hotel as the entire facade is flooded with deep red lights. Each restaurant and bar within the hotel's main floor has a theme ranging from a dimly lit cocktail "library" with oversized gaucho leather couches, to an all white restaurant whose walls are lined with unicorns having bright red eyes. We ate in the later, a place that made me think if Snow White were to live in Transylvania, she would probably decorate her house something like this. But, while the decor is so blatently and intentionally tacky, it's comical. And the staff seems to realize this, by not taking themselves so seriously. Despite the air of being one of the trendiest hotels in the city, I found everyone I dealt with surprisingly friendly and helpful. The food was pretty good, too. The restaurant is all white, with accents of red: the bouquet of roses on each table, the rug that covers most of the tile floor, and the eyes of the white unicorns that line each side of the restaurant. The only other color in the room comes from the table of cognacs and dessert wines in the middle of the room, and from the slicked back hair of the 30-something yuppies eating here, too. We arrived for a 9:30pm reservation and were promptly sat. Although we had pre-requested the chef's tasting, we were shown the menu just to have a look.

We wanted some wine to go along with our 7-course tasting. But unlike La Bourgogne, which included wine pairings in its menú degustación, we had to arrange for a separate pairing with each course. It took a little time to explain that we didn't want to purchase seven separate bottles, but the sommelier said she could arrange by-the-glass pairings. Our ordering was finalized, our menus collected, and some welcome pastries were delivered to the table to kick things off. What a nice way to say hello, if you ask me.

We were presented with three different welcome snacks, the highlight of which was a lukewarm wasabi cream wrapped in nori, crispy rice cracker, and topped with what seemed like crispy bits of caramelized onion. I was surprised at the slight hint of spice the wasabi cream had -- what a bold thing to do in a country that hates spice of any kind! The bread was quick to follow, with a selection of four types: baked flat sheets, white, wheat, and blue cheese. The blue cheese was very tasty -- just salty enough that I didn't have to re-salt after applying butter. Our first wine was a Pulenta Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2007, which very floral -- I literally felt like I stuck my head in a rose garden. I almost wanted to smell it with the next course instead of drinking it.

The first amuse came, a "deconstructed tortilla," or more officially, deconstrucción de la tortilla de papas española (papa, aceite de oliva, cebollas caramelizadas y yema de huevo), which was essentially caramelized onions topped with a "tortilla foam," a dense slightly potato-flavored off-white froth. The texture of the foam was very dense, which made it more like a light soup. While I didn't taste the potato in the tortilla foam, the onions were very flavorful and texturally interesting when combined with the foam. The temperature was noticably cooler than I would have liked, but overall this was a nice start.

The second amuse was next to come: an oyster served in a soup spoon, topped with a lettuce foam and a lime purée (ostra con puré de limón y aire de lechuga). The lemon purée had a little bit of a sweet bitterness to it, which makes me think it was key lime. The strength of the lemon was a little too strong which made it hard to taste the delicate flavor of the oyster. The temperature was also a little colder than lukewarm, which makes me think it had been sitting around for a bit. I hope this is the last of the cooler than desired dishes.

Our first official dish came, titled "relleno criollo," lomo curado a la sal, papa, olivas esféricas, huevo y cebolla de verdeo (a deconstructed empanada of cured loin, egg yolk, potato, and chili sauce). Yes, that's right, chili sauce. And, we had some molecular gastronomy in the form of spherical olives. This chef was taking risks! While this was the third consecutive course that was served just a bit too cool, this authentically tasted like an empanada without the encasing. Despite its authenticity, the loin was a little too salty -- with a regular empanada, salt helps to flavor dough; but without the bread component to absorbe the salty flavor of the cured loin, it's a little too much. The saltiness of the loin; however, went nicely with the Tapiz Chardonay Reserva 2005, a fruity white wine with notes of grapefruit.

Next up was my second favorite course of the evening: spider crab wrapped in avocado with sour whipped cream (canelón de palta y centolla con espuma de yogur natural). The mild flavor of the avocado served more as a textural vehicle to contrast against the stringy slices of king crab. The sour whipped cream was mild and light enough not to interfere with the avocado and crab, both in terms of flavor and texture. And since this was a dish served cold, it seems like the temperature troubles that affected the previous courses would be circumvented.

These last two courses marked the end of the appetizers, and we were ready to move on to mains. Our first main were slices silverside served on an olive brioche with pistachios and tomatoes (Ppjerrey marinado con verduras al carbón sobre biscuit de olivas, ensalada de rúcula y vinagreta de pistachos y tomates). This dish seemed to lack focus, both texturally and in terms of flavor. The olive flavor of the brioche was way too strong for this dish, I could not taste the fish. I also disliked the apparently random scattering of pistashios -- regarding flavor, what purpose did they serve in this dish? If they were a textural addition, they needed to be broken down a little more ... whole raw pistashios are too hard and crude to be paired with the softness of silverside -- this contrast was too much. This was the low point of the dinner and, fortunately, things picked up from here. Our sommelier chose to pair this with a Palo Alto Pino Noir 2006, an incredibly light red that did not compete with the fish, at all.

Following the silverside came another fish course, trillas con verduras, queso de cabra ahumado y romesco (red mullet stuffed with zuchini and onion with a peanut paste). This fish was served hot, which was very much appreciated. The skin was left on both sides of the fish, which was slightly crisped to make the texture more interesting. The skin also added tremendous flavor to the dish. The Thai-inspired peanut sauce was very rich and even a little spicy, just enough to enhance but not distract, from the natural flavor of the mullet. This was the highlight course of the night. Very, very good.

We finished our two fish courses and now it was time for meat. We started with "lamb capelleti," two giant capelleti stuffed with braised lamb in a leek consumée with mint foam, dijon mustard, and pickled carrot (capelletis rellenos con estofado de cordero en consomé de puerros, aire de menta, mostaza de dijón y encurtido de zanahoria) . The capelleti was cooked very nicely, a little firm but not dry or chewy; unfortunately, this dish was again, too cold. But the flavor of the meat and capelleti was very tasty. The sauce was fairly mild and bland, with the exception of the pickled carrot land mines scattered around.

For our last main course, we had roasted duck served on hijiki seaweed with spinach, white raddish, and black sesame (pechuga de pato asada, nabo crujiente y ensalada tibia de algas y pencas). Looking at this dish, the duck seemed like an interesting twist and I wasn't sure if it would work. I would have imagined some kind of white fish. But it worked. This japanese-inspired creation was delicious, and was surprisingly original. The sesame-duck combination was fantastic. The duck was paired with an Azul Reserva 2003, a Cabernet-Malbec-Merlot Mix from Mendoza. While this was by far the most impressive wine of the evening, the pairing was a little off -- it was way too heavy for the duck. As such, I ate the duck first, then enjoyed the wine. The hints of blackberry and slight oak smell were very pleasant. Ironically, this wine had a 14% alcohol content ... what is it with these Argentine wines?

Just before dessert, we were served a "red passion" palate cleanser - nube de frambuesa, sorbete de Campari y arándanos, pomelo rosado vivo, aire de pomelo, reducción de remolacha, granita de tomate y frutillas. This was essentially a dense raspberry foam with with Campari sorbet, bilberries, pink grapefruit, beet reduction, and tomato and strawberries. This was certainly refreshing. The bitterness of the Campari sorbet overtook most of the other elements of this dish and, frankly, was not appetizing by itself. It definitely added "balance" to the sweeter elements of this dish.

Dessert came, and it was excellent. It was called chocolate 5-ways (crema, helado, sopa, marquisse y crocante), mainly for the 5 different types of chocolate: milk chocolate sorbert, orange dark chocolate sorbet, a brownie-like portion of cake, crispychocolate tuile, and a bit of milk chocolate sauce at the bottom. The orange flavored chocolate sorbet was a beautiful balance between citrus and chocolate, a combination I rarely like. Dessert was served with Rutini - Vino dulce encabezado de Malbec 2004, a sweet, but strong, wine that tasted like fresh oranges. While I liked this wine by itself, I thought the pairing was too straightforward: it complimented the chocolate-orange sorbet too much rather than adding depth by contrasting against it.

The petits fours came, one being a chocolate covered tree with pieces of dark chocolate with a mint leaf in the middle. The second plate contained white chocolate rasberry truffles.

This was the most adventurous restaurant experience I've had in Buenos Aires -- the chef was not afraid to take risks and it showed. As such, the highs and lows of this meal were much more extreme than some of the other haute restaurants I've tried in the city. And I appreciated that. The bill came, and it was also the most expensive restaurant I'd visited in BA -- nearly twice the price of the city's Relais & Châteaux, which seemed somewhat ironic. Factoring in price, this place was way too expensive for the food it offered. It was a refreshing and fun experience, and some of the courses were quite good; but, I don't think I'll be repeating El Bistró for a while.