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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The chefs who have Buenos Aires (reluctantly) waiting in line

An undated photo by Nora Walsh inside Oli, a breakfast and lunch spot in a bright, glassy space in the Colegiales neighborhood. Local Argentine ingredients are the stars on the menus in Buenos Aires, a city that feels almost jubilant after long COVID-19 lockdowns.

By Nora Walsh

If you’re planning to dine out in Buenos Aires, Argentina, be prepared for an unfamiliar sight: lines. As the city springs back to life, the streets feel almost celebratory, an antidote to the lingering side effects of extended COVID lockdowns. Alfresco tables are packed. Locals who would never have queued up for dinner before the pandemic are now willing to wait for a taste of what a new generation of chefs is cooking up.

Julio Baez: Showing off the bounty of the land

“There’s a mentality of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so I am going to enjoy life now,’ ” said Julio Baez, 37, who opened his 22-seat restaurant Julia in the up-and-coming Villa Crespo neighborhood in 2019. Because of inflation, it’s too expensive for most Argentines to travel abroad right now, he explained, so they’re spending their money on a good meal and a fun night out.

Like many young chefs in the city, Baez is championing Argentine ingredients for their quality and sustainability. “The land is so fertile in Argentina,” Baez said. “We want to show that off.”

At Julia and his newest restaurant, Franca, also in Villa Crespo, Baez sources fruits and vegetables from small producers across Argentina that he fuses with global flavors to create a parade of original dishes. Julia’s seasonal à la carte dishes and 10-course tasting menu (30,000 pesos, or about $150 — prices are as of mid-February but are subject to change because of inflation) both include fresh squid from Patagonia tossed in a yogurt-walnut pesto and crowned with sliced avocado (3,500 pesos); semi-dehydrated watermelon tartare (3,500 pesos); and Wagyu beef aged with koji (cooked fermented rice), Provençal potatoes and a shio koji emulsion (12,500 pesos).

Lis Ra: Piling Korean flavors on Argentine favorites

In nearby Chacarita, Lis Ra, 33, re-imagines flavors from her youth at Na Num, a 34-seat Korean-fusion restaurant she opened in July 2020 in a former pharmacy space. “When I was growing up, my parents always mixed Korean and Argentine food, so this combination of flavors comes naturally to me,” she said.

To make her own fermented pastes and sauces, she uses ingredients like spicy chile flakes, ginger, garlic and soy sauce to season fresh Argentine produce, seafood, meats and cheeses. “I love piling flavors and textures on top of each other,” Ra said.

A big seller for vegans is a dish that riffs on humitas — a traditional northern Argentine corn pudding — that’s served as a creamy brûlée made with almond milk and topped with sautéed kimchi and daikon pickles (2,100 pesos). One of her personal favorites is the mussels ceviche prepared with a kimchi-based broth, crispy buckwheat granola, pomegranate seeds, toasted seaweed, sesame oil and cilantro (3,100 pesos). “It has a lot of layers,” Ra said.

Mariano Ramón: Fine dining priced for the masses

At Gran Dabbang, a casual space in Palermo, Mariano Ramón, 41, has made it his mission to democratize fine dining. “The concept behind the restaurant is to showcase the diversity of superior products that exist in Argentina and make them accessible to everyone in a relaxed, inclusive environment,” Ramón said. “We kept the design simple in order to invest our resources in the best ingredients and human capital and still keep dishes around $5 to $10.”

Nuanced fare nods to Asia and the Middle East while using domestic ingredients. Crowd favorites on the menu include a starter of labneh layered with Japanese cucumber, dehydrated cherries, tamarind chutney, Andean black mint, slivered pecans, sliced fennel, peppery chiles and pomegranate seeds served alongside a plate of fried chickpea noodles for mixing (1,800 pesos).

Look for entrees like grilled quail marinated with rica rica (a floral, bitter, high-altitude herb), ginger-garlic paste and yogurt (4,500 pesos), and whole roasted pacu (a freshwater fish from the more tropical northeastern region of Argentina) brightened with fresh turmeric, lemon, almond-and-yogurt paste, cardamom and Jamaican pepper and topped with papaya raita and coriander chutney (6,500 pesos). “Many tropical ingredients locals think are ‘exotic’ are actually native to northern Argentina,” Ramón said.

Facundo Kelemen: Surprising twists on classic recipes

For Mengano, his 2018 debut in Palermo, Facundo Kelemen, 35, re-imagined a bodegón — a classic neighborhood restaurant — in an early-20th-century home, decorating it with family portraits and heirloom furniture. An open kitchen allows diners to watch the chef prepare reinterpretations of time-honored recipes that are served as small plates meant for sharing. “Each dish carries a certain level of surprise, and they are all emblematic of Argentine cuisine, which is mainly an amalgam of Spanish, Italian and Creole influences,” he said. The fried beef empanadas are stuffed with onion, bell pepper, garlic, spices and a savory meat broth that bursts out with every bite (1,020 pesos). Other standouts include Patagonian lamb tartare (2,310 pesos), gnocchi made with cassava starch (3,170 pesos), and a crispy rice dish that falls somewhere between a risotto and socarrat — the layer of toasted rice at the bottom of a paella (3,110 pesos).

Olivia Saal: Baked creations and a kitchen at center stage

At Oli, a bright and lively cafe open for breakfast, brunch and lunch near the bustling Colegiales neighborhood, Olivia Saal, 28, has split the menu evenly between freshly baked confections and savory offerings. Top picks include made-from-scratch French toast stacked with thin layers of yogurt, mascarpone cream and fruits like mixed berries and figs (1,540 pesos), as well as her knockout sugar-glazed medialunas (Argentine pastries similar to a croissants). For a salty snack, order a grill-pressed ham and cheese on chipá, a cheese bread made with cassava (990 pesos). The dining room overlooks a glass-enclosed kitchen where a bevy of tattooed young people are hard at work. “I always dreamed of having a restaurant where diners could see who was feeding them,” Saal said, “and where the culinary team could watch guests walk in and leave happy.”

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