All it took was a photograph of the “Kentucky Fried Codorniz” to get me on a bus straight to San Telmo. A small quail breaded and deep fried and served with the talons in tact and slightly curled underneath the heat of the oil. The golden brown fried bird is plated beautifully on a simple white dish over a bed of pickled vegetables and topped with a small fried egg dotted with black pepper. To many, surely, the talons are unnecessary. Grotesque even. A quick cut with some chicken sheers can clip them right out and keep them neatly out of view of the diner. We even debated leading with our own feature photo of the dish in question. Is this going to turn people off from actually reading the article entirely, we wondered.
The evidence was stacked against my defense. Look no further than the Narda Lepes MorciGate scandal that broke after the celebrity chef posted a photograph on her Instagram account of a pig snout poking out of a pot of boiling water with the caption, “Tomorrow I’ll be morcilla.” The internet reacted with wild fury and the Lepes camp refused to back down. A similar reaction was felt by the team at NOLA when they posted a photo of a pig’s head destined for a pozole stock. Half of the responses were in support with the rest proclaiming that they would never return to the restaurant. When I wrote about the San Telmo pub Los Infernales, many of the comments were littered with ‘ews’ over the idea of a chorizo made with ñandu (a large game bird related to ostrich).
Of course, a few talons are hardly the same as a pig’s head, and quail is hardly a stretch of the palate, but the sense of both respecting and acknowledging where food comes from and rebelling against the unwritten rules of running a restaurant in this city is all the same. And it speaks to a larger trend being felt in Buenos Aires restaurants, and particularly in the neighborhood of San Telmo. Chefs and restaurant owners are opening fiercely new ideologies despite the potential backlash from customers set in their ways.
Co-owner and chef Clara Inés of Matambre Comida Salvaje spoke about a recent mix up with a customer when they ran out of ketchup. Matambre makes everything by hand from scratch using seasonal ingredients, and doesn’t budge on the philosophy. “She just couldn’t believe we would serve fries without ketchup. We had used up all the sauce we had made for winter, and don’t plan on making anymore until tomatoes come back into season.” There are, for the record, plenty of other sauces available to dip your fries in.
“I began by thinking, how can I make foods that break the mold of a standard brewery?” begins Andrés Plotno, the young chef and co-owner of the newly minted El Zanjón del Gato. He wanted to get away from the idea that you have to accompany beer with hamburgers and papas bravas, a model made popular by the likes of Antares and cemented by a large majority of the breweries that followed. “It’s a simple idea. A brewery that serves good food.”
Prior to opening the restaurant with his father Jorge (previously the co-owner of Bar BQ) and girlfriend Marianna Michinel, Plotno spent years working and running respected kitchens. His first foray into high end food was during a year and a half stint at Michelin starred Dublin restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. That experience allowed him to become the head chef of the Colegiales restaurant Paraje Arevalo by 24. He recently worked as a consultant for Aramburu. “Paraje Arevalo was the experience that really educated me as a chef,” Plotno explains. The menu changed every month meaning that at the launch of one menu they were already brainstorming the ten dishes for the next tasting menu. “It was really interesting figuring out how much you can do with a small selection of ingredients.”
Decorated with an 8bit tattoo of four Final Fantasy characters on his right arm and a simple grey snapback, Plotno wildly zig zags back and forth around the kitchen baking fresh bread, prepping the night’s sauces, toasting beet leaves and roasting vegetables. As the night picks up, he runs the kitchen alone switching between manning the stove to plating dishes and washing plates and cutlery. On my first visit, our group of six ordered twelve dishes between the lot of us and I rubbernecked the entire night to catch a view through the open kitchen.
The menu is divided into three sections: small, medium and large dishes. Plates are designed to be enjoyed amongst groups of friends, “We don’t serve principales and we don’t hand out individual plates for most of the dishes. The idea is for people to share.” Ingredients are sourced from small vendors with careful attention to using organic products when possible. “We want to know as much about the food we serve as possible. If I could know the quails name and visit each one before we bought them, I would,” Michinel explains laughing, “Like in that episode of Portlandia.”
It’s best to go in a large group and order as much as possible off the menu. Beer is made by local brewers Niño Hereje and styles vary depending on what the home brewers have on hand. The IPA and Brown Ale were lighter ales that had the right amount of bitter to stand alone without taking attention away from the food that followed. Starters include a radish bunch served raw with butter mixed with algae. The crunchy slightly spicy radish is a nice contrast to the creamy fresh butter. Olives from San Juan are marinated in garlic, jalapeño and fresh rosemary giving the oil a subtle sweetness that ends with a light spice. Fight the urge to drink the olive oil.
For a main, diners can order two medium dishes each or share a single large dish. A good tartare is not an easy find. Traditionally, the French staple is seasoned with high quality dijon and often prepared at the table. It requires a steady hand that doesn’t over season the dish with too much mustard, the point is after all to enjoy the flavor of high quality beef. Plotno gets rid of the dijon entirely and mixes his tartare with a buttery sauce with a touch of sriracha served atop a bone and topped with fried balls of bone marrow. The flavoring is light, slightly sweet and slightly spicy and allows for the high quality meat to be the star of the show. A beet salad uses the root three ways: pickled red beets and sweet, golden beets (also pickled, gently salted) and roasted. They are served with crunchy kale chips, sharp gorgonzola cheese and honey. The entire beet is used with roots served intact and the leaves reserved to toast.
The mollejas and Kentucky Fried Codorniz were highlights. The thick slab of sweetbreads was cooked right with a crispy brown outside and a gooey buttery bite. The creamy flavor was offset by an acidic charred white onion and whole cilantro, a rich tahini sauce and a crunchy corn chip made fresh from cancha tostada. The aforementioned quail is lightly floured before being tossed into a deep fryer giving it a thin and crisp flakey skin. I abstained from using a fork and knife; the juicy meat came clean off the bone. Sweet pickled jalapeños, veins and seeds in tact, offer a nice level of spice to even out the seasoned quail skin. The quail egg was fried diner style, with the edges of the egg whites taking on a slightly charred crispness and a yolk that oozed out onto the lightly flavored breading. The shared bife is a T-bone steak that weighs a full kilo and is cooked for 7 hours sous-vide before being pan seared to give it a flavorful crust. An unusual cut in Buenos Aires, the T-bone benefits from a nice bit of marbling that gives the meat a tender texture and slightly fatty flavor. Dishes are plated with an artistic hand but still feel like fitting additions to the informal cantina atmosphere of the space.
For dessert, don’t hesitate to order the pastelito frito “inspired by the apple pie at McDonalds.” Apples are caramelized before being stuffed into a fresh dough and deep fried and served hot. “If he can fry it, you better believe he will,” Michinel giggles. It’s served over a citrusy mascarpone sauce that I licked up while Plotno observed with an approving eye.
El Zanjón del Gato is one of a few projects to step outside the comforts of what it means to be an informal eatery. Even though the dishes are new, the space that the Plotnos and Michinel have created is welcoming and familiar. And although it is sure to confuse a few diners, it will surely not be the last to take the plunge and challenge the local scene’s status quo.
Bolívar 690, San Telmo
Monday through Saturday 8:00pm to midnight
Price: depending on your appetite, $$ (AR $150-250) to $$$ (AR $250-400)