I’m trying to stay on my feet as the bus flies down the Panamericana passing what feels like an endless stream of mega shopping centers and strip malls. The clock is ticking uncomfortably close to my reservation time, and I have just noticed an almost completely faded but still prominently placed fernet stain on my white button down. I feel like I’m committing every faux pas in the book when it comes to lunching at Zona Norte’s most exciting new restaurant.
Alo’s is a small cafe et bistro located in the mostly residential neighborhood of La Horqueta on the southern edge of San Isidro. If teleportation were a thing, one might think they’ve accidentally been zapped into some affluent area of Los Angeles (or Connecticut apparently if you are an East Coaster) rather than the BA burbs with its ivy lined houses and laid back bourgie feel. I raced up the sun speckled Avenida Tomkinson past the herds of golden retrievers being walked by uniformed domestic empleadas and make a hard right up Blanco Escalada before arriving, slightly out of breath, at this cute little restaurant. No matter how many times I’ve been late with zero consequences, I still get anxious and apologetic.
All my yanqui worries washed away when I was greeted with a big smile by Yamila Di Renzo, head pastry chef, and was assured that all was todo tranqui as she ushered me to a high chair at the bar.
“Would you like something to drink?” she asks.
“Yeah, something cold please.”
“How about a bottle of beer?” I like this place already.
She shuffles past the three chefs working away in the kitchen that opens up onto the bright and airy space. They are working in complete harmony, prepping each plate with a surgeon’s precision. A wire shelf up above houses spice jars of different shapes and sizes. Cookbooks from some of the world’s most famous restaurants, including the bible of them all, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, line the wall behind the bar. There is more window than there is wall, and the natural light envelopes the space and its wood and cement adornments with a lovely midday glow.
Yamila returns with a red ale by Harris, which is made just next door. She points out that the man seated at the table behind me is the restaurant’s gardener, who has come in for a Saturday lunch with his wife and kids. The restaurant feels oddly casual considering that the cooks are meticulously arranging the food on the dishes with specially chosen spatulas and tweezers. Nearly the entire staff are sporting tattoos, and are dressed in flannel, jeans and sneakers under their white chefs coats. Outkast’s SpottieOttieDopaliscious fades out and some Erykah Badu fades in on the stereo. Everyone jokes and banters familiarly.
Alo’s opened a year and a half ago, and is the first restaurant by chef Alejandro Feraud, whose CV includes The Ritz Paris as well as a slew of restaurants in Spain, New Zealand and Thailand. Together with his team, they create a seasonal menu which changes every three months based on ingredients grown in their own on-site garden and the freshest local and organic products available. Sprinkles of the team’s time abroad are seen in all the dishes, which mixes classical or traditional plates with a fresh modern approach.
“We spend about a month brainstorming a new menu as a team, and even when we aren’t actively working on the menu we are in a constant creative process. Everyone offers ideas and tastes new stuff all the time. We take all these wild ideas and try to meet the consumer somewhere in the middle, and break the dishes down into something that is simple but also pushes people somewhere new. The aesthetic is also always really important to us, we want the customer to be immediately wowed.”
One of the young cooks starts prepping my appetizer, an empanada with four different kinds of mushrooms and gruyere. He assembles it right in front of me, carefully adding the filling before folding the masa shut. After a short bake the empanada gets pulled out, and is carefully placed onto a plate with a pesto-ish puree and a criolla salsa. It tasted earthy with a slight sour tang, and the gruyere slips in some extra depth of flavor. The appetizer is quickly followed by a salad filled with greens, grilled asparagus, fried asparagus skin, and burrata. It’s light and summery, and is the perfect accent to a warm afternoon and great choice for cleansing the palate after the robust flavors that preceded it. A nearly all green salad feels like a deceptively simple, but probably meticulously thought out idea.
I watch the two young chefs put together my main dish, and the French influences that Feraud inherited in Paris become quite apparent. Every utensil is chosen for a specific purpose, and each cook watches over the other to make sure the plate is presented as best it can. When a pickled white beetroot is placed more haphazardly than the lead chef would care to see, he pulls out his tweezers and readjusts. No detail escapes inspection.
The main dish is corvina with beet prepared four different ways: roasted, pureed, pickled and baked in the form of a sponge cake. Each preparation gives the beet, normally a hearty flavored vegetable, a different tone to compliment the meaty fish. My favorite is the roasted beets, which were so soft that they fell right apart when I bit into them, and were cooked just enough to bring out a sweet flavor. The French influence isn’t the only thing apparent here, you can see the way Feraud and his team have studied the books that line their shelves – which also includes Nobu and Momofuku – and incorporated those philosophies into this dish that in a less laid back restaurant would feel pretentious, but at Alo’s feels easy and playful.
By the time dessert rolls out I’ve finished my beer and they are wrapping up lunch service and prepping for dinner. Stay around long enough and you can help wipe wine glasses, they joke with me. The dessert is an orchestra of fruity flavors, with fresh mango and berries on top of a lime and coconut cream and scoop of strawberry sorbet.
The flavors lingered on my tongue long after I had said my thank yous and left the restaurant. As I embarked on the long exodus back to Almagro, I said a prayer wishing that Alo’s would open a restaurant in Capital sometime in the near future or that teletransportation becomes an actual thing. I’ll be totally content with whichever comes first.