Buenos Aires has reinvented itself as a South American center of chic, cool surprises
Source: Continental Magazine
By: Ian Mount
The ticket agent at the airport tapped at her keyboard once, twice, again. She raised her face to examine me, the cause of her confusion. She pointedly turned her gaze to the two huge duffel bags I'd piled on the luggage scale. They were close to bursting with three seasons' worth of clothing, 30 pounds of computer equipment, and eight pairs of shoes.
"You only have a one-way ticket. What are you going to do?" she asked, laughing. "Move to Argentina?"
The short answer was yes, though on that day my lack of a visa added a few paragraphs to my reply. I've lived in Buenos Aires since May 2005 - first as a tourist and then as a legal resident. My wife, Cintra, and I bought a house and had a child, and we've watched the city evolve into a travel and business hot spot. When we first arrived, Argentina was still shaking off the humiliation of its 2002 economic collapse, when a currency devaluation took an erstwhile first-world country, whose globetrotting middle class viewed Miami as virtual Argentine terra firma, and returned large chunks of it to painful third-world status. Buenos Aires' villa miseria slums grew; grumbling locals took to vacationing in-country, if at all; faded neoclassical monuments slipped into grimy disrepair; and soccer star Diego Maradona returned from rehab to sing off-key duets with Pelé as the host of a variety show.
The Streets of San Telmo
But things have improved yet again - and how. In the past three and a half years, I've watched Buenos Aires not only recover the prosperity and excitement it had lost, but also gain new pride in its New World history. Whereas many Argentines used to view their nation as practically an outpost of Europe, in the post-crisis years they're continuing to vacation in their own country because they're recognizing how beautiful it is. Every place I've visited, from the high deserts of Salta to the whale-filled coves of Peninsula Valdés, is gussying up to receive those tourists. And in Buenos Aires, entrepreneurs are feverishly renovating historic buildings into restaurants, shops, hotels, and galleries. Yes, the city is still a chaotic metropolis where stop signs are purely ornamental and littering is only wrong when other people do it. But the economic crisis created a kind of cultural greenhouse in which Argentines have grown to appreciate what they have at home. In the process, it has made Buenos Aires a better place.
In attempting to describe Argentina to visiting friends, it's easy to oversimplify and say that it's not the Latin America of tequila and tacos. But what is most attractive about Buenos Aires these days is the way it bangs together its European and South American sides without worrying too much about the rules. I was reminded of this happy collision of cultures in August when I joined hundreds of art scenesters, neighborhood locals, and tipsy expatriates sipping champagne at a former by-the-hour motel (a telo) called Pussy Cat. The new owners were about to tear it down to make way for a luxury apartment tower - but before doing so they had temporarily opened it to host an experimental art installation.
Within a mile of my house in the upscale bohemia of Palermo - two blocks from Pussy Cat - I can explore the gamut, from the stadium where one of the world's premier polo events, the Argentine Open, takes place each December, to spots like the Niceto Club, a nightspot where DJs and rappers mix Euro-style techno with homegrown South American beats like cumbia.
How does Buenos Aires manage to blend so many sides? I ask my friend Grant Dull, an American music producer who moved here in 1999 and now runs Zizek, a popular Niceto Club party. "Because it's a country of immigrants, full of seeping influences, being a hotbed of experimentation comes naturally for Buenos Aires," he says. And now that the country has moved beyond the crisis of 2002, he adds, "it's once again a really international city."
A black bean plantain empanada, guacamole cream, and roasted corn yacón salsa at Casa Felix; front façade of Malba, the Latin American Art Museum, at dusk; Till Cafe in Palermo Viejo; dining at Casa Felix.
I know I should be ashamed to say it, but the attraction of Argentine cuisine eluded me when I first arrived here. As much as I moaned with ecstasy at biting into the country's celebrated steaks, I couldn't help but think that the country's diet of "steak, pasta, pizza, repeat" showed a lack of creativity. But in the past few years, Buenos Aires has seen a boom in restaurants specializing in gourmet versions of indigenous South American food. Dishes featuring quinoa (a couscous-like grain) and pacu (a piranha relative) are now common on local menus. But I've found the most exciting experimental plates in the tiny in-home private restaurants known as puertas cerradas - literally, "closed doors" - that have become a hot trend in Buenos Aires.
Nine months after I arrived, my friend Pablo took me to a puerta cerrada. On a typical block in residential Palermo - a cobblestone street with a mix of comfortably lived-in French and art deco houses, evening light flickering through London plane trees - we tapped an unmarked door and entered Casa Felix (54.11.4555.1882; diegofelix.com). Chef Diego Felix, 33, and his American girlfriend, Sanra Ritten, spent the evening bringing out a menu that reflected Felix's desire to create a pre-European "local" cuisine. There was chupilca, a Patagonian drink made with the grain gofio; Bolivian peanut soup made with the aromatic Peruvian herb huacatay; and grouper served with grilled corn and a Bolivian lime crème fraîche.
The 4,000-bottle vinoteca at the Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau
Felix spent two years traveling in Latin America and another two living in San Francisco, voyages that have made him a kind of culinary anthropologist. In the garden behind Casa Felix, the chef grows herbs like paico and incayuyo that he brought back from the Córdoba foothills, plants that he combines with Andean ingredients and cooks using Japanese, Mexican, and European techniques. "Maybe it won't be the best thing you ever had," he told me with an impish grin. "But it will be something you've never tasted before, because the ingredients only grow here."
There's something especially intimate about eating dinner on the patio at Casa Felix - 12 people, one sitting, three nights a week - and I felt a similar intimacy when I first walked up the stairs to Casa Coupage (54.11.4833.6354; casacoupage.com.ar). In a restored 1920s French-style house that also doubles as their home, proprietors Inés Mendieta and Santiago Mymicopulo have created a 15-seat private restaurant where the food serves as a foil to Argentine wines. Like Felix, Mendieta and Mymicopulo have lived abroad - spending time in Spain and in Nicaragua, where they opened their first puerta cerrada - and their restaurant shows a similar mix of worldy knowledge and Argentine pride.
While my wife and I and sat with our friends at a table that was lit from beneath in order to reveal the shadings of the wines, Mendieta and Mymicopulo handed us a sequence of unlabeled bottles of flavor essences brought over from France. The idea was to train our palates by divining the contents of the bottles so we could later identify the flavors of the wines paired with our dinner (the couple puts on twice-weekly meals and blind tastings on Wednesdays). The almost all-Argentine wine list - which runs up to $210 a bottle - and the place's popularity are a sign of the reborn Argentine wine scene, Mymicopulo told me. "We couldn't have existed a decade ago. Not long ago, winemakers didn't even know what grapes they had planted," he said. "If we'd opened 10 years ago, no one would have understood why they had to pay for a wine tasting, or that there was a difference between wines."
Enjoying some downtime in the lobby of the Krista Hotel Boutique in Palermo Hollywood
As much as I love the new wave, however, it's good to know that not all Buenos Aires restaurants are run by culinary experimentalists. When I need Buenos Aires comfort food - a sizable serving of steak - I visit Pedro Marafuschi's threadbare but modestly elegant Social La Lechuza (Uriarte 1980; 54.11.4773.2781). In this eight-year-old joint, which Marafuschi opened in the front parlor and hall of his childhood home, the roof leaks, the walls are covered with pictures of owls (lechuzas) and celebrity customers, and the owner's nonagenarian mother can be found in the back patio shelling beans next to a caged parrot shouting "Hola! Hola!" And the beef is perfect. Every time I leave following a dinner here, stubble-faced Marafuschi is out front. After asking how my food was, he jokingly imitates my regular reply - "Delicious, like always" - and pats me on the shoulder like that distant Argentine uncle I never had.
Reinvention and Preservation
For years, Buenos Aires didn't seem to like its past. Thousands of art deco and French academy masterpieces have been torn down in the name of progress. I still watch sadly as buildings get whacked to make way for Miami-style apartment towers. Every time I see a worker take a sledgehammer to a plaster doorway detail I feel a sad pang, as I love the way the city takes its European aspirations to excess, and how its cafés and eateries aim for a design that's more French than the French. (For example, every restaurant I've described has the seemingly mandatory black-and-white tile floors.)
Archeological finds at El Zanjón de los Granados
A wave of restorations has brought Buenos Aires' past to the forefront, however. Plenty are already attracting attention. Property developer Alan Faena - known for his standard uniform of white suit and cowboy hat - turned an old brick grain warehouse in the city's port into the sexy, Philippe Starck-designed Faena Hotel + Universe (54.11.4010.9000; faenahotelanduniverse.com), where rooms start at $495 a night. A century-old French mansion in Recoleta became Milion (milion.com.ar), a luxuriously decadent bar-restaurant. And just two years ago, Park Hyatt turned the Duhau family's decrepit palace - neighbor to the home of the Vatican's Argentine representative - into one of the city's most desirable hotels (see "Sleep Easy," left).
But much of Buenos Aires' renovated past can also be found in quieter spots. In Palermo, the onetime home/office of Juan Perón's doctor, Raúl Matera, is now the Krista Hotel (kristahotel.com.ar), where historic details like marble floors, high wainscotting, and elaborate stained glass take visitors back to the 1930s and the golden age of tango. When I want to go further back, I travel south to one of Buenos Aires' earliest neighborhoods, San Telmo, where the job of turning up soil for a tree can easily become an archeological dig.
During my first months in Buenos Aires, I was invited to an opening at the Wussmann Art Gallery and Print Shop (Venezuela 5714, 54.11.4343.4707; wussmann.com), in a 1780 building recently renovated by owner César Menegazzo Cané. I quickly found myself more drawn to the historic building and the print shop than to the gallery art. I put in an order for business cards when I learned that the shop printed with a Gordon hand-set letterpress dating from 1869. While wandering the shop, I grew fascinated with a partial glass floor that showed the centuries-old underground cisterns, tunnels, and well that Cané found while renovating the building. "The building was at the edge of collapse when I bought it in 1999," he told me. "I was eager to conserve the warm memories of a time that was less technological and more artisanal."
The Wussmann Art Gallery and Print Shop
Just a few blocks away stands one of the most strangely wonderful monuments to Argentina's past. If nothing else, El Zanjón de Granados (Defensa 755, 54.11.4361.3002; elzanjon.com.ar) is a testament to industrial chemist Jorge Eckstein's fixation with taking out the trash. In 1985, Eckstein bought a decrepit 1830 building - originally a mansion, then a boarding house, then a dump - with the intention of turning it into an office. Cleaning out the garbage, he discovered a subterranean trove of catacombs, with hundreds of artifacts, such as slave shackles, dating back to the city's founding. Over two decades the building became Eckstein's architectural obsession as he renovated it into an underground museum and event space. "This place is a reconciliation of the past with the present, of commerce with culture," he tells me excitedly as we step out of the tunnels into one of the three open-air plazas. Then, sounding like a man who's seen the light, he says, "You can't buy time." He means, I like to think, that just as you can't buy time to live, you can't replace a past that's been demolished.
As a city, Buenos Aires feels like it's figured that out as well. This is not to say that Argentina is in the clear for good. My wife's Argentine doctor once told her that the country is like a marriage: "We need a crisis every seven years." But while prices are rising from the absurdly low levels that followed the economic collapse of 2002, every time I walk by a building site or see a pack of people gathered outside a new gallery opening, I'm reminded how the city vibrates with excitement.- Ian Mount
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