I only ate at Astor one time and it was magic. It was the summer of 2015 and I was showing up late to a party at the restaurant everyone had been talking about since it opened in 2013. It was a picture I spotted on facebook that finally convinced me: a plate of wagyu carpaccio dressed in fresh greens and dotted with a slew of sauces. Wagyu simply means ‘Japanese cow’ although it it is sold on the market named after the region it comes from, hence kobe beef, and is known for its intense marbling.
A good carpaccio is a balance of many things. It’s part science: only the freshest meat chosen from a cut encased in fat will keep the diner from getting sick. Part technique: cut it too thin and it falls right apart but too thick and it becomes a grotesque chew. And part skill: too much citrus or vinegar and you lose the purity of the meat flavor, which is the only reason you order a red meat carpaccio in the first place. Astor’s carpaccio nailed all three, and to this day remains one of the most decadent dishes I’ve ever eaten. Before I could repeat the experience, Astor closed its doors.
Restaurants close all the time, but Astor’s shuttering up felt bitter. It Is one of many restaurants built by young chefs who adopted a value for local seasonal ingredients plated with a careful eye for artistic detail. Few, however, have been able to replicate the way one felt walking into Astor. At the small Colegiales restaurant, the high end menu was served in the absence of high end pretension. The open kitchen and subway tiles didn’t feel like it was just another restaurant hopping on to the interior design trend and the Cabaio stencil on the wall didn’t feel like forced hipster chic. It all flowed, and with the exception of Alo’s out in La Horqueta or the Once closed door Kill the Duck (which coincidentally is run by an old Astor cook), not many places come to mind that share the same haute cuisine and welcoming vibes.
So when Soriano announced that he had abandoned his plans to reopen Astor in San Telmo to instead take over the kitchen at the Park Hyatt, from an outsider’s perspective it seemed like an odd decision.
The Park Hyatt is located on prime real estate on the border of Retiro and Recoleta in the Palacio Duhau, a French neo-classical dream along an avenue filled with gorgeous old facades. Inside is even more spectacular, with grand hallways outfitted with enormous chandeliers, rich wood floors and doors shipped in from France. There is a bar filled with rich oak, cuban cigars, whiskey and scotch and brash looking business men. On the other side of the wall is the Piano Nobile, which although lacking a piano, feels like stepping onto the set of Marie Antoinette with its high ceilings, lush blue furniture and view of the gardens below which make eating a plate of brightly colored macarons feel all the more appropriate.
“I did everything that I could with Astor. I took the restaurant as far as it could go, and I’m very proud of that,” Soriano begins, “I don’t know what its future holds. Someday it could come back but getting a job offer here was only going to come along once.” Standing above six feet, Soriano’s physical presence is dwarfed by his affability. Dressed in his white kitchen coat and Clark Kent glasses, he smiles warmly throughout our conversation and pauses frequently to ask every staff member who passes how they are. Everyone lights up when they cross his path, and as we walk through Gioia — one of the three restaurants on the property — the diner’s silently take notice.
In many ways, a job at a hotel of this caliber is a dream come true for a chef. The infrastructure is a complete 180 from a small restaurant. “I thought when I was going through the job description that I was going to have to negotiate my philosophy into the contract,” he explains, “but everything I wanted [sic] going to the Mercado Central three or four times a week, using local seasonal ingredients, only buying high quality products from vendors that specialize in what they sell, having a team that shared that philosophy, it already existed here.”
Soriano and his team are currently in the process of redesigning all the restaurants’ menus which will be launched in the coming months. For now, he is working with the menus’ designed by the previous head chef. Still, various events that the Palacio Duhau are putting on to celebrate their tenth anniversary are giving a taste of a new era. Just last week, Soriano invited a handful of the city’s most renowned chefs and restaurateurs to take over the garden, including Martin Rebaudino (Roux), Anthony Vazquez (La Mar), Rodrigo Castilla (Las Pizarras) and Gonzalo Aramburu (Aramburu). Winter Sessions is a music event that invites DJs to take over the aforementioned piano room with live music and h’ordeuvres.
Fingers crossed that a few dishes stick on the Piano Nobile menu with a Soriano stamp added on top. The Croque Madame, a typical French ham, cheese and egg sandwich, made for an ideal breakfast on a cold winter morning. Served in a stainless steel au gratin pan, the sandwich was transformed into a sort of casserole, with layers of a slightly toasty bread, meaty slices of baked ham and a rich smattering of bechamel and crunchy cheese. The roundness of a poached egg isn’t just a test of skill, but to its quality and freshness. My eyes mistook the perfectly rounded egg for a scoop of a thick cream cheese; a prick of my knife revealed its gooey yolk center. Let the waitress know that yes you would like some of that crusty baguette and wipe up the remains. The slightly nutty cheese taste stuck on my tongue long after the meal was over.
The cheeseburger is a defiantly simple looking dish: meat, bun, cheese, and the classic tomato, onion, pickle and lettuce combo. In a city where most hamburger restaurants have strayed far from the classic in order to stand out as the best, the site of a burger that would fit in nicely to a backyard barbecue was a refreshing change of pace. The meat, however, is aged in barley downstairs before being ground and seasoned. It was cooked medium rare with a nice crispy fat layer on the outside and a juicy red from within. The cheese is specially made and left on display at the wine bar; it tastes like a real sharp cheddar. Sides were notably fresh and the homemade sesame seed bun was toasted to make sure that it didn’t all come crumbling apart.
For lighter dishes, the fish of the day is grilled skin on and served over a bed of paper thin sliced vegetables. Ask for the pumpkin puree, sweet and whipped to a smooth cream texture and goes well with everything. Arugula and bits of dried ham and nuts bury a treasure trove of fresh burrata and requires just a dash of olive oil.
For dessert, the macarons were hard to beat. I don’t typically like merengue and haven’t found a macaron in Buenos Aires that captured the moist texture that one should have; I was hesitant to try from the tray of four that comes with a coffee. To my surprise, pastry chef Damián Betular got it just right. A smooth top with just the slightest bite resistance that melts away once it hits your tongue. The only thing to top them was a chocolate covered ice cream stick served with more chocolate, more ice cream and fresh strawberries.
“There is a lot of freedom here,” Soriano comments with a big smile, “I’m doing what I’ve always been doing, just bigger.” Until Soriano’s first round of original menus are released, it’s hard to say what exactly to expect from the Palacio Duhau 10th year and onward, but if Soriano’s independent spirit and Duhau’s brand of familiar food for the bon vivant are any indication, great things will surely come.
Av. Alvear 1661, Recoleta
Hours vary depending on restaurant
Prices vary from $$$ (ARS 250-400) and $$$$ (> ARS 400)