BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—One of the privileges of a writer’s life—especially if he or she has no children, no pets and a spouse who loves to travel—is the ability to “up sticks,” as the British used to say, and move elsewhere. Longtime readers may recall reading about just such forays of mine—to Piedmont (one year), Venice (eight months), Melbourne (four months), and now, for an anticipated three months, to Buenos Aires.
Why Argentina, you ask? Actually, of all the questions I’ve received from friends and relations, that is the one question nobody asked. Apparently, the word is out on the wonderfulness of Argentina as a place and the Argentines as a people. And, let’s be honest, the word is also out about how wonderfully inexpensive Argentina is for those of us trading woebegone American bucks for even more economically bedraggled Argentine pesos.
However pleasurable it is to be in a place where the almighty U.S. dollar actually still is mighty (the last time I enjoyed that experience I still had hair, which will give you an idea of just how long ago it was), money is not why we moved here. It helps, sure. But the real reason we came is Buenos Aires itself and, equally, the Argentines.
Buenos Aires is famously European in style, most particularly Parisian. This is oft-mentioned, and rightly. But for this American-who’s-lived-in-Paris, the attraction of Buenos Aires lies in what might be called its “intactness.” While Manhattan and San Francisco have seen radical transformations in the past two decades (who ever thought that New York’s Bowery district, famous for its seemingly eternal flophouses, would become fashionable?), Buenos Aires seems to have retained much of its residential neighborhood character.
Mind you, this is not to say that the place is stagnant. Or that it isn’t subject to some of the same forces that have reshaped other urban landscapes. Indeed, we’ve rented a duplex apartment in what is indisputably the hippest, most newly gentrified neighborhood in the city, called Palermo Soho. A former manufacturing and warehouse district, Palermo Soho now has the highest concentration of (very good) restaurants in the city, along with an abundance of retail shops. Sound familiar? Call me a hypocrite, I confess that I like Palermo Soho’s transformation, although I’m acutely aware that such change, which all vital cities everywhere experience, comes at a price.
So why Argentina, you ask? The answer is obvious: the wine. Followed closely by the food. Allow me to disabuse you of the notion that all the Argentines eat is beef. Granted, they do love the stuff. But, at least in a big city like Buenos Aires (much less so in the countryside), the food selection is much greater. Around the corner from us is a Moroccan restaurant. Italian restaurants abound. And, surprisingly, there are a fair number of sushi places.
Still, you can’t beat the beef. The Argentine steak houses, called parrillas, are very nearly houses of worship. The city has hundreds of them. Happily, there’s a particularly high concentration of parrillas near us in an adjoining neighborhood called Palermo Hollywood.
Dining at an Argentine steak house is like eating at the Flintstones’. The portions are huge. But these bronto-steaks are from grass-fed cattle, so somehow (don’t ask me exactly how) you manage to slice and dice your way through the expanse of steak and yet not feel quite as stuffed as with America’s corn-fed beef. There’s less fat, obviously.
Oh, and there’s one other thing: The Argentines seemingly never met an innard they won’t consume with gusto. For example, the other night we went to a parrilla called El Bonpland in Palermo Hollywood. Although a new establishment (founded in 2008), you’d never know it from the older male waiters and its air of permanency. The sidewalk tables were packed.
A long blackboard in the interior lists specialties, one of which is proudly proclaimed as “Super Chinchulines.” You see them in every parrilla: grilled intestines, what we know in the American South as chitterlings or chitlins. (I’m not a squeamish eater, but I’ve never cared for the item.) Kidneys and sweetbreads are standard fare on every parrilla menu.
The attraction of these parrilla, for locals and tourists alike, is the sheer warmth of the place. You come dressed as you are. Children are everywhere, as are grandparents, dating couples and old men dining alone but contentedly. A parrilla is a “kings and commoners” kind of place. Not everything is Flintstonian, by the way. At El Bonpland, my wife had brochette de provolone—a skewer of fist-sized chunks of Argentine-made provolone cheese wrapped in strips of bacon and grilled over live coals. (I had tira de asado, long strips of grilled ribs cut thinly across the bone.)
So far, I’m sorry to say, I have yet to find a parrilla with a great wine list. (If you can recommend one, please let me know.) Unlike the better American steak houses, which now specialize in extensive selections of red wines, the homey unpretentiousness of Argentine parrillas seems to inhibit wine adventurousness. The choices too often are across-the-board offerings (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) from just a few big Mendoza wine labels such as Trapiche, Catena Zapata, Nieto Senetiner and the like.
Are these wines—the Malbecs in particular—good? Yes, they are; I drink them with pleasure. But I’d like to find more of the choices that I find at what I now consider my local wine store, a place that, confusingly, sports a French name (Autremonde) yet specializes exclusively in high-end Argentine wines. “Try this Cabernet Franc,” said shop owner Victor Daniel Nastasi. “It’s from Bodega del Desierto in the La Pampa province. It’s the only winery out there. It’s totally unique in Argentina.”
He was sure right about that. And it’s aptly named, too. The vineyard is in a desert (the elegant label is a sepia-toned depiction of baked, caked, cracked earth) about 650 miles southwest of Buenos Aires in the vast, flat center of Argentina. California winemaker Paul Hobbs is the winemaking consultant, by the way.
It was a good recommendation. The 2005 Cabernet Franc from Bodega del Desierto—the label reads “25/5 Cabernet Franc La Pampa,” the 25/5 business a reference to the nearest town, called 25 de Mayo—is lovely stuff: distinctively varietal with just an (attractive) edge of Cabernet Franc’s herbaceous quality, a pretty scent and taste of cherry and, mercifully, little apparent oak. Stylistically, it’s a pure play, with no “Hey, look at me!” winemaker flourishes.
But can you find this Cabernet Franc at a parrilla? Not yet—or at least not yet by me. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on a steak house wine list near you, as Bodega del Desierto is exported to the States. If nothing else, it shows that Argentina is more than Malbec and mountains.