South America Living

El Baqueano – A Memorable Meal in San Telmo

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – In recent years, as I have gained experience as a traveler, I’ve begun developing a new flexibility, an attitude of learning to accept and even appreciate the unexpected, the broken plans, the “accidents” that create unforgettable moments while traveling. This is a story about such a moment.

Probably the first thing I did after buying my tickets to visit Buenos Aires (a trip I’d been looking forward to literally for decades) was to make a reservation to dine at one of the best restaurants in Latin America – “El Baqueano”. I did so by visiting the restaurant’s website, which unfortunately does not use translation software – but I was able to muddle through.

I found this restaurant from my search of San Pellegrino’s list of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Chef Fernando Rivarola has made a name for himself by preparing unusual “native” meats, such as llama and chinchilla, with a modern gourmet touch in a gorgeous historic building in the heart of San Telmo, one of Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhoods. Llama?! Chinchilla?! Sign me up!

Tango Dancers at San Telmo's Sunday Street Fair

Tango Dancers at San Telmo’s Sunday Street Fair

Let me tell you a little about San Telmo. Buenos Aires is a big city of distinct neighborhoods. Palermo and Recoleta will be comfortable places for people used to shopping and walking in the upscale retail districts of New York, Chicago, L.A. or Paris. San Telmo is a different place entirely. The oldest barrio in the city, it is characterized by its very narrow cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, cafes, antique shops and public displays of tango dancing. There have been Europeans in this part of the world for five hundred years, but it is particularly in this neighborhood that you feel the age of Buenos Aires. For centuries, San Telmo was the working-class barrio, populated by first- and second-generation immigrants from all corners of the globe, and it has long been a home for artists and bohemians. Bordering the centers of government, commerce and the Church, San Telmo sucks visitors in with its charming establishments of every description – here you’ll find the finest steaks, a great Peruvian restaurant, a Basque club where I enjoyed a lovely brunch, French cafés, leather stores, a sprawling Sunday street fair (a must for every visitor is to spend a few hours at the Sunday San Telmo Feria) – all tucked into skinny old streets and exuding class and character.

What I did not know when I made my reservation months ago (and what Chef Fernando and his lovely wife and business partner, Gabriela LaFuente, did not even know back then) was that the evening of my visit was to be a very special one indeed for El Baqueano. For a couple of years now, Rivarola has been the motivating force behind Proyecto Cocina Sin Fronteras (The Kitchens Without Borders Project), in which he regularly invites celebrated chefs from around Latin America to prepare meals in his kitchen. Tonight’s special guest chefs were Carlos Garcia of Restaurante Alto in Caracas, Venezuela (Number 28 on San Pellegrino’s list) and Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil in Mexico City (Number 10 on the list). So, having not heard back via email after making my reservation online, I called the restaurant a couple of days before my scheduled date. No answer. Now I began to worry. Probably no reason to worry. I made the arrangement online; everything will be fine, right? Called on the morning of the reservation. No answer. Left a voicemail. Shortly after noon, a call back. It’s “Gabi”, whom I later realize is the co-owner of the restaurant and wife/partner to Chef Fernando. She apologetically explains that, while my reservation is intact, there is a change of plans for the meal this night, and do I still want to come?. Once she explains the special events that are planned, I am sooo excited! A happy accident! Lucky me!

The menu:

The words do not do justice....

The words do not do justice….

Yacare is a species of caiman (miniature alligator)
Casabe is Chard; Huevos are eggs and Huevas are fish roe (caviar)
Langostino is basically a Mexican crayfish
Besugo is sea bream; Auyama is squash
Anticucho de conejo is stewed rabbit meat; Remolacha = beet
Cochinilla encebollado is suckling pig in onions
Quesillo in Venezuela is a dessert similar to crème caramel
Duraznos are peaches; Zapote is a mexican persimmon and albahaca is basil

I have had some pretty great meals in my life, especially in the last few years, as my level of appreciation for gourmet dining has grown, and since taking on my “50 Best” quest. This night’s dinner may have been the best meal I have ever had. I am not exaggerating. The menu featured delicacies from all three men, including a tortilla with alligator from Chef Fernando, a beautiful langostino from Chef Jorge, and a succulent suckling pig with onions from Chef Carlos. A ten-course meal paired with four Argentine wines. I dined for more than two hours, and every moment was heaven. What an incredible night. The meal was presented by extremely knowledgeable and friendly servers, including the wives of Jorge Vallejo and our host Fernando Rivarola, in a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere (Gabriela and Fernando live next door). It was such a pleasure to be able to personally thank the young, inventive chefs who put their hearts this beautiful meal as I left the restaurant. An unforgettable experience.

So, in one long, languorous evening, I experienced the best flavors from three of the best young chefs in Latin America. Some wonderful things are happening in this part of the world when it comes to fine dining – a whole generation of brilliant, innovative, inventive young people who are bringing their formal training in Europe and the U.S. home to the farms, the pampas, the fishing grounds where the locals have been finding delicacies for centuries, and who are creating a first-class, locally-grounded regional cuisine. (The brilliant Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol is taking New York by storm with his new spot, Cosme, and Chef Fernando’s Cucina Sin Fronteras is building collaborations and flavor exchanges that will continue to excite food lovers throughout the region). And what I love most about this movement, having had the distinct pleasure of eating food prepared by 9 of Latin America’s best chefs, is that at each of these meals, the atmosphere and company have been entirely casual, friendly and supportive. You don’t need to be a “foodie” to appreciate this stuff Being present, being open to new tastes and new experiences, being honest – this is all you need to bring to the table with this impressive group of chefs…..

Chef Fernando Rivarola and Gabriela Lafuente in the kitchen of their delicious restaurant, El Baqueano

Chef Fernando Rivarola and Gabriela Lafuente in the kitchen of their delicious restaurant, El Baqueano

I ambled out onto the streets of San Telmo at 1:00 am, and found the narrow old streets still packed with young people drinking, dancing and enjoying the area’s legendary nightlife. Me – I had just enough energy left to take a cab ride back to my room and collapse happily into my air-conditioned bed….

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