The stakes are high at Inmigrante. This is the first restaurant opening for Leandro Di Mare, known amongst local food geeks as the head chef of the famed (albeit now defunct) Tarquino. The latter was known for its over the top vanguard approach and accompanying price tag inspired heavily by executive chef Dante Liporace’s coming up at elBulli. The relationship to Ferran Adrià’s Valencia restaurant is a common thread amongst Buenos Aires’ high end chefs that identify themselves with the new Argentine cuisine movement. Liporace currently runs the kitchen at the Casa Rosada. “I needed to move away from that world,” explains Di Mare, “This is the kind of restaurant that nourishes me.” It makes sense when you meet him in person. The boyish looking chef greeted me in blue bathing trunks and a baseball cap, a knife and spoon tattooed on each arm and the phrase el reggae me lo cura on his forearm.
Nueva cocina Argentina is a tricky enterprise because of restaurants just like Tarquino. Walking into the decadent space, you were welcomed by a soft avalanche of foreign tongues. You’ll find the same at most restaurants of the style. When you’re dealing with double digit tasting menus that’s to be expected – offering a 10, 12 or even 18 course meal with wine accompaniment and a menu stocked with high skilled techniques, organic products, along with meats and produce sourced from independent farms from the country’s furthest reaches. It begs the question, is that really new Argentine cuisine if most locals can’t afford a seat at the table?
My answer: yes and no. Much in the way that couture runway dictates what eventually reaches the masses, the Buenos Aires vanguard is slowly trickling down and more accessible projects like La Carniceria, Alo’s, El Zanjon del Gato, Los Infernales, Matambre and now, Inmigrante, are beginning to truly define an emerging culinary identity.
Family is the most present theme of Inmigrante’s identity. “I’m a tano,” Di Mare proudly proclaims, “Family is a part of everything here.” The space itself is a nearly century old casa chorizo on the eastern edge of Palermo Soho. The entire family invested in the business rather than seeking money from outsiders and once a space was found everyone pitched in to rebuild, paint and plant a small garden patch. Di Mare’s engineer father built every piece of furniture and welded the enormous logo that hangs at the entryway. Wait staff opens the door and greets guests with a warm welcome, Di Mare often walks through the dining room to chat with regulars.
Recipes are borrowed from his family cookbook and other classic dishes that arrived with the immigrants and over time were adapted and bastardized into what is now local porteño cuisine. “I find it more difficult to cook this kind of food than what I cooked during my fine dining days,” he asserts. His partner Daiana Carena chimes in, “if you read a menu and order something like an organic poached egg cooked with seasonal sprouts and green foam, you either like it or you don’t. But a milanesa [sic] everyone comes with their own parameter of what a milanesa should taste like.” And therein lies the challenge, taking the cuisine and the guests to flavors and places that are at once both brand new and familiar.
The menu changes both with the season and Di Mare’s mood, the latest version is named after his grandfather Rafael. It is divided into a wide selection of shared tapas and entradas and a handful of mains to encourage people to order family-style. All guests are greeted with a never-ending supply of complimentary water, a huge plus in my book, and a changing amuse-bouche. We were treated to pickled broccoli stalk and freshly baked bread.
The tortilla de la bruja is borrowed from his mother’s version and is “far from a tortilla española.” His version adds sweet glazed onions. The gramajo, an Argentine take on scrambled eggs is stripped down to the basics: crispy waffle fries, fresh peas picked off the vine and lightly sauteed and a poached egg. Diners are meant to scramble the mixture themselves. The broken yolk mixed with the potato and peas like a soft silk that weaved all the flavors together. A rich slice of ham that had been glazed in honey and beer added an unexpected saccharine sweetness alongside a salsa criolla that brought the dish back down to Earth. His re-interpretation was the defining dish: high end technique with a cantina-style attitude.
Chinchulines, those long tangles of small intestines normally scooted over to the side of a subpar parrillada, was the surprise favorite. They are vigorously cleaned before being cooked sous-vide and finished over the grill. They tore apart easily with the knife and had just the right amount of chew to enjoy the slightly charred exterior and savory butter flavor of the intestines. They were served over slightly sweet corn, pancetta and slices of preserved lemon. The entraña is the house favorite and amongst the simplest dishes on the menu. The meat is marinated in a chimichurri sauce before being grilled. The outside had a delightful saltiness that gave way to the rich velvety flavor of a flank steak. It is served with ensalada rusa, his version is made with baby potatoes which are halved and doused with a heavy hand of homemade mayo.
For dessert, a 20 yolk flan tasted like a cloud made out of caramel and vanilla. The torta cacho is a cake that Di Mare grew up eating. Cacho was the owner of his neighborhood panaderia, El Vicente Lopez, a neighborhood staple for generations. “Here I’m inspired by my families recipes: my mom, my dad and Cacho.” In lieu of a wine list, guests are asked to walk over to the bar and grab a bottle of their liking. You can also bring the wine of your choosing for a small corking fee. Cocktails lean towards the classics, like the Coloradito, the it-drink of the 1950s. It is a mixture of Campari and vermouth and a slice of lemon. Its male counterpart, El Pato is made with gin, vermouth and a splash of Campari and Cointreau.
The future of Inmigrante is ambitious. They classify themselves as a grosseria, Italian for grocery store or almacén. Anyone can drop in and buy preserves, sauces and beginning next month growlers of their own beer. This week they are launching a regular Friday event with street style tapas with laid-back dishes of choripan and milanesa sandwiches served with vermouths and beer. “We want this to feel like a family space, where everyone, whether it’s you or your grandmother feels comfortable and welcomed.” Creating an identity is about creating a community, and that’s where Inmigrante is headed.
Cabrera 4667, Palermo Soho
Wednesday through Saturday 8:00pm to 12:30am
Price: $$$, > AR $400 per person