I could hear my dish pop and sear as it exited the kitchen. The waiter walked hurriedly across the dining room carrying a hot stone adorned with thick slabs of raw surubi. A cloud of white smoke billowed in his path. Diners momentarily paused their chatter to turn their heads in a singular wave. After ten days of slowly traveling up the northeast region of Misiones, I had found what I had been looking for at J Alta Cocina, a manicured hotel restaurant on the edge of Puerto Iguazu.
I had expected to find surubi sashimi in Oberá. The small ciudad de inmigrantes is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Buenos Aires. I was unpleasantly surprised to hear that locals preferred farmed salmon and shrimp from the other side of the country over native river fish from their backyard. I ordered pacu, dorado and more surubi every chance I could and wondered why the locals I traveled with routinely stuck to milanesas and french fries.
The dry jerky texture of surubi was so constant that I assumed it was characteristic of the local fish. Later I realized it was being left on the parrilla all afternoon until someone strayed from their milanga con fritas order. I struggled to identify the actual flavor of pacu underneath the cloak of sour blue cheese that came melted on top. A rich cut of dorado in my Posadas hotel was a highlight of the trip even though the waiter strained to understand why I would suggest serving it with regional herbs and produce rather than a dry beet risotto. Misiones is the most biodiverse region in the country, but the food was—generally speaking—completely undistinguishable from a Buenos Aires bodegón.
Owner and head chef Javier Sanchez arrived to Puerto Iguazu for the first time in 1996 with the Sheraton. The Buenos Aires native didn’t find the decision simple. “When I came here, there was nothing in terms of restaurant culture,” he explained, “There weren’t any trained cooks and the quality of ingredients was sparse and unreliable.” The tourism industry has exploded over the last few years and the uneven growth of the city is visible via the dirt roads through ramshackle neighborhoods that lead to five star hotels—restaurants are just beginning to catch up with J being one of few to push boundaries of regional offerings.
“It took me about a year to really feel comfortable here,” Sanchez recounts, “I didn’t have any experience with river fish or any of the native plants and produce.” To combat his lack of knowledge, he began spending days in the jungle with local Guarani. “When I was in el monte I saw trees, leaves and bushes. They saw food and medicine.” Sanchez worked with the Sheraton until 2003 before being transferred to work in Punta del Este. He returned two years ago to open J Alta Cocina, which mixes regional food with larger reaching Argentine fare.
When I announced to Marisol Arroyo, the restaurant’s hostess, that I would exclusively be eating fish her eyes widened. “You have to order the grilled Pacu,” she suggested as she poured the first glass of Sauvignon Blanc by Escorihuela Gascon, “That is a very traditional preparation in Misiones.” The menu is a marriage of Sanchez’ local vision mixed with the reality of a city that depends completely on tourism—South American diners lean towards an image of European cuisine whereas Europeans and North Americans seek out local. The room is filled with an orchestra of Brazilian Portuguese—the largest set of customers—and is only offset by a giggly group of Italian women and a family of eight New Yorkers.
The dough for the crispy brown empanada is made with a mixture of mandioca and corn flour—grains of corn add a durable crunch. Cubes of surubi are cooked with red and green bell pepper and seasoned with a layered grapefruit and orange broth. The fruit juice softened the fish into a buttery texture and adds touches of sour and sweet to earthy surubi. The sashimi de surubi was the highlight, and not just because of its theatrical presentation. Surubi is a bottom feeding fish that eats anything and when chosen poorly can taste muddy and bitter. It is the thicker meat along the loins that provide a rich fresh flavor. Thick cuts of fish are soaked in coconut milk before being arranged on a hot stone and topped with a mango creating two levels of sweetness—a creamy coco and the attention seeking sour mango to pull out flavor from the delicate fat of the fish.
Grilled pacu came served with a smashed potato, chimichurri, criolla and lime wedges. A thin browned top layer and crispy skin underneath contrasted with the moist white meat. Although slightly over-salted, the vinegar and lime pulled out a meatier flavor that stood apart from the freshness of the appetizers. For dessert, I chose the dish that felt the most local—philo dough rolled with a coconut cream and accompanied with pineapple ice cream and tropical fruits. The creamy coconut paired nicely with the acidic pineapple although I would have added a deeper flavor and contrasting texture—crumbled chocolate, a warm nut based sauce or a rich honey to add more complexity to the fruity tang.
A touch of innovation to local flavors is exactly what I needed to wrap up a ten day search. And although I wish that the menu was filled with a longer list of well-crafted interpretations of regional culinary tradition, I’m dreaming of the day I can return for that surubi sashimi.
J Alta Cocina
Hipolito Irigoyen y San Lorenzo, Puerto Iguazu
Sunday through Thursday 12:00 to 15:00 and 19:00 to 23:00
Friday and Saturday 12:00 to 15:00 and 19:00 to 23:45