This was the real deal. Real seafood, in a restaurant with real character.
According to my lonely planet guide, “Built by the second chief of the prison (and later police chief), the building housed several prisoners after the Ushuaia prison closed. Later, Rafela Ishton, the last pure Ona, moved in, remaining until 1985. You can still see the newspapers that were used as insulation or wallpaper, and every nook holds some historic knickknack.”.
Ushuaia is a tourist town – it has so many natural attractions that I’m guessing that most of its economy is based on tourism. The problem with towns – with any town that has an economy based on tourism is that with tourists comes the ‘tourist trap’. You know the place – kitschy décor, bright lights, music you’ve heard before, some kind of local color – if it’s on the coast, there’s an anchor somewhere; if it’s in the prairies, there’s an old gas station sign or a wheat sheaf. And sure, the world needs nourishment, and these places are just fine; owned by good folks and operated by them too. But in their forced method of trying to give the tourist an ‘experience’ and trying to create a ‘sense’ of something – like local color – it’s just all too forced and too many compromises get made. You can’t keep all the tourists happy if your food is too spicy, too salty, or pretty much anything other than too filling. And if the tourists aren’t happy, you can’t stay in business, end of story.
So while my heart goes out to the folks in small towns with tourism economies, given the choice of where to spend my money, I’ll try to take it to a place with something – anything – exceptional about it. And Volver was one of those places. So while the lonely planet makes it sound like it’s “one of those places” – anchors, fishing nets, well, this reviewer asks you to give it a second chance.
Why? Because damn, the food is good.
Aside from tourism, fishing is big business in Ushuaia. The main local specialties are the centolla – spider crab and the merluza negra – the patagonian toothfish, both caught locally in closely supervised fisheries. But really, where there’s ocean, there’s mussels, oysters, shrimp, lobsters, big fish, little fish – and if you can find a place that knows how to cook it, then keep going back. As you can imagine what I’m going to say next, Volver knows how to cook it.
We started dinner with a couple of glasses of the Argentinian sparkling wine, Chandon. It’s nice – light, not too much in the way of yeasty flavors, not too dry, with fruity notes – it’s actually pretty easy drinking. But who cares about the wine – Argentina is a country filled with great wine. The first fish dish were local mussels, Provencal style – garlic, herbs – and while they looked like they had been waiting in the oven a bit longer than they needed to be – they were delicious. Lots of brine flavours – these were fresh, with just enough garlic not to overwhelm things. No nasty old fish flavours – just the firm, briney flesh of the mussels served in the half-shell. But accompanying these were the star of the show – large langoustines cooked in chilis and garlic. So, so, so good. Oozing that orange-red chili oil, the flesh of the tails was perfectly cooked – just firm enough, with the heat of the chilis there in every bite. Suck the shells and the heads and get more heat out – the plate of 8 disappeared in no time at all.
Main course – centolla Provencal style – and it was great. Again, it had been under the broiler a bit too long, but stirring it up a bit in its juices helped. And what a nice surprise – no shells to deal with – just large pieces of crab meat in butter, garlic, and herbs. D had the merluza negra – again cooked with chilis and garlic. And cooked perfectly at that. And one nice thing about the crab in Ushuaia – it comes out of the shell. No fighting with the shell while you spray crab juice in your date’s eyes – just delicious, large pieces of crabmeat – why can’t every restaurant do it that way?
This wasn’t fancy food – there wasn’t a foam, a film, or anything called ‘artisinal’ in sight – it was just good, fresh food, cooked well, presented nicely, and above all – delicious. You might think the décor is a bit kitschy – and yes, I think there was a fishing net in there somewhere, but this building was the real thing – a prison, then someone’s home, and I think in this case, it’s more called ‘character’ than kitsch.
The service was great – very friendly – one of our waitresses spoke English, but the other did not – and who needs a common language other than smiles and gestures when you’re eating good food? I read a review of this restaurant where the writer complained about the service – ignore it – at least on our one trip there, the service couldn’t have been better.
So when in town, seek out Volver. Delicious food, not pricey, friendly service, a very reasonably-priced wine list, in an historical building with more character than kitsch – and seafood cooked like it’s supposed to be – you just might find yourself coming back more than once while you’re in town.
Av Maipu 37, Ushuaia, Argentina