Casa SaltShaker ‘Closed Door’ Restaurant

May 31, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

An intimate dinner party in the chef’s own home

Diners at Casa SaltShaker 'closed door' restaurant in Buenos Aires
[Photo courtesy of Dan Perlman]

There is something slightly surreal about attending an intimate dinner party in a private home at which the ten guests are total strangers and the host is mostly a background presence, periodically emerging from the kitchen to introduce the dishes and wines before hurrying back to prepare the next course. With diners from Argentina, the United States, Ireland and England, the language at the table switched between English and Spanish and the conversation topics spanned the globe. By all accounts a fairly typical night at Dan Perlman’s ‘closed door’ (‘puertas cerradas’) restaurant Casa SaltShaker in his apartment in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

From the outset, eating at Casa SaltShaker is unlike going to a normal restaurant. Dinner places are by reservation only and the address is only revealed once the booking has been confirmed. Guests are warned to inform Perlman in advance of any allergies or dietary requirements, leaving him free to dream up the dishes on the five course set menu, which are usually created on a whim. As Perlman explained, he rarely serves the same dish twice.

Eclectic guest list

Arriving at the apartment block shortly before 9pm (guests are asked to arrive between 8.45pm and 9pm; dinner is served at 9.15pm), I was unsure what to expect. As I rang the doorbell, I wondered what language I should speak. I was greeted by Perlman’s partner Henry, who I followed into the apartment, a bright, modern and homely ground floor duplex with shelves stacked full of cookbooks, paintings and family photographs on the walls, low lighting and an outside patio. Elton John was playing in the background. As I was the last to arrive, I could see the other nine guests standing together in a circle in the living room talking. I was handed a ginger, Pineral (an Argentine aperitif) and pink grapefruit juice cocktail and I went over to introduce myself to the group.

Among my dining companions were a couple from Ireland, a Rosarian couple who were in Buenos Aires to visit their son, who was also at the dinner, and a couple from Oregon and their parents / in-laws. We all sat together at a large square table, set with neatly folded napkins, place mats and a promising selection of several different glasses – Perlman is a trained sommelier and each of the five courses was paired with a glass of specially selected wine.

On tonight’s menu…

The printed menu awaiting us at the table informed us that the first course would be ‘salatit banjan y satata banadoura’. This turned out to be two Middle Eastern style salads, one with tomato, red onions, chili and prawns and the other with aubergine, green pepper, lemon juice and cockles, served on a camembert cheese tuile. The unusual combination seems typical of Perlman’s idiosyncratic cooking style and is certainly not the usual Buenos Aires fare. The Nieto-Senetiner Brut Nature champagne we drank with it was even better.

Middle Eastern salad starter at Casa SaltShaker in Argentina
[Photo courtesy of Dan Perlman]

Next up was a truly delicious cheddar and English ale soup served with homemade bread, my favourite dish of the night (how I would love a bowl of it now). Perlman explained that he usually puts a soup of some kind on the menu, since good soup can be hard to come by in Buenos Aires. This one was paired with a Terrazas Chardonnay Reserva.

The cheddar and Ale soup at Casa SaltShaker
[Photo courtesy of Dan Perlman]

The course that seemed to be the most popular of all, however, was the one that followed: freshly made pappadelle pasta with peppers, butter beans, walnuts, lemon zest, garlic, rosemary and olive oil, washed down with a Escorihuela Gascon Rosado.

The pasta dish at Casa SaltShaker in Buenos Aires
[Photo courtesy of Dan Perlman]

Then came the maincourse, seabass wrapped in Serrano ham with potato risotto, portobello mushrooms with ‘mustard caviar’ (mustard seeds that are inflated like popcorn). In a city where there is generally a huge chunk of meat at the center of every evening meal, it was a welcome change to eat fish, which was succulent and served with a Malbec reduction sauce.

Although I am not generally keen on deserts, I really enjoyed the slightly unusual passion fruit cheesecake with a coconut crust. It was not too sweet (perhaps why I liked it so much), although it was served with an incongruous dollop of dulce de leche. As we lingered around the table chatting I felt so relaxed I hardly wanted to leave. Luckily Henry came round with a large cafetiere of strong black coffee to give us the boost we needed to head out into the night, full and content.

Casa SaltShaker postre
[Photo courtesy of Dan Perlman]

If you would like to have dinner at Casa Saltshaker, it is necessary to book in advance. For more details on how to make a reservation see the Casa SaltShaker website.

For more about Casa SaltShaker and other ‘closed door’ resaturants in Buenos Aires see this post in the Argentina Intependent, and A Life Worth Eating‘s write-up.

Arkakao Gelato, Buenos Aires

February 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Classy ice-cream for discerning customers

arkakao-recoleta-icecream

[Photo credit: Arkakaó Facebook page]

Arkakao is the smartest ice-cream joint in town. Here your gelato (Italian ice cream) will be delivered to your table by an elegantly dressed waiter complete with white starched shirt and waistcoat, who afterwards will present you with a tiny towel that expands when wet with which to wipe your sticky hands. Chandeliers complete the ice-cream boutique experience. This is a place for people who take gelato eating and afternoon tea drinking seriously. Somewhere to keep in mind for a treat for most of us, but possibly an ordinary afternoon outing for certain well-heeled Recoleta residents.

arkakao-italian-gelato-buenos-aires

[Photo credit: Arkakaó Facebook page]

Authentic Italian gelato in Buenos Aires

Arkakao is the Argentinean version of Kakao, a luxury ice cream parlor, chocolateria and tea salon in Aosta, northern Italy. The Italian owners of Kakao decided to open a branch in Rosario, the home of Argentina’s largest Italian community and now they have a third store, the Buenos Aires branch on Quintana 188, in the heart of Recoleta.

The ice cream is additive and preservative free and made fresh everyday, so you’ll never be served yesterday’s leftovers (which begs the question, what happens to the leftovers? Could this be the best place to work in the city?).  Aside from the dairy products used, many of the ingredients are imported from Italy, which, according to Arkakao is the country where the best hazelnuts (Piemonte), pistachios (Sicily) and chocolate (Torino) are produced.

arkakao-gelato-buenos-aires

[Photo credit: Arkakaó Facebook page]

Recoleta Flavor conundrum

Just when you thought you were finally getting the hang of the names of all those flavors in Spanish, in Arkakao the gelato is labelled in Italian. If you get really confused, use it as an excuse to taste your way around the different flavours on offer. As well as cups and cones, you can order Banana Split, fruit cup, coffee, hot chocolate and ice cream frappe made with any flavor you like. But if the choice on offer overwhelms you, take our advice and go for chocolate orange – sublime.

Arkakao Gelato, Quintana 188 (near corner with Montevideo), Recoleta

Website: www.arkakao.com.ar, Telephone: 4813-7585

Cumana Empanadas

May 26, 2007 by · 7 Comments 

In search of the perfect empanada in Buenos Aires…

Crayon silliness at Cumana

It’s tough to try to find the ‘best’ empanadas in Buenos Aires (just ask Saltshaker). Primarily because there are so many different places to try them at, and of course many different types of empanada from across the different regions of Argentina, and even the rest of Latin America. At Cumana in Recoleta, the empanadas are very good, are of excellent value, and your empanada craving will be properly satiated.

Empanadas, vino tinto and… colorful crayons?

At Cumana, the empanadas are not the only fun to be had. As shown in the photo at the top of this post, colorful crayons are available for children and grown-up kids alike, to be used on the paper tablecloths. This of course inevitably leads to silliness such as chalking down your order on the table in front of you. Still, if your Spanish pronunciation is a little rusty, it definitely beats plain old pointing at the items on the menu that you want to order.

As well as creating this fun juvenile air with the crayons, the general atmosphere at Cumana is also buzzing, busy and brash. The tables and seats are fairly small and packed in tight, and the place always seems to be full at both lunch and dinner sittings, so it is not a place to go for a quiet, relaxed or intimate conversation. Instead, Cumana is there for traditional Argentine food in a traditional energetic, rustic Argentine setting.

Cumana Empanada Restaurant, Recoleta

OK, so the service is pretty slow, but this is something forgivable in Buenos Aires, because it really is the norm here. You just have to adjust to it, and change your expectations accordingly: i.e. let go and relax, there’s no rush.

But enough about the service and atmosphere, and on to the main reason you’re here. To sample…

Cumana’s Empanadas

Empanadas, delicious empanadas

As you can see, the empanadas at Cumana look pretty tasty. They should be properly browned in places on the outside, and even slightly burned here and there. It just adds to the flavor a little. So Cumana delivers on that front.

For an introducion to Cumana empanadas, below you will find a more detailed description of a few of the more popular fillings and flavors:

  • Lomo Picante – Chopped lomo (tenderloin) steak in a mildly spicy, meaty sauce. This is a great one to start with. It’s not as spicy as the name suggests, but the more subtle flavors of a frankly delicious sauce to come to the fore. And the chopped lomo steak easily beats the standard minced beef from your average empanada de carne.
  • Humita – Creamed corn. Cumana’s version outdoes most local attempts by using a lot of corn, and just the right amount of tasty white cream sauce, and so their Humita gets the thumbs up.
  • Jamon y Queso – Ham and cheese. Apart from beef, jamon y queso is the next most common empanada filling you see in Buenos Aires. It is a basic, rarely spectacular empanada filling, and to be honest, quite hard to mess up. Cumana does a respectable version, with a good amount of ham, which sometimes can be a problem.
  • Choclo, Calabaza y Queso – Corn, squash and cheese. A great combination of fillings that really work wonders together. Not a traditional mix, but one of Cumana’s creations that really make their selection a step above the rest.

So, all in all, above average empanada fillings with a couple of stand outs. And, although fairly small as compared to their counterparts at El Sanjuanino, they offer good value. Cumana’s empanadas are cooked in a traditional large wood-burning oven, as shown in this picture:

The Empanadas in Cumana are baked in a traditional stone oven

Other Traditional Argentine Dishes at Cumana

Cumana also offers up many other great regional dishes from around the rest of Argentina and Latin America. Their Locro, Mondongo and Tamales are all very tasty. In fact, in addition to enjoying the same empanada fillings at Cumana, Saltshaker also speaks very highly of their Locro.

Gnocchis at Cumana

Also very traditional in the city of Buenos Aires are noquis (gnocchi). Pictured above are noquis con crema de tomate y albahaca (gnocchi in a creamy tomato sauce with basil). They are cooked in a clay pot in the same oven as the empanadas, and with lots of cheese in the creamy tomato sauce, which produces a lovely crunchy top, and a delicious gooey creamy, cheesy mess underneath. Simply spectacular.

Share the goodness

Go with a few friends, order a bunch of different empanadas (especially the delicious lomo picante and choclo, calabaza y queso versions), maybe a few other different traditional Argentine dishes such as the Locro, and share the lot. You will eat extremely well for very few pesos. Wash it all down with the house vino tinto (red wine) and your Cumana experience is complete.

Location of Cumana Empanadas

Rodriguez Pena 1149, between Arenales & Santa Fe, Recoleta

Tel: 4813 9207

Pizza Piola

February 11, 2007 by · 3 Comments 

Outside Pizzeria Piola, City CenterAn International Pizza Phenomenon

Piola is an international chain of pizzerias, originally hailing from Treviso, Italy, but now with many restaurants in the USA, Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. However, it seems as they spread far and wide, they didn’t lose much of the supposed stereotypical Italian arrogance on arriving in Buenos Aires. Here’s a little example from the Piola website:

“Piola opened in Argentina in 1993, straight from Treviso, Italy. It revolutionized the Buenos Aires food scene to the point where the local press talks about pre and post Piola eras.

A little dramatic, yes, but it’s all well and good that they are so sure about the groundbreaking quality of their food. Read on to see if Piola’s claims are strong, or if their exaggerations are nothing more than just that.

Stylishly Decorated Interior, Stylishly Slow Wait Staff

The surroundings and atmosphere are certainly not disappointing at Piola – it’s clearly hip, trendy, cool. Based in up-market Recoleta, pop-art adorns the walls, the long thin entrance bar is very stylish, there is a lovely little courtyard out the back (see picture below) – perfect for summer evening meals with friends, and of course, many of the thin young waiters and waitresses are as pleasant to look at as the surroundings.

The nice little courtyard at the back of Piola Pizzeria

Well, the wait staff had to be hired for something, because they certainly don’t do much waiting. The diners are the ones that have to wait at Piola. Service here can be painfully slow, starting with waiting to be acknowledged when seated, and continuing all the way through the night to the long-awaited arrival of the bill. Even by Buenos Aires standards, service is very slow and impersonal at Piola, so take that into concern when planning the rest of your evening.

The Pizza at Piola

My Quattro Formaggi Pizza. All miiiiiiine...

Above is the small Quattro Formaggi, representative of  the pizza at Piola which is, as you would expect, more traditionally Italian than the Argentine versions you get in most pizzerias in Buenos Aires (not that the Argentine versions are bad, try the pizza at Guerrin and Banchero for a more local style). Whereas those Argentine pizza versions are big on mozzarella and fluffy dough, Piola does a more understated Italian style (‘less is more’ for the toppings) that also goes down very nicely indeed.

It is pizza a la piedra, in that it is baked directly on the stone (piedra) floor of the oven (which just about can be seen in the next picture below, behind the chef) and a thin crust version of this style, although it is soft rather than crispy.

Now that's what every Pizzeria chef should be doing in a photo!

Piola Argentina: Nice Food, But a Little Pricey

Yes, the pizza is very nice, but it is a little on the caro (expensive) side. A small pizza for one may cost twice as much than many grande (large) pizzas at local spots. Also on the menu are pastas, including a nice but simple affair called Spaghetti Alla Crudaiola (fresh pasta, tomato, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, basil and parmesan shavings), as well as coffee and desserts – all a bit overpriced. Nevertheless, it must be noted that BA blogger Robert says that the tiramasu at Piola is ‘to die for’ (see the 1st comment of that post, by Robert), so it may be worth a taste.

Location of Pizza Piola, Buenos Aires

Libertad 1078, between Av. Santa Fe & Marcelo T de Alvear, Recoleta

Tel: 4812 0690,  Website: http://www.piola.it/

El Alamo Bar

September 21, 2006 by · 20 Comments 

American-style bar in Recoleta

Shoeless Joe’s El Alamo Bar (to use it’s full name) doesn’t exactly scream ‘Buenos Aires‘. Instead, it hollers ‘American Expat Bar’. A lot of Americans have relocated to Buenos Aires over the last few years, which is probably why El Alamo exists. That, and shorter-term visitors who are feeling a little homesick, or want to catch a US or international sports event here on TV.

To cut a long story short, the main attraction of this bar for most of its visitors is its cheap and plentiful beer (including 4 liter pitchers), sometimes with special promotions:

FREE BEER! FOR LADIES!

“Ladies: before 10pm, FREE beer and cocktails”

As for the bar, well it is nothing special, just a typical, unimaginative bar that could be found in any major city, but then I am sure the people come for the cheap drinks, and don’t really remember much of the surroundings.

There are two levels, downstairs for food and sports TV (they claim to show all major American and international sports events), and upstairs which is accessed by a separate outside entrance to the left, which has louder music, and is actually a little more pleasing to the eye, decor wise, with nice antique-style tables and chandeliers.

Shoeless Joe's El Alamo Bar, Recoleta, Buenos Aires

Pub Grub at El Alamo

Finally, the food is decent, solid, unassuming, reasonably priced, american bar food, which may serve as a nice respite to those missing home. They offer a pretty excellent ‘Club House’ sandwich, of nicely grilled chicken breast, bacon (a novelty in Buenos Aires!), tomato and lettuce, with fries, that unfortunately wilt in their greasyness. Exactly the kind of borderline junk food that many visitors to Buenos Aires miss.

Also available: individual pizzas, which are nice enough, and nachos with guacamole (even more of a novelty in Buenos Aires, though they seem to be gaining in popularity). However, the guacamole is tasteless. Fortunately, the cheap pitcher of beer to wash it all down makes that but a distant thought.

Location of Shoeless Joe’s El Alamo Bar

Uruguay 1175 (between Avenida Santa Fe & Arenales), Recoleta

Tel: 4813-7324, website: http://www.facebook.com/pages/El-Alamo-Buenos-Aires/112218648861745

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