Muy bien

I’m a big fan of dining out (and, by crikey, I’m getting bigger by the meal). But when it comes to talking about it, I find myself lost for words. Not in a ‘it’s so good I’m speechless’ sort of way; it’s just that I seem to lack the vocabulary. I rarely go beyond the basics of ‘all right’, ‘nice’ and ‘very good’.

Fortunately, I’d learned the Spanish for ‘very good’ before I went on holiday to Argentina – and it stood me in good stead. After haltingly asking for ‘oona maysa para doss pour favoor’ and mispronouncing most of the dishes on the menu, I’d invariably end up having a fantastic meal and telling the waiter that it was ‘muy bien’. Or on more than one occasion, ‘muy, muy bien’. (By the way, my wife, Kate, got the Spanish for ‘Very good, but I’m full’ down to a tee. It’s ‘Muy bien, pero estoy iena’ if you’re a woman. If you’re a man… well, real men never admit they’re full.)

Anyway, I had so many good meals while I was away that I hope you don’t mind if I share my top 3 with you. In each case I’ve linked the name to either the restaurant website or a review site that gives the address and phone number – so if you’re in the area and fancy a bite to eat, you can easily find the place. By the way, unlike those annoying Channel 4 ‘Top 100’ shows presented by Jimmy Carr, they’re not listed in any particular order. Although, just to complicate things, number 3 was far and away my number 1.

1. Cabaña Las Lilas is situated down on the quayside in Buenos Aires. The area reminded me of the similar area in Newcastle, right down to the bridge. Unlike Newcastle, however, the locals wear more clothes even though the weather is much warmer. Go figure.

Puerto Madero bridge

But on to the restaurant. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently Cabaña Las Lilas is one of BA’s best known parrillas – good job I ordered the baby beef steak then (it was my first meal in Argentina – I was hardly going to have a green salad). I normally have my steaks rare – however, I didn’t know the Spanish for that so I went for ‘a punto’ (medium rare, I think. I still don’t know). The meat was beautifully soft and juicily pink, needing only the slightest cut of the knife. The chips were, like a Dime bar, crunchy on the outside but soft in the middle. The glass of Malbec (a glass? Such restraint!) that came with it was smooth and fruity. The dessert menu was surplus to requirements – I was done. But not well done.

2. Bistro M After BA, we moved on to Mendoza. We had our first lunch at this little local place we found. It was called the Hyatt. We shared starters of panfried sweetbreads and carpaccio of beef. Both melted in the mouth.  My main of mushroom spaghetti (it sounds better when it’s ‘spaghetti con funghi’) was full of buttery goodness. To drink, we had a bottle of Alta Vista Torrontes – a fruity but dry white. Again, we skipped afters.

3. Butterfly Goodbye Mendoza, hello Bariloche. The town is a real ski resort, but this restaurant was anything but fondue and big portions. Butterfly is a small restaurant with only six tables available (as it was out of season, we were one of two couples dining), superb service and wonderful food. We chose the tasting menu with wine selection, and from the amuse bouches to the petit fours there wasn’t one false note. Highlights were the sweetbread risotto with morels (the ‘best risotto I’ve ever eaten,’ according to Kate) and the fall-apart-tender 16h hour-cooked Patagonian lamb shoulder. And we ACTUALLY HAD ROOM FOR DESSERT – an oozing chocolate fondant with home-made vanilla ice cream. The place was as good as any Michelin-starred restaurant, without the airs and graces.

As I said, that’s my top 3. There are many more lovely restaurants, but I’ve gone on enough and just writing this has made my mouth gush. But before I go, an honourable mention must go to A Los Bifes (partly because I took a photo of their frontage, partly because they were directly opposite our hotel, but mostly because we had our second best steak there).

I wonder what they serve?

And for a meal with a difference, Astrid & Gaston in Buenos Aires is well worth a visit. They do Peruvian cooking (no guinea pigs though) with a fine dining twist. I know the expression is used far too much (by me, here, for a start) but my main course of ribs with a sort of molasses reduction glaze really did just ‘melt in the mouth’. Ooh, and Freud & Fahle in BA’s Palermo district (like Soho, but without the wankers) is the only restaurant I’ve been to where they serve a cheese platter as a starter. The lamb chops with roasted baby turnips, carrots and leeks were fantastic too.

Ah, Argentina. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so well anywhere else – and my waistband agrees. Muy, muy bien.

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