There’s so much to say about this place. Where to start? The food, service, atmosphere, patrons, neighborhood, where?
Let me try to provide some background – the parrilla controversy. Maybe we researched it too much, but there is a lot of writing about parrillas in Buenos Aires. We found comments damning and praising every parilla for the meat, the price, the tourists, the decor, the dessert. There wasn’t a clear winner.
We had been to Las Canitas, but I found it expensive, impersonal, a bit lacking in character, and the beef, while very good, wasn’t as good as beef that I’ve had elsewhere. We had been to La Estancia in Ushuaia, and I had the best steak I’ve ever had, but I don’t know if I went back if they’d be able to repeat it. So we wanted to try another place in BA – give it a second chance. It came down to La Brigada – which we decided against as pretty much everyone said it was ‘too touristy’. Then there was Don Julio, which we had been told by a Bon Vivant type that the food was nothing special. And there was La Cabrera, which seemed to have a few of almost every type of complaint against it – the food, the tourists, the service – but there wasn’t a recurring theme of “the food is no good” or “the service is terrible”.
So – La Cabrera it was. We strolled through BA’s Palermo neighborhood during this sunny Thursday afternoon, and found it to be one of the most interesting (yes, gentrified as well) and fun – and large neighborhoods of its type that I’ve ever been in. It was street after street of interesting buildings, stores, houses, and cafes and restaurants. Every budget, every type, for every customer. But all of it was interesting. And the weather was amazing – the golden fall sun that is so pervasive in the afternoons in BA spraying through those huge trees that line every street – just beautiful. Talk about an amazing way to end a vacation.
We got to La Cabrera, saw a full restaurant with nobody else outside, and were told the wait was 45 minutes, so we walked around a bit, and came back to find a huge lineup of people outside. We were then told that our place had been lost because we left. While I think that both us and the maitre d’ were a bit miffed at each other – us for not being told to stay and wait, and her because we left – she did manage to get us a table in about 20 minutes. But what a pleasant spot to stay and wait! They had numerous seats outside, and were serving glasses of sparkling wine to the dedicated patrons who obviously knew about the old adage about good things and those who wait.
Secondly: the appearance. We started off with the controversy, but were now faced with a frequent problem in restaurants. This place was Trendy with a capital T. Cool decor, the requisite faux-crystal chandeliers that are omnipresent in cool places everywhere. Beautiful patrons – all ages, with untucked shirts, huge sunglasses, perfect hair – expensively distressed jeans, and waiters and a maitre d’ who while not unpleasant, have just that edge of attitude that helps when dealing with the well-heeled all day. The problem with places like this is that the food is always overpriced and about 95% of the time, horrendously boring. The waitstaff tend to be arrogant, the patrons talk too loud and it’s more a place to be seen in than it is a place to enjoy a meal. La Cabrera had all the ingredients – the trendy neighborhood, the attitude, the decor, the patrons – so in we stepped, fearing the worst.
Thirdly: the surprise.
Talk about being more than the sum of its parts. We ended up being hugely surprised.
The service, while not having some of the warmth that we saw elsewhere in Argentina, at least was extremely efficient, always kept an eye on us, and never made us feel rushed. When it came to the technical aspects of the service, it could not have been better, no small feat in the relatively small space that La Cabrera is.
The decor, noise, smoke, patrons – not a problem. Everyone was there for the food – even the beautiful people. It was never too noisy, it’s non-smoking (all restaurants in BA are) and there were a few families there, enjoying a leisurely afternoon meal – something that we all don’t do enough of.
Finally – the food. The portions were not large, they were ridiculous. The menu cautions you about this, and three dishes was enough for us – on completely empty stomachs to leave more full than we’ve left any restaurant in Argentina. We started with a dish that was a huge hunk of fontina cheese that had been grilled, served with thickly-sliced proscuitto and sun-dried tomatoes. Next was a caesar salad, followed by our old friend, the ojo de bife (ribeye steak).
The starter was a meal in itself. Think about a pound of fontina that someone has literally thrown on the grill. It melts (fontina is a great cheese for melting) and gets a beautiful smokiness and char to it. Cover that in a bit of oil then add thickly-sliced delicious cured ham, and sun dried tomatoes. Yes. Yes, it is. It is as amazingly decadent and delicious as you think it is. Book your ticket to Argentina today before everyone else catches on and there are worldwide shortages of grilled cheese.
The salad – it was fine. It wasn’t with Romaine lettuce (I think it was Boston Bibb or a similar, soft-leafed type) so it didn’t have the crispness that you like to see in a good Caesar. But, the sauce didn’t taste as if it was out of a bottle, and it was huge enough to easily share for two.
So – after the first two courses, we’re basically done. That’s enough food, even for two people who showed up on completely empty stomachs.
But next came the steak. A huge slab of ribeye, rare, and with about an eighth- to a quarter-inch of char on it showed up on our table, surrounded by small dishes of potato salad, artichoke hearts, risotto, bamboo shoots (I think), and sun-dried tomatoes. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also a platter of sauces/sides served with the steak, comprising of mini potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkin, apple sauce, eggplant, roasted red peppers, and roast garlic. The steak was perfectly cooked, and while not the most amazingly-flavoured steak I’ve ever had, it was super-juicy, extremely tender, and that char – that char! So good! On par with the charred bits of lamb from Las Cotorras. How does one cook like this? Is there some char accessory that I need to find? Or is it just the ‘fires of hell’ kind of heat produced by the open charcoal grills these restaurants have? The sides were fine – some of them better than others, but all providing a bit of starch and fat, a bit of savory and sweet to mix up with the big slab of steak.
Oh and I forgot: before the first course, we were given bread served with a huge bulb of garlic roast in oil and dishes of tapenade and guacamole.
And to finish the meal (way too full for dessert): a complementary glass of sparkling wine. Our meal came to 245 pesos, or about $65USD. Try getting this meal, in this kind of a restaurant, this good, this much food, for this much money. This is (yet another reason) why Argentina is such a great place to travel.
So – consider us surprised. Argentina is a country with many surprises – how the sometimes dour demeanor of its inhabitants can so quickly turn into a smile. How the weathered exteriors of buildings can hide great beauty within. How the wine – once considered plonk – now within about 15 years – can hugely surprise the drinker. And how Las Cabreras, with all its popularity, and trendiness, and coolness, can suprise these two scribblers/eaters.
Then again, enjoying yourself at a great meal, on a sunny afternoon, in a beautiful city, with the person you love – in one of the most amazing cities in the world – I guess there isn’t too much that’s surprising about that.
Jose Antonio Cabrera 5099 (corner of Cabrera and Thames), Buenos Aires, Argentina