travel

The Argentine Experience

A few years ago, I was in Beijing for a travel story, and one highlight of that trip was going to Black Sesame Kitchen. At the cooking school/private dining space, I met chefs and then watched them make knife cut noodles, stuffed my own dumplings, and chatted with others in my group over good, paired wines. The meal was one of the best I’d ever eaten, and a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do something similar in another country. And while researching stuff to do in Buenos Aires, I found what looked like an equivalent.

The Argentine Experience started out as a puerta cerrada, but has since moved into a large, new space in Palmero Hollywood. It emphasizes that it’s not a cooking class, but rather a dining experience where people participate in a few key steps.

So basically, they have chefs who do all the hard work (mixing, measuring, seasoning), and guests do one or two things at the end. (i.e. stuff that can’t mess up the meal.)

As a New Yorker who rarely cooks, that sounded fine to me!

I went to the Argentine Experience on my third night in BA. Upon entering the space, I was given a welcome cocktail that I quickly gulped down once I saw that we all had to don crazy-looking checkered aprons and chefs hats. (Luckily, glasses of Malbec followed!)

Once again, I was lucky to have a diverse group of dinner-mates. Besides me, there was a Brazilian couple who lived in Switzerland, two Australians, a travel agent who was from Peru but lived in BA, and an American who was interning in BA. Our hosts for the night were a Brit and an Argentinean.

They introduced the first task at hand: Making empanadas.

empanadas of argentina

We each received a round of dough…

empanada dough

…which we then stuffed with stewed beef, cheese, veggies and Malbec-reduced onions.

empanada fillings

Everything smelled so good that I overstuffed mine—I could barely pinch it closed. (You can see a little of the filling spilling out!)

uncooked empanada

Once we’d stuffed them, they were whisked away to an oven somewhere behind the scenes. We were then given another piece of dough—but this time, our empanadas had to be in the shape of something, and our hosts would select the best one as the winner.

…they assured us that they’d already seen X-rated empanadas formed to look like every possible body part.

Once we’d all finished our entries, they, too, were taken to the oven.

Then first empanadas we made reappeared. They were delicious.

cooked empanada

And soon, our funny-shaped empanadas returned, as well.

Because I have zero artistic talent and a one-track mind, I made a pointe shoe empanada. The winning entry was a crab.

My pointe shoe might not have been the most attractive, but it was certainly tasty!

pointe shoe empanada

The main course didn’t require any work, on our part. We just had to choose how rare we wanted our steak.

steak

After eating the steak (every bloody, juicy bit) with potatoes, carrots and more Malbec, I was ready to fall into a food coma. But there were two more components to go.

First, we learned how to prepare and drink mate, the traditional Argentinean tea-like beverage. We filled our mate cups with leaves, shook them a few times to get the dust out, put the straw in, and poured in water. (I only had a few sips because it’s very caffeinated, and enjoyed its bitter taste! Normally, mate is a social drink, where everyone sips from the same straw, but due to the nature of the dinner, we all had our own.)

mate

For the grand finale, we made our own alfajores: cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched between. And rolled in shaved coconut and dipped in chocolate.

…can someone please open an alfajores shop in NYC? We have specialty food places for practically everything else!

alfajor

Before saying goodbye, we posed for silly group pictures. Here, we’re saying, “Que te pasa?”—or, “What’s wrong with you?”—with feeling!

que te pasa

(I actually ended up having dinner with the Brazilian couple the next night! I needed a break from all the meat I’d been eating, so I went to Osaka, a Japanese place across the street from the Argentine Experience. As I was sitting at the bar deciding what to have for dinner, the couple was seated right next to me. We ended up having the bartender select an array of dishes to share, and chatted as we each sampled all of them. It was one of those serendipitous moments that tend to happen when you’re traveling, but rarely at home!)

(Group photo via the Argentine Experience)

NOLA Buenos Aires

The second puerta cerrada I visited was NOLA Buenos Aires—and I was glad I did! It ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip.

NOLA’s chef, Liza Puglia, grew up in the Big Easy. She lived in NYC for a few years, attending the French Culinary Institute and working as a line cook at Hecho en Dumbo. While backpacking in El Salvador, she met her boyfriend, Francisco, a BA native. Three years ago, she moved to BA, and for the past year and a half, they’ve been running NOLA out of their gorgeous Palmero Viejo home.

I had apartment envy from the minute I walked in. The space has a high ceiling with exposed brick and beams, and a gorgeous open kitchen.

nola ba

Liza and Francisco were lovely, and the perfect hosts—so warm and welcoming that I felt like I was visiting old friends. I was first to arrive, and I chatted with them over a glass of champagne, as we waited for the other guests.

Soon, an Aussie solo female traveler, a few years older than me, arrived, as did the British couple I’d met at Casa SaltShaker the night before. (Like me, they were making the rounds of BA puerta cerradas!) Five American women on a girlfriend getaway rounded out our group. (The Americans, I might add, were almost an hour late. Note to anyone planning to visit a puerta cerrada—please come on time! Otherwise everyone ends up waiting or starting without you!)

True to NOLA Buenos Aires’ name, the flavors are inspired by Liza’s hometown, along with her affinity for Mexican cuisine.

Everything was fantastic.

soup, tartare, pork shoulder

The first course wasВ gumbo with homemade bread. As a nod to the local cuisine, the gumbo hadВ chorizo instead of andouille. Next cameВ salmon tartare with avocado and roasted corn on a sope—it was a perfect, refreshing palate cleanser. The main course was slow cooked pork shoulder over grits.

Dessert was one of the best I’ve ever had: bananas foster bread pudding.

banana foster bread pudding

As each course was served, Francisco introduced the paired wine. Each one was local, mostly from Mendoza, and all were fantastic.

rose

NOLA also hosts a weekly beer night on Thursdays, featuring Francisco’s home-brewed beers and Liza’s southern recipes.

I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to make one of those events—but it’s on my list of stuff to do the next time I’m in BA!

nola

(Liza also has an awesome blog—check it out here.)

Casa SaltShaker

When I was researching what to do in Buenos Aires, puerta cerradas kept coming up. These “closed door” restaurants are basically supper clubs where a local cooks and serves a multi-course meal in his home to a small group of guests.

I loved this idea. I’m not a tour person and I’m not good at befriending strangers while traveling. But this sounded like the perfect way to meet people. Plus, I’d be able to get locals’ recommendations about what to do—and eat a ton of delicious food.

Once I started researching, I found so many puerta cerradasВ I wanted to try, that I booked one for almost every night I was in BA. I only opted for ones that had a communal table, though.

The first one I visited: Casa SaltShaker, just a few hours after my arrival in the city.

Casa SaltShaker is one of the older puertas cerradas in BA. For nearly nine years, Dan Pearlman, an American ex-pat and chef, and his partner, Henry, have been serving dinners out of their Recoleta home. (That’s actually the reason I selected it for my first night—it was in walking distance from my apartment.)

The evening felt very much like a dinner party. After Dan and Henry welcomed us into their home, we guests had cocktails on their outdoor patio. My dinner companions were an eclectic bunch: a British couple celebrating their 25 wedding anniversary, an American couple and their two friends, and three men (Canadian, French and Belgian) who were installing a flight simulator at the BA airport.

Dinner that night had an Amazonian theme, inspired by Dan and Henry’s travels in the region. Each dish came paired with wine.

casa saltshaker menu

Our first course was a salad of tomato, avocado and hearts of palm…

salad

…followed by a hearty soup of perjerry, cilntro and pureed chickpeas. This was easily my favorite dish of the night—I’d happily eat it every day.

soup

Next came a baked pasta stuffed with cream cheese, soppressata and leek, over a pea puree…

IMG_0743

…and a main dish of pollack and a sweet potato/quinoa cake.

fish and qunioa cake

The dessert was delicious: a huge slice of chocolate cheesecake topped with chocolate honeycomb. I had no trouble polishing it off!

cheesecake

My dinner companions were awesome—throughout the whole meal, everyone was talking and joking like old friends. (I was especially fascinated to learn about the simulator team’s work: The Canadian was part of the team that built the simulator, the Belgian was a veteran KLM pilot who was testing the simulator, and the French guy was the one who fixed the problems they came across.)

I was also impressed at how well paced the evening was. I was afraid that it might be long and drawn out (since I’d just arrived earlier on a red eye). But everything was timed perfectly, with enough opportunity to chat after one course but not so long that you wondered how long it would take the next to come out.

Dan and Henry were nice and polite, though they have the air of veterans who’ve been doing this for a long time. I was expecting them to be a little warmer, but they were a bit businesslike—though that’s what their puerta cerrada is: a business.

Still, I had a ton of fun eating, drinking and sharing stories with the other guests—and it was a great way to kick off all the eating I’d end up doing in BA.

Ballet Classes in Buenos Aires

As you might have guessed from my previous entry about tango, I didn’t seek it out in Buenos Aires. But I did take ballet.

Before my trip, I researched open ballet classes in BA and found Ballet Estudio. They offer many levels of classes a day, and had trained a number of renowned dancers, including ABT’s Paloma Herrera. Plus, I learned that in September, Alvin Ailey held a master class there. Via Facebook photos, it was cool to see a bit of my NYC in BA—the faces of company dancers whose photos are all over my NYC studio, and whom I occasionally see. Plus, it confirmed that I’d chosen a legit place!

I went to the studio on the Monday afternoon of my trip, for an advanced class. (I figured if I usually take intermediate classes in NYC, then I’d survive an advanced class in BA.)

The studio was on the second story of a Recoleta building.

ballet estudio 1

The doormats read “Welcome Home,” which made me smile, as did the weathered ballet photos in the reception area. Especially this one of Paloma Herrera.

paloma herrera

I paid for my class (100 pesos), went into the changing room…and noticed something odd. All the other dancers looked about 12 years old—niГ±as!

Ballet Estudio’s site advertises classes for all styles, levels and ages. I hadn’t realized that all the ages would be together. Here in NYC—and most places in the US—adults and kids are in separate classes. Still, I went with it.

The class ended up being me, five niГ±as and, thankfully, one other adult—I nearly fell over with relief when she came in. But being with mostly kids threw me. I felt off and out of place—which isn’t ideal, considering how much of ballet is mental!

Besides internally wrestling with that, I thought the class was an interesting experience. I’m glad I didn’t cop out because of the kids. The teacher, Mimi, couldn’t have been lovelier. She was warm, welcoming and kind, and had beautiful technique and extension.

She was also very patient with my lack of Spanish. As soon as class started, I realized that though I had no problem understanding the steps and combinations, I could barely understand anything else—my past studies didn’t cover the nuances of alignment, turnout or focus. There had not been a Coffee Break Spanish lesson that included terms like “Don’t tense up your shoulders” or “Pull up over your legs.”

Despite that, I was still able to understand many of Mimi’s corrections through her gestures and the words I did know. Her critiques and tips were all spot on. (Like telling me to straighten my legs and travel more in assembles, and not let my turnout drop when going into left pirouettes.)

As for the niГ±as—they were good! One had especially beautiful control and technique. I rarely see kids dance, and I realized it was gratifying to see Argentina’s next generation of ballet dancers in action.

And at the end of class, I felt a tad less awkward being in the same lesson as them. But just a tad.

ballet estudio

Ballet Estudio’s second floor studio

San Telmo Market and Downtown Sights

On Sundays in Buenos Aires, there’s one place where you can bet you’ll find most first-time visitors: at the San Telmo market.

The outdoor bazaar runs along Calle Defensa, with the bulk of vendors between Venezuela and San Juan.

Even though it looked like quite a trek, I decided to walk from my Barrio Norte apartment to the market. I mapped my route so that I’d pass some of BA’s most notable sights along the way.

Like the Palacio de Justicia…

palacio de justicia

…and Teatro Colon. (I was hoping to take a tour of the theatre, but it was closed for Election Day. I did go back another day—photos in a coming post.)

teatro colon

I made my way over to Avienda 9 de Julio to see the Obelisk…

obelisk

…and other interesting sights.

Ave 9 de julio

By the time I got to the market, I was starving—way too hungry to even look at anything.

There was a choripanВ (chorizo sandwich) vendor on the corner of Mexico and Defensa, where I entered the market. But few people were eating there, so I sought out another. (When it comes to street food, I follow the old rules: Eat at places with lots of customers and that cook food to order.)

I found another place farther up the block. Like the first, this choripan vendor seemed to be in an old auto repair lot. But here, lots of people were chowing down.

choripan place

I purchased one choripan…

choripan venedor

…dressed it with lettuce and chimichurri—and inhaled it. It was flavorful and a little greasy, but exactly what I wanted, at that moment!

choripan

Once fortified, I could turn my attention to the actual market.

san telmo market 1

Many blocks were packed, with seemingly every single other tourist roaming from vendor to vendor.

san telmo market 2

When it comes to markets around the world, my sister can hit one for an hour or two and emerge with amazing finds: soft scarves, elegant table cloths, fine pottery and the like. I don’t have those talents. For me, the San Telmo market was a big browse fest, as I checked out items likeВ faux Toms…

faux toms

…colorful notebooks and boxes…

painting at san telmo

…mate jugs…

mate jugs

…these, um, interesting leather masks…

leather masks

…and these gorgeous tango prints.

tango paintings

I’d read that there are sometimes tango dancers performing at Plaza Dorrego, but there weren’t any when I got there.

I hadn’t plotted a route home, but I fortuitously happened upon more of BA’s most iconic sites on my way back. I stayed on Defensa until I’d passed the last of the vendors—and found myself at Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

casa roasada

Casa Rosada's plaza

Casa Rosada’s plaza

From there, I headed down Avienda de Mayo, because the tree-lined street was just so pretty.

SAM_0617

After a few blocks, I came upon the Argentine National Congress.

argentine national congress

I eventually made it home, sweaty and tired—I realized I’d been walking for nearly six hours! My feet were killing me. The sneakers I’d brought to walk in turned out to be not so comfortable, and I actually had a few blisters! But I was glad I was able to squeeze in so much of BA in one day.

El Ateneo

One other place in Recoleta that I loved was El Ateneo bookstore.

It’s located on Avienda Santa Fe, a busy commercial street that runs through Buenos Aires. From the outside, El Ateneo looks like any other storefront.

But once you enter—well, it’s clear that it’s not your average bookstore!

el ateneo 2

The space was once Teatro Nacional or Norte, when it opened in 1903, and later the Splendid Theatre in 1919. In that incarnation, it had 500 seats and four levels of balconies—some that you can still see today.

el ateneo 3

The bookstore opened in its place in 2000. Today, there are more than 200,000 books on its shelves.

el ateneo 2

…not that I looked at any! I was too busy admiring the architecture and frescoes, and taking these photos.

el ateneo 4

Think any U.S. cities will open one of these? I think we could use a bookstore this cool, stateside.

Recoleta: Cemetery, Museums and More

Recoleta is the Buenos Aires neighborhood that’s most often described as Parisian.В Though I’ve yet to visit Paris, I could certainly understand the comparison. Buenos Aires has a bit of a European vibe, in general, and it’s even more pronounced in Recoleta, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Since I was staying in Barrio Norte, a sub-neighborhood of Recoleta, I spent lots of time wandering around the area. It’s springtime in Buenos Aires and I was happy just walking the tree-lined streets, admiring the elegant stone homes with their tiny terraces.

In addition to having cafes and shops on every block, Recoleta is also home to a number of museums and public art installations. Within a short walk, you can get to the Floralis GenГ©rica, a giant metal flower sculpture…

floralis

…the Museum of Decorative Arts

museum of decorative arts

…and MALBA, the museum of Latin American art. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t actually go into any of those museums—like I’ve mentioned, museums aren’t at the top of my travel must-dos!)

Despite those institutions, the neighborhood’s most famed spot is probably its graveyard.В The Recoleta Cemetery is the resting place of Eva PerГіn and numerous other distinguished BA figures: politicians, writers, Nobel prize winners and the like.

I actually wasn’t planning to go into the cemetery. But one afternoon, after walking by its walls a few times, I felt compelled to see why it attracts so many vistors.

Once inside, I understood. It’s undeniably beautiful: row after row of stately marble mausoleums and statues. Workers seemed to be everywhere, polishing and repairing things—it’s not a wonder the cemetery looks as pristine as it does!

recoleta cemetery 2

I didn’t stay too long. I sought out Evita (of course), along with everyone else in the cemetery. There was a small line to get to her spot—which is why my photos are especially bad!

Evita’s buried under her family name, Duarte.

evita 1

evita 2

Afterwards, I just walked up and down the rows, enjoying the warm weather and the peaceful setting.

recoleta cemetery 2
recoleta cemetery

recoleta cemetery