I have barely shut the door behind me and Mariano Ramón launches into our interview. He bounces out of his seat from behind the bar, gives me a firm handshake and walks me in a circle around a tight kitchen that has been recently remodeled. He dives straight into the menu, going through a mental list to point out the structure of the cocina and his excitement over a parrilla that they’ve just installed. They are inaugurating the grill with an artichoke dish and he is visibly ecstatic about being able to introduce a brand new plate.
Gran Dabbang opened three years ago on the outskirts of Palermo Soho—before that side of Scalabrini Ortiz attracted new restaurants like NOLA, Proper, La Alacena and Opio. Ramón’s dream was to open a nursery for cooks with a café attached with his English wife Phillipa Robson. “It was a complete fantasy,” he admits. The couple didn’t have the savings to invest and couldn’t find a property in Buenos Aires to house the idea. They settled on a little restaurant with a relatively small twelve dish menu. Much of the original menu remains.
“There are dishes on here that we just can’t take off. We have customers that eat here once a week and if we get rid of something, we get in trouble,” Ramón explains, pointing out the pakora.
Long dark green leaves of swiss chard are quickly blanched, tossed into a chickpea flour based batter and deep fried until the batter bubbles and puffs out. Thin streaks of Sriracha sauce and in-house-made yogurt waterfall down and leak onto a simple tin platter. A spoonful of sweet carrot chutney sits on the side. You’re meant to eat it with your hands and lick your fingers. The batter pops audibly with each bite and leaves tiny crumbs on the table that I eagerly pick up with the tips of my fingers.
“I want people to make a mess. I want the table to be stained with sauce and crumbs. I want people to share and eat with their hands,” says Ramón.
The dish is emblematic of Gran Dabbang. Many people would call Dabbang an Indian restaurant but the influence is more far flung than that. Ramón spent years working alongside Argentine cooking giant Narda Lepes, accompanying her on a continuous stream of projects. He traveled through Western Europe and worked in Spain where he left disappointed because of the technique heavy cooking approach. “I would learn all of these techniques that weren’t applicable to an Argentine restaurant. So I always felt like I was learning a lot and nothing at all.”
When he found himself in New Zealand and eventually exploring India, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, he found his palate. “The cooking was much more flavor based, sweet with acidic, with spicy, with bitter. Really complete flavors.” Rather than taking on the impossible task of re-creating distant dishes back in Buenos Aires, Ramon and his team “attempt to separate dishes from their origins and just focus on the ways that different flavors interact.”
This gives room for Argentine flavors to be re-interpreted with a more global eye. Like a yucca root and sheep cheese bread, inspired by Northeast Argentine chipá. It is served with a jalapeño sauce, pickled red onion, shiso seeds, huacatay and cilantro. The dish takes root in Argentina, adds elements from Peru and is eaten with your hands similar to an Indian curry, dipping the bread into a communal sauce dish.
Although many of the dishes have remained on the menu, ingredients are swapped out based on seasonality and plates are ‘finalized’ based around an interactive tasting model. “We come up with an idea and introduce it without doing a lot of testing in the kitchen. The first version of that dish to go out will be a lot different than the tenth. We test different things throughout the night, the plating, a sauce, and go out and ask people what they liked and didn’t like.”
Uncommon meats and cuts are used frequently. “I think it’s important to popularize ingredients that are often reserved for specific restaurants. We use some of the same ingredients and suppliers as Tegui, for example.” The lamb curry is made with galangal and coconut milk and eaten with paper thin roti. And Dabbang serves quail with guava and pickled plums. I particularly liked a dish that has already been taken off the menu, lamb sweet breads slightly charred on the grill and served with cilantro and a citrusy tomato chutney.
A head of romaine lettuce is chopped in half lengthwise and topped with a poached egg, spicy fermented chili and peanut is an interesting take on a “high end” salad with a low down attitude. The clumps of chili explode on the tongue and are tapered by gooey egg yolk. For dessert, dark chocolate is topped with guava and sweet honey. The chocolate is intensely bitter and clears the palate.
The team is currently trying to figure out how to axe the burrata from the menu and they’re feeling the pressure. “We’ve taken it off before and customers take it personally. There was a lot of argument. It’s good though. People feel like this is their place.”
Av. Scalabrini Ortiz 1543, Palermo
Monday through Saturday 8pm to midnight