Algodon Wine Estates

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Buenos Aires for Those Who Shun Steaks

Source: New York Times
By: Tanvi Chheda
03.07.2010


Arevalito, which offers five or six dishes in a rotating menu, is among the vegetarian restaurants (it bills itself as “meatless”) in Buenos Aires.

IT was over a bowl of delicious, spicy-sweet peanut soup with pesto made from huacatay, or Andean black mint, that I realized the vegetarian diner was now perfectly welcome in Buenos Aires. As a vegetarian traveling in a country where beef takes center stage, I expected my meals to be relegated to an assortment of side dishes — sautéed greens, some variation of potatoes — supplemented by the occasional granola bar. For many, myself included, the diet is not just a daily choice, but a way of life. I am a practicing Jain — a member of an ancient Indian religion that espouses ahimsa, or nonviolence toward all living beings — and my diet forbids all meat, poultry, fish and even eggs, though it does allow milk and cheese.

But during a recent visit, I was happily surprised, if not downright triumphant, to discover a cluster of recently opened restaurants serving tasty and fresh vegetarian fare. Largely concentrated in the fashionable Palermo Hollywood neighborhood and its fringes, the restaurants tend toward the homey and casual — and they cater to the full spectrum of diners who don’t eat meat.

Casa Felix

A puertas cerradas (literally “closed doors”) or private restaurant, Casa Felix offers a fine-dining experience in the charming whitewashed home of the Argentine chef Diego Felix and his wife, Sanra, in the Chacarita neighborhood. Guests, generally a dozen or so per meal, dine by appointment only (reservations can be made by phone or e-mail) and to their personal specifications (e-mailed well in advance): vegan, gluten-free, pescetarian and so forth. (Meat eaters are also welcome.) Dimly lighted and cozy, the setting provides ample opportunity to mingle with other diners.

My five-course meal began with a botanical lesson in the Felixes’ backyard, where the chef pulled at branches, plucking leaves of pineapple sage and lemon balm before passing them off to be scratched and sniffed. Those homegrown herbs and vegetables (he also grows heirloom tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, arugula and more) were the centerpieces of the menu to come.

First up, that revelatory peanut soup. Though I tend to prefer to keep my spicy and sweet separate, I was impressed by the creamy soup, which balanced nutty sweetness with just a few drops of chili oil and a teaspoon of pesto. The corn-and-squash humita — a South American dish similar to the Mexican tamale — was comforting, moist and filling. Served with a dollop of organic ricotta on top, it resembled pie à la mode. Soon the real dessert arrived: rum-soaked and sautéed apple slices, paired with a granola-like almond and date crust and kumquat cream. I quickly gobbled it up.

Casa Felix, (54-11) 4555-1882; diegofelix.com. Dinner for two, 300 Argentine pesos, or about $80 at 3.8 pesos to the dollar.

Meraviglia

This organic bakery and cafe is blissfully laid-back, the kind of place where morning meals go on for hours and newspapers are still spread open across tables at closing time in the early evening. Breakfast attracts mostly tourists; Porteños, as residents are called, are typically late risers. But by lunch, the place is bustling with local moms and strollers.

Meraviglia was the dream of Mariana Chami, 31, who is usually standing behind the register when not serving patrons. Ms. Chami suffered from acute arthritis as a child and at the suggestion of her doctor went vegetarian when she was 13. The diet seemed to cure her medical woes and she’s never turned back. When it came to creating a healthy menu for her restaurant, she recruited the talented chef Juliana López May, a Buenos Aires native who is a natural-food specialist and is often featured on El Gourmet, the Latin American equivalent of the Food Network.

My brother, who was my traveling companion, and I, both had been obsessed with the fruit juices that seemed to flow as freely as water everywhere in the city, so we started with a jug of Meraviglia’s ginger-and-mint-infused lemonade, which didn’t disappoint. Tangy and invigorating, with chunks of fibrous ginger settled at the bottom of the pitcher, it reminded me of the nimbu pani — fresh lime water — I drank as a child at my grandparents’ home in India. Moving on to our main courses, I found the falafel sandwich a bit dry, but the salad, a mix of uncomplicated ingredients — lentils, quinoa, chopped cucumber, celery, olive oil, balsamic vinegar — tasted at once hearty and fresh.

Meraviglia, Gorriti 5796; (54-11) 4775-7949; meraviglia.com.ar. Meal for two, about 48 pesos.

Buenos Aires Verde

Adorned with yoga fliers and racks of reusable canvas totes, this cheerful restaurant with orange-painted tables and teal chairs promotes healthy living — note the list of smoothies with ingredients like rejuvelac, a mildly fermented beverage made from grains and wheat grass — and spirituality as much as it does vegetarianism. The menu features dishes for vegans, vegetarians and raw-food enthusiasts. The gourd soup, for example, is made without ever bringing a pot to boil (to better retain nutrients and enzymes lost at high heat); another popular appetizer showcased marinated portobello mushrooms cooked at a low temperature and served atop crackers smeared with cashew cheese. We skipped the soup, but I found that the chewy texture of the mushrooms matched well with the crunchiness of the paper-thin flaxseed crackers; the faux cheese, made from cashew nuts, didn’t work as well. Better was the quinoa risotto, which came studded with carrots and celery, a variety of cheeses and a drizzle of garlic oil. It was warm and light, a healthier textural cousin to mac and cheese.

Chatting with a neighboring table, we were told that the group had come directly from a nearby meditation session called Art of Living. Nicky Bingham, a British expatriate who works as an Art of Living instructor, noted the changing attitude toward vegetarianism in the city: “For years, the idea of vegetarian food being tasty was incomprehensible,” she said.

Buenos Aires Verde, Gorriti 5657; (54-11) 4775-9594; bsasverde.com. Meal for two, 90 pesos.

Kensho

Dining at this vegetarian restaurant with an Asian bent in the revitalized Boedo neighborhood feels more like a meal at a close friend’s apartment: seating entails floor couch pillows and low black tables, with an open kitchen a few feet away and a blender interrupting conversations midsentence. But despite the informal setup, dishes are skillfully and impressively plated. Kensho’s chef and owner, Máximo Cabrera, was formerly head chef at Bio, one of the city’s first organic restaurants.

Start with the chunky hummus, so fresh it tastes as if the chickpeas were ground that very minute (possibly thanks to that noisy blender?) and garnished with parsley and a sprinkle of paprika. Similarly, the espuma de zanahoria — which translates as carrot foam, but is really more of a dip — was sweet and fluffy, seasoned with little more than salt.

Moving on to the entrees, we tried tofu marinated in a mandarin orange reduction and a medley of yamani rice and vegetables that reminded me of chop suey. In the past, I’ve found tofu dishes to be hit or miss, sometimes overly bland for my Indian-trained taste buds, other times more tough than tender. Kensho’s version, though, gets it just right, flavorfully seasoned with the tangy citrus and both silky and substantive in texture. And the restaurant’s take on fried rice is better than average, thanks in part to the mushrooms that arrived just as we were sitting down to eat — though I was too busy gushing over the tofu to really pay attention.

Kensho, Zarraga 3799; (54-11) 4555-0421; kensho.com.ar. Dinner for two, 78 pesos.

Bio

Though Mr. Cabrera has moved on, be sure to drop by this corner restaurant, which has the feeling of spring, thanks to an interior of grass green and white, and flower-filled window sills. On the menu, there are empanadas stuffed with everything from black olives to wild mushrooms (ingredients are based on what arrives daily from a local producer).

The empanada dough, made with rice flour, is crustier than the traditional variety, giving the inner contents, like lemony, pan-seared Swiss chard, a chance to stand out. The individual ingredients — pumpkin cream, goat cheese, sautéed spinach — of the quinoa blinis, though, tasted better than the sum of their parts. We washed down the meal with fresh-squeezed orange and carrot juice.

Bio, Humboldt 2199; (54-11) 4774-3880; biorestaurant.com.ar. Meal for two, 36 pesos.

Arevalito

Carmen Paz, the grandmotherly owner of this pint-size bistro, named for the street it sits on in Palermo Hollywood, is usually behind the counter, chopping red onions or carrots, and stopping frequently to greet regulars with hugs and kisses. With mismatched plates and bowls and a team of eager-but-novice chefs, Arevalito is hardly a sophisticated operation; it’s Ms. Paz and her inviting spirit that keep the patrons coming.

The daily menu comprises five or six rotating dishes. We ordered the pappardelle with spinach and walnuts and a Peruvian-inspired entree of vegetables, black beans and rice. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Ms. Paz blanching some greens behind the counter. Moments later, the pasta arrived, accompanied by that freshly cooked spinach, swimming in cream and topped with shavings of Parmesan. It was possibly the freshest pasta I had on the trip. Next came a colorful plate of large-cut red and green peppers, red onions, stringy scallions and halved potato skins, with a heady aroma of ginger wafting up from it. A scoop of frijoles and white rice sat atop the mound of vegetables. The ingredients all worked together and hit the spot.

Ms. Paz prefers to bill Arevalito as a “meatless restaurant,” hoping a broader classification will attract vegetarians and curious foodies alike. “Here we are trying to prove that we can eat many things,” she said. My empty plate was proof enough for me.

Arevalito, Arevalo 1478; (54-11) 4776-4252. Meal for two, 56 pesos.

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