After months of eating Argentine cuisine, imagine my enthusiasm towards trying Buenos Aires's only Relais & Châteaux, La Bourgogne, the restaurant of chef Jean Paul Bondoux. The restaurant is located inside the Hotel Alvear, the same hotel that has the place well-reputed for its afternoon high tea , L'Orangerie. I arrived with my friend for a 9:30pm reservation, only, the restaurant wasn't able to find my name. Despite the fact that the dining room was fairly crowded, the hostess did not even hesitate and found a table for us immediately. The restaurant does have a cocktail lounge; but since we did not chose to sit there for an apéritif, the hostess casually converted the first few moments of our eating experience into a table-side slow-down with a glass of sparkling wine. While feeling rushed is not something I've commonly felt here in Buenos Aires, there was something about the initial pacing that really set the tone as extra-calm: perhaps it was the relaxed, but incredibly attentive and observant wait staff, who seemed to just know when we were ready to get started. About half-way through our champagne, we were brought a small plate of warm welcome pastries to accompany the champagne: three different puff pastries and one mini-torte. Of the puff pastries, one was of black and white sesame, another had a thin layer of a local cheese (seemed like cow milk), and one much like "pigs in a blanket." The mushroom mini-torte was the most dense, and most tasty, with earthy highlights. Nothing particularly special, and all were somewhat reminiscent of frozen cocktail party hors d'oeuvres; although, they did remind me remember how hungry I was.
Finishing up our champagne, our waiter handed us our menus. One of the first things that struck me was the special section on the second page titled, service et cuisine d'autre fois Jean Paul Bondoux (service and food from the old times). While I did briefly wonder what exactly old time service meant, it seemed like these dishes were much heavier with rich sauces and much more classical in style than the rest of the menu: carré de veau, filet de boeuf, and poisson en coûte de sel to name a few. One dish sounded particularly tasty: suprême de volaille, beurre de noisettes, écume de lait (chicken breast, hazelnut butter, and milk foam). I was pretty determined to give this a try, as well as huîtres chaudes et pétoncles en citron vert et lait de coco (cooked oysters and scallops with coconut milk and lime), especially since I wanted some variety other than steak. But then, my eyes found what they always find: menu dégustation. Done.
After seeing the oysters on the menu, albeit they were cooked, I really began to miss fresh raw oysters. My friend and I discussed this briefly, and concluded that we would ask if, before our tasting got started, we could have just two raw oysters each to get things going. There was a bit of confusion as to why we wanted this; but, the waitress assured us it would not be a problem. And since it was before the tasting itself, I felt comfortable that it would not interfere with the progression of the meal.
We were brought a basket of paper-thin white bread accompanied by salmon butter and salted butter. Since the bread was so thin, it seemed to me like the slices served mainly as a vehicle to taste the smokey flavor of the salmon butter. I actually thought the idea of thin and light bread was fantastic -- something to much on in-between conversation without getting too full.
The amuse bouche followed: a sauteed scallop encrusted in a thin layer of semolina. The scallop was a little firm, and any sort of ocean flavor was overwhelmed by the sharp lemon lurking in the sauce. Nothing particularly special here.
Next came something rather interesting: instead of four simple oysters, we were brought a platter of twelve. When we asked why we were brought 12 instead of 4, the waitress said that the chef "could not do just four," and that we shouldn't worry about it. Believe me, I wasn't worrying. The oysters came in all different shapes and sizes: some were very meaty while others were fairly small and thin. Despite being Argentina, these oysters were very fresh. The sommelier paired this with a Finca Domingo Torrontes 2006 from Cafayate Salta, because it would go nicely with the first official course of the tasting. The Torrontes was incredibly fragrant: I felt as if I had stuck my head in a rose garden. As we were finishing up our oysters we were offered a selection of fine bread, the highlights being the milk roll and the raisin loaf. Probably a bad sign that I was starting to feel a little full, and the tasting had yet to begin.
Next was the first official course of the tasting, and I was very happy to see that it was something that I was going to order anyway: huîtres chaudes et pétoncles, citron vert et lait de coco. We were presented with two sauced scallops and an oyster served in shell, sitting atop a beautiful bed of sea-salt with bits of seaweed for color differentiation. Unlike the amuse, the lime and coconut flavor were in perfect harmony and this was absolutely delicious. If I had any bread left, I would have been soaking up the last drops of this coconut lime sauce. Impressively, the lime flavor was light enough to allow for me to taste the natural flavors of both the scallops and the oyster. This was the strongest course of the night.
The momentum kept going with the following course, buisson de cuisses de grenouilles au persil aillé a handful of sautéed frog legs in a parsley and basil butter, surrounding a pile of shoestring fried potatoes. Aside from this attractively colorful presentation, the flavor of the rich and lightly salted butter sauce was just enough to compliment the frog legs without distracting. The frog was texturally appealing, with something in-between chicken and a firm white fish. With this we had a Chardonnay from Mendoza, a Rutini 2006.
Unfortunately, the two strongest courses were followed by the weakest: abadejo en croûte de semoule a la poudre d'amande beurre d'agrumes served with an Escorihuela Gascon Viognier 2006 from Mendoza. This was a generous portion of abadejo encrusted in almond and semolina with a citrus sauce. The bitterness of the sauce was overpowering, and since the crust was super absorbent it acted as a lemon sponge. I also found the almond and semolina crust to be way too dry, making too stark of a textural contrast against the moisture of the fish. That being said, it was served with a dried pumpkin ring that had an incredibly fun texture -- grainy and crisp, much like pear skin. The texture, combined with the fact that each piece would double in size in my mouth, made this really interesting.
Next up was some meat, filet de cerf au beurre de genièvre. Nothing like some game in Buenos Aires. This deer filet was served in juniper butter with an accompainment of puréed sweet potatoes and some leek and celery a l'étuvé. Another hit. Nicely cooked and portioned, this meat was so incredibly flavorful. The texture was very gamey: a cross between calf liver and rare filet mignon. This course was paired with Infinitus Merlot Gran Reserva 2003 from Rio Negro, a merlot with a fairly high alcohol concentration (14%!).
From behind me, I began to hear the light clanking of a wheeled cart, which made me smile: here comes the cheese. Most of the cheeses were native to Argentina, which was good since we are in Argentina. There were some general french cheeses like bleu d'Auvergne; but it seemed pretty clear to me that the highlights were in Argentina. Two of the most memorable cheeses, unfortunately, were unnamed. The first stole the show: a semi-firm earthy sheep milk cheese that tasted of mushroom. I wish this cheese had some kind of name; but then again, it wouldn't be very accessible anyway. The second memorable cheese was a white clementine-sized tomme of soft sheep milk. The soft core began to spill as I sliced it in half. Unfortunately, this intriguing little cheese tasted terrible -- my nose burned from the strong ammonia flavor. The cheese was served with a bowl of iced grapes, walnut and raisin breads.
Dessert came, and it was very pretty: dacquoise de cacao avec sorbet de chocolat au lait. This chocolate dacquoise was served on a bed of mango with a chocolate passionfruit sorbet. The ratio of chocolate tarte to fruit was off -- it seemed like the only purpose of the tarte was to support the sorbet. I would have liked to see a little more tarte or a lot less fruit. The sorbet was very nice, and had an interestingly grainy texture. At first the combination of chocolate and passion-fruit scared me a little; but, he balanced these flavors very nicely. With each bite, I first tasted chocolate and then a tart passion-fruit finish. It was very interesting. This course was also paired with what I thought was the highlight wine for the night, a Château Roustit 2003 from Bordeaux. The wine smelled just like fresh blueberries.
The petits fours were last, the most interesting of which was a simple sugared grape. The almond tuiles were also particularly delicious; but I could only eat half of mine, that's how full I was. The bill came, and we were shocked: it was exactly what the menu said! We were not charged for our extra course of oysters (let alone the extra eight they brought us), the glasses of champagne, the extra refills of wine -- all of this, for an honest 360 pesos (120 U$D). While outrageously expensive for Buenos Aires, from a New York perspective, this was a steal.
Overall, I was happy with my dinner. For someone without access to haute French cuisine, like a resident of Buenos Aires, this satisfied my craving. The food was very good. However, for someone coming from Europe or New York, while satisfying, these dishes may be a little dull to the palate and too heavily based in classical methods without modern inspiration. But if you're in this city for a few weeks, and desire a high French dining experience, this is the (only) place to go.